Summary of Findings
Part I: Areas of Consensus
Part II: Areas of Disagreement
Supporting Tables
About the Author
About the National Center
About Public Agenda

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Taking Responsibility
Page 4 of 12

Part II: Areas of Disagreement

Although there are high levels of agreement regarding the overall picture of higher education, this consensus falls apart when we come to some of the details. The tensions are typically greatest between college faculty and business people, with college administrators and government officials often falling somewhere between these two groups.

Finding Seven
Business leaders and academics disagree about how well colleges and systems of higher education are operated.

The most extreme disagreements that we saw concerned the operation of colleges, universities, and systems of higher education. Those who are outside the academy, especially those who come from a business perspective, often feel that higher education should be held accountable to the same standards of cost and efficiency that are applied to other institutions. When they look at higher education from that perspective, they are often dismayed by what they see. As one business leader said:

What is the biggest weakness of higher education in America today? In my judgement it is that we are not providing education in a cost-effective way. We have built up this excellent system, but the unit costs have gone up while the unit costs of almost everything else have gone down.

College professors reject the notion that higher education should conform to these standards. Administrators and government officials fall somewhere between the business leaders and professors. Many of those we talked to who are closest to the academy argue that the mission of higher education requires that it not be judged by the same standards of efficiency and cost effectiveness that might be applied to other endeavors. As one academic insider said:

A significant increase in the efficiency of higher education is just not possible. For example, it takes the same number of hours to perform a Mozart symphony today as it did when Mozart wrote that symphony. In the same way, it takes the same amount of hours to handle teacher-student contact as it always has.

We asked our respondents if they think that adopting business practices to increase productivity and lower costs would improve higher education. An overwhelming percentage of those from business (92%) say that this would be either very or somewhat effective. Far fewer professors (52%) agree.

The disagreement becomes even starker when we pose the idea that higher education must now go through the same kind of retrenchment and re-engineering that business has undergone in recent years. Eighty-three percent of business people say that "business and government have had to become leaner and more efficient -- higher education must now do the same." But only 40% of college professors agree; in fact, 56% reject this view. Administrators and government officials fall between the two (see Table 6).

Table 6

Indeed, faculty members and business people disagree about how much higher education can learn from business. As Table 7 shows, 64% of business leaders think that higher education has a lot to learn from the private sector. But 77% of professors take an opposite stand: that business methods have limited application to higher education.

Table 7

Many of those we spoke to from within the academy are scornful of the idea that higher education should model itself after business. As one university administrator put it:

For every professor who is sitting on his laurels, there is more than one Dilbert. I think there is very little awareness of how much corporate culture is irrational and plays to some of the baser instincts.

Another educator said:

I am not impressed with the consequences of the re-engineering in business. The net result has been a social impact that has been incredibly destructive.

Many of the critics of higher education are equally outraged by what they see as a refusal of higher education to take responsibility for its outcomes. As a member of our leadership panel from outside the education community said:

Please, everyone else is accepting some responsibility for what they are doing. What about higher education?

Business leaders also argue that the colleges have passed on to students the cost of their own inefficiencies. Seventy-two percent of business people either fully or partially endorse the idea that "the easy availability of student loans allows colleges to keep raising tuition instead of improving efficiency and cutting costs." Faculty, by contrast, reject this view, with only 25% saying this is very or somewhat close to what they think. Here again, administrators and government officials fall in the middle, with 37% of administrators and 51% of government officials holding this view.

Finding Eight
Although leaders across sectors agree that students need to learn thinking and communication skills, business leaders disagree with educators about the performance of higher education in teaching students what they need to know, and also about the importance of other goals such as training students in the humanities.

At the most general level, there is agreement among our respondents about what college students need to learn. Nearly everyone agrees that the most important skills for students to acquire are to be able to think creatively and independently, and to communicate effectively in speaking and writing.

  • Eighty-nine percent of the overall sample say that ensuring that students graduate with top-notch writing, speaking, and communication skills is absolutely essential.

  • Eighty-five percent of leaders overall endorse the goal of teaching students to be creative, independent thinkers.

But after these top level goals are agreed upon, the consensus starts to fall apart, with the most extreme differences generally occurring between professors and business leaders. One area of disagreement has to do with the performance of colleges and universities in their educational mission. By margins of approximately three to one, professors and administrators say that colleges are teaching students what they need to know. As Table 8 shows, this conviction drops off as we move from those who work in higher education to those who hire the graduates, with business executives being less likely to agree.

Table 8

Another area of disagreement is the importance of other goals such as giving students an exposure to the humanities. The educators we interviewed take pride in their emphasis on the liberal arts, which they regard as essential to teaching students to take a role in the adult world. Responding to the survey, 55% of faculty members say it is absolutely essential to give students a solid grounding in history, literature, philosophy, and the arts, and 50% say it is absolutely essential to give students a grounding in the sciences. Many of the professors we spoke to stressed the importance of the liberal arts. As one educator said:

There should be an institution that retains the values of the arts, otherwise we will have another Dark Ages. If you are suddenly going to turn in another direction and forget the traditional educational values, you will never get them back again.

