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By Robert Zemsky and Joni Finney
A
palpable edginess now swirls about much
of higher education. While business as usual still
holds sway—at least most of the time and in most
institutions—the specter that haunts is a future of escalating
risk: for public institutions, more, perhaps even draconian,
budget cuts; for private institutions, new worries about where
their students are going to come from and whether those
students can continue to afford the tuitions they must charge;
and for the nation’s richest and most selective institutions, a
humbling sense of false pride and broken promises.
Not surprisingly then, just two issues now dominate
discussions of higher education: costs and outcomes.
American higher education today is an expensive enterprise
that frequently lacks both the will and the know-how to
do things differently. It is also an enterprise in which an
embarrassingly large number of students start but do not
finish a baccalaureate education—that, and the fact that
completion rates all too often track the wealth, location and
ethnicity of enrolled students.
What does surprise us, however, is the fact that these two
concerns—escalating costs and disappointing attainment
rates—have long been treated as separate issues. It is a
division of responsibility as well as blame that mirrors higher
education’s view of itself as having a hard side where monies
are concerned, and a softer,
more nurturing side when
helping students achieve
their academic ambitions.­
Over the last year we
have increasingly come
to ask: Are we sure these
concerns have either
separate causes or separate
consequences? Is it not
possible that controlling
costs, encouraging more
adaptable and nimble
institutions, and achieving
higher graduation rates
each requires the same
rethinking of a collegiate
production function that
has become both too expensive and too cumbersome to
achieve the academic purposes for which it was originally
designed?
…and spend all the money they raise
Since the 1980s, the dominant explanation for how and
why colleges and universities cost so much has been Howard
Bowen’s telling observation that
universities will raise all the
May 2010
Changing the Subject
Costs, graduation rates and the importance of rethinking the undergraduate curriculum
money they can and spend all the money they raise.”The way
to excellence and reputation lies principally in having more
money to spend on the good things colleges and universities
want to achieve. Just as clearly, the quickest and easiest way
to make colleges and universities cost less is to starve them of
revenue—a proposition that the recession and state budget
shortfalls are now testing with a vengeance.
Given the near absence of newmonies and the looming
presence of more economic bad news, higher education’s
leaders have come increasingly to portray themselves as
being caught in what John Immerwahr of Public Agenda
has described as an “Iron Triangle.” Somehow they must find
ways to simultaneously control costs, increase quality, and
improve access—and that, they argue, is simply not possible.
State policymakers, less persuaded by the presidents’
arguments and newly frustrated by their universities’
reluctance to change, have begun to experiment with
strategies that use the power of the public purse to exact
greater efficiencies on the part of their states’ public systems
of higher education. And yet the result can best be described
as an operational cul-de-sac. Rhetorical tough love hasn’t
worked. Budget incentives have not yielded changed
educational processes. Reducing state appropriations, along
with limiting tuition increases, has yielded public colleges and
universities that spend less money without becoming either
better or demonstrably different. Salaries can be reduced,
positions left unfilled, perks and amenities eliminated, all
without impacting the basic production functions that shape
the enterprise’s teaching and research missions.
The tragedy of the commons
It is this dismal prospect that has led us to search for a
different set of strategies for controlling and perhaps even
lowering the cost of a college education. Here, the question we
asked ourselves was simply, What costs the most money? And
What surprises
us is the fact that
two concerns—
escalating costs
and disappointing
attainment
rates—have long
been treated as
separate issues.