The Biggest Problem Facing Higher Ed? Treating Colleges Like Car Manufacturers When They’re More Like Health Clubs

To work in higher education is to be constantly frustrated. Whether it’s performance-based funding, Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the 3-year bachelor’s degree or any of another dozen innovations in recent years, it’s too easy to find examples of efforts to “fix” our broken higher education system that erupt with great fanfare and invariably fizzle in disappointment.

As the Internet is quick to remind us, the 1960s TV cartoon The Jetsons promised us flying cars when reality gave us a 140 character-limit messaging platform. Still higher education repeatedly drools over promises of free, fast, high-quality education while reality has given us little more than nudges.

Lots of things help explain why policymakers seem to get it so wrong so often. Education is complex. It takes years to complete and even more years to determine whether it was done well. By the time we’re in a position to see if any given policy’s worked, our patience has run thin and we’re already on to the next or even next next great change.

Which makes it kind of surprising that the one thing that’s remained remarkably constant has been economists’ and policymakers’ thinking about how higher education works. Since the late-1960s we’ve treated how colleges train students as basically a manufacturing process similar to how General Motors produces automobiles. Schools obtain inputs like professors, students, classrooms, libraries and computers, run them through some mystical process (the infamous “black box”) and churn out graduates.

It’s a perspective that’s been used to try and explain everything from rising tuition to administrative bloat to why education subsidizes university research. It also is what sits at the basis of justifications for outcome-driven funding and quality assurance. After all, in a factory-style process there’s nobody else to blame for why the goods coming out of a place aren’t up to scratch.

It’s also one of those things that if you look at long enough just doesn’t seem to add up. If colleges could control education then why assign grades? Why wouldn’t they just require students to keep plugging along in a class or a program until they were able successfully demonstrate they’d mastered the material?

Even more puzzling: if schools could control the process why produce a mix that includes unprepared graduates and drop-outs who’ll likely struggle to find work or pay off student loan debt? Actually, flip it the other way around: can we possibly imagine a situation where half the cars coming off of General Motor’s assembly line weren’t finished or were made so badly that they couldn’t be driven?

The worst sin of the manufacturing model is that it totally ignores any role student effort plays in educational outcomes. Just look at faculty expectations of how much time they think students should spend outside of class versus how much time they think students actually spend. In the social sciences alone, 55 percent think students should be spending 4 to 6 hours over the course of a 7-day week yet almost two thirds think students are only spending about 1 or 2 hours a week.

This isn’t an indictment against students. Their time is finite and valuable and in a lot of cases coursework needs to be balanced against greater responsibilities like employment or even child care. It’s purely recognition that the credential is far more valuable than the education behind it.

Why should a business major spend unnecessary time and effort into a getting an “A” in introductory biology when she knows that all some faceless HR officer will eventually care about is being able to check a box verifying that she has a bachelor’s degree?

Rethinking how colleges function

Colleges may not produce education but they definitely help it along by offering students all the tools they need — in the form of instructors, classes, tutoring centers, laboratories, Internet resources and libraries — to educate themselves.

If this model seems familiar, it is as it’s basically how health clubs work. Places like L.A. Fitness don’t produce “health;” they just bundle resources like swimming pools, weights, aerobics classes and personal trainers and sell members rights to use them and make themselves healthier. They charge annual fees and provide quality control by ensuring that the pool remains clean, the exercise machines are safe and instructors have the requisite skills to provide various forms of proper training or eating advice.

It’s a small shift in thinking with big implications. It does a much better job of explaining why different students at the same college and even in the same program enjoy different levels of post-graduate success. Treating tuition as a membership fee also makes it much easier to understand why the sticker price at Harvard is so much higher than at say North Dakota State University even though both offer a fairly similar slate of degree programs. The stock of resources students are buying access to at Harvard is simply deeper and wider.

Rethinking how colleges work has the potential to change how researchers and policymakers think about everything from accreditation to student aid policy. And sure, university behavior is certainly more complex than what I’m describing here; I’m using a hatchet for the sake of space. Still, no health club ever promises its members that they’ll be triathletes and no college promises its students that they’ll leave with a degree. The underlying message from both is the same: we’ll give you the tools but you’re the one who’s going to have to do the work.

None of this absolves colleges of responsibility for facilitating high-quality education. They still should, and need to, be able to sufficiently demonstrate that they’re providing competent instructors and that students who need supplemental resources beyond classroom instruction have them when they need them. They also need to ensure that there are both physical and virtual spaces for students to come together to study.

Where process is concerned, colleges also continue to have an obligation to eliminate many of the frictions that unnecessarily blocks degree completion. That means helping students minimize costly course “grazing” and optimizing scheduling, but it also means maintaining transparent credit transfer processes and cross-institutional articulation agreements that help students finish in the shortest time possible and at the lowest cost.

When all you have is a hammer…

Treating higher education as a traditional manufacturing process appeases our intuition that if someone spends tens of thousands of dollars and doesn’t feel like they received enough in return, there is someone to blame. It also gives policymakers a neat schematic to tinker with.

If history’s any guide, it’s also a blueprint for continued disappointment and the unrealistic hope that the “right” fix is always going to be the next one. Concepts like performance-based funding or MOOCs aren’t bad ideas. They’re just rooted in assumptions about what colleges control and what students care about that don’t fit reality.

We need to, and will, make higher education in the United States better, but not until policymakers can get comfortable with the responsibilities that students play in the process.

Carlo Salerno

Note: This piece was originally published on LinkedIn.

PhD. Education economist. VP of Research @CampusLogic. Title is theirs, opinions are mine.

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