Professors worry most that there is a decreased emphasis on the liberal arts, with two in three (66%) saying that this is a very or somewhat serious problem. As one professor said:

We don't have higher education, we have higher training. That is what industry wants, for us to put all the emphasis on training.

Business executives, for their part, are less likely than faculty to give an absolute priority to giving students a grounding in history, literature, philosophy, and the arts (34% say these subjects are absolutely essential) or the sciences (42% say absolutely essential). Fewer than two in five business leaders (38%) identify a decreased emphasis on the liberal arts as a very or somewhat serious problem.

Finding Nine
Business executives want higher education to cut costs and students to pay more before coming to government for more funding. Other leaders see government as the first line of support.

Nearly everyone we interviewed believes that colleges and universities are facing some tough financial times. One government official described the problem for state universities this way:

When you look at state funds you see that all of the money is gobbled up by specialized needs, and anything that is left goes to prisons. That leaves higher education as the budget balancer.

There is widespread agreement on the easy solutions, such as better fundraising by colleges or better financial planning by students and their families:

  • Ninety-two percent of the overall sample strongly or somewhat favor meeting cost increases by having colleges raise more money from alumni, businesses, and foundations.

  • Seventy-eight percent of leaders overall say that too many families fail to plan ahead and save adequately for the costs of college.

There is also agreement that state and federal government should pay more money for higher education if costs continue to rise; 82% either strongly or somewhat support the idea that government should help defray future cost increases.

Where leaders disagree is on how the responsibility should be shared among government, colleges themselves, and students and their families. As Table 9 indicates, college professors and administrators almost unanimously favor increased state and federal government support for higher education, as well as colleges raising more money from alumni, businesses, and foundations. A much weaker majority of professors (56%) favor higher education reducing its operating costs. Business executives take the opposite view, and are much more likely to think that higher education belt-tightening is the way to deal with future cost increases. In effect, the message that the business community is sending to higher education is this: "Cut your own costs before you go looking for more support from the government."

Table 9

The same finding emerged when we asked our respondents which one of these responses they favor most. Business leaders are most supportive of seeing colleges cut costs, with 57% saying they support this the most. By contrast, increased government support is most likely to be selected as the favored option by the three other leadership groups.

The respondents from business also have a higher expectation of what they expect students and their families to do. We asked our respondents to relate the benefits received from higher education to the amount that should be paid. Business leaders are much more likely to say that, since students receive the benefit of going to college, they and their families should pay most of its costs. The other groups are more likely to say that taxpayers should pay more of the costs since the benefits accrue to the society as a whole (see Table 10).

Table 10

The perspective of business leaders differs rather dramatically on this issue from the views held by the general public. In our 1998 study The Price of Admission, we presented a somewhat similar set of choices to the public.4 As Table 11 shows, the public is unclear about the role of either colleges or government, with no consensus about which of these groups should be asked to take on a greater role in helping to finance college. But there is nearly universal agreement that students and their families are already doing everything they can, and that they should not be asked to do more.

Table 11

Finding Ten
Business executives want professors to teach more, focus more on research that is relevant to society, and rely more on technology.

The disagreement among leaders extends to what college faculty should be doing. Business executives would like to see college professors spend more time teaching and spend less time on research. Fifty-eight percent of business leaders think it is a somewhat or very serious problem that too many professors have light teaching loads, while only 26% of professors agree with this view. While majorities of all four groups think that higher education places too much emphasis on research over teaching, business executives are somewhat more likely to say that too much of academic research is irrelevant to the needs of society, with 51% of business executives endorsing this view as opposed to only 39% of professors (see Table 12).

Table 12

While a solid majority of leaders overall (74%) agree that technology will have a major impact on higher education, there is disagreement about what this impact will be. Business executives have much greater hope for the benefits of using technology in colleges and universities. Of those who think that technology will soon change higher education, 62% of business executives think these changes will be for the better, compared to only 25% of professors (see Table 13). Again, administrators and government fall in between. The idea that technology can simultaneously improve quality and decrease costs seems especially attractive to many people outside higher education. As one business executive said:

Which would you rather have, a 350-person class in beginning whatever, taught by an assistant professor, or a set of video cassettes from a superb educator who can really convey the knowledge? I'd choose the latter.

Table 13

Many of the professors we talked to are less convinced, and feel that ideas such as distance-learning are time-consuming fads that will not provide quality education. As an academic administrator put it:

The shift that everyone talks about is the growth of distance and electronic education. We have all sorts of articles about the virtual university, but I think it is rather like the articles from 10 years ago predicting the death of the mainframe. The champions of virtual universities misunderstand the value of face-to-face interchange.

Finding Eleven
The institution of tenure makes more sense to those who have it than to anyone else.

Tenure is a source of disagreement between professors and virtually everyone else. Professors, especially those who have tenure, think that it is an appropriate way to reward strong professors and a valuable protection for academic freedom. As Table 14 shows, tenure is much less appealing to the other groups of leaders, and is least appealing to members of the business community. Several of the leaders interviewed distinguish between the goal of protecting academic freedom, which they support, and the institution of tenure, which makes little sense to them. As one business executive said:

The concept behind tenure is one that I would like to preserve, namely that leading academicians are free from political influence. But how we are implementing that concept is atrocious. After seven years you give someone a lifetime contract? That is a silly way, in my judgment, to preserve academic freedom.

The bottom line is that more than eight out of ten business executives (83%) think that phasing out tenure would improve higher education, while fewer than one in four professors (23%) share this view.

Table 14

Despite this disagreement, however, there are some points of commonality. One of the biggest complaints about tenure is that it sometimes protects incompetent faculty members, a view that is shared by more than eight out of ten administrators, government officials, and business people. But college faculty members also acknowledge this, including 74% of tenured faculty members who agree that this statement is very or somewhat close to their view. When we asked our respondents if they want to phase out tenure, modify it, or keep it exactly the same, we found a convergence of views. As Table 15 shows, a minority of professors -- both those with tenure and those without -- think tenure should be unchanged. The most common response among all groups is to modify, but not eliminate, the tenure system.

Table 15

Even the toughest critics of tenure -- business people -- do not think it is the biggest problem facing colleges. We gave leaders a choice of four possible steps to change higher education, and asked which was the most important. The choices were increasing government funding, raising standards, cutting costs, and phasing out tenure. Not surprisingly, administrators think that increasing funding is the most important step, professors and government officials want to raise standards, and business leaders want to cut costs and increase efficiency. But as Table 16 shows, phasing out tenure ranks low on the list for all leadership groups.

Table 16

Finding Twelve
When it comes to racial balance in the nation's colleges, business leaders are more apt to say things should evolve naturally; the other three leadership groups prefer a more proactive approach. Very few in any group favor quotas.

Debates about affirmative action in higher education have stretched from the Bakke decision in 1978 to the recent legal battles and debate about Proposition 209 in California. Not surprisingly, those disagreements manifest themselves in the responses to our survey. The disagreement starts when we look at graduation rates. For administrators and government officials, the small percentages of African-Americans and Hispanics graduating from college is disturbing. Eighty-four percent of college administrators identify this as a very or somewhat serious problem, a view that is shared by an identical percentage of government officials. College faculty are somewhat less likely to be concerned, with 68% defining this as a problem, and concern among business leaders is even lower, with a bare majority (54%) identifying it as a problem.

There is also disagreement about how to handle racial and ethnic balance in college admissions. We gave our respondents three alternatives for how to deal with this issue: paying no attention to race at all, setting specific targets and working to insure they are met, or monitoring race and making special efforts to recruit qualified minority students. As Table 17 indicates, there is little support in any group for setting specific racial targets. Disagreement surfaces, however, over what else should be done. Business leaders are the least enthusiastic of the four groups concerning special efforts to recruit African-American or Hispanic students; 43% of business leaders would prefer having higher education pay no attention to race and allow things to evolve naturally. Other leaders favor a more proactive stance, with higher education taking steps to increase the number of minority students attending college, but without adopting anything that looks like a quota.

Table 17

From the business perspective, the focus on race and other politicized issues is a side issue for higher education. Indeed, business leaders are much more likely to think that "too many college campuses are distracted by disputes over issues like sexual harassment and politics of ethnic groups." Six out of ten business people (61%) identify this focus as a somewhat or very serious problem, as opposed to 41% of professors, 35% of administrators, and 36% of government officials.

That there is little support among leaders for achieving racial balance through specific targets may be because leaders are not convinced that racial minorities have a more severe problem with access to higher education than others have. We asked respondents which groups have less opportunity than others to get a higher education. As Table 18 indicates, there is no clear consensus about which groups have the greatest problem getting a higher education. But in no leadership group does a majority believe African-Americans or Hispanics have less opportunity than others have.

Table 18

Several leaders we spoke with were concerned that, regardless of the current situation, higher education will soon be facing a massive increase in the number of minority students seeking access to higher education. One university administrator put it this way:

When the baby boomers were coming along in the 1960s, we built an incredible academic infrastructure. The federal government spent billions of dollars creating colleges and universities. I don't hear about that now. I wonder if the lack of response is because of the racial mix of students in the pipeline.

We asked our respondents whether they had heard about the projections that there will be a significant increase in the number of students attending college, and that a larger proportion of these students will be members of minority groups.5 This problem is clearly on the minds of administrators and government officials, with 76% and 63% saying that they have heard specifically about these projections. Only 45% of faculty members say that this has come to their attention, and the majority of business people are unaware of this possibility (see Table 19).

We also asked leaders whether the nation's system of higher education would be prepared to handle such an influx if it were to occur. The majority of leaders (71%) say that colleges are at least somewhat prepared for such an influx.



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