Fixing Higher Education

Here is an example of a conventional approach to fixing higher education. This, along with most other articles proposing fixes to higher ed, focus on everything else but improving academic and administrative processes. It illustrates the supremacy of superficial analysis, herd mentality, and results-oriented thinking (basically, the seduction of taking shortcuts) in contrast to careful analysis, structured problem-solving, and process-oriented thinking characteristic of Lean.

The four “levers” described in the article for fixing higher ed are:

1. Use the stick. “…link an institution’s eligibility for student [financial] aid to its track record, essentially punishing schools whose graduates do poorly in the job market.”

  • A punitive, zero-sum solution, which usually leads to compliance but not actual improvement.
  • The job market is beyond the control of colleges and universities.

2. Use the carrot. Dangle “…the carrot of extra money before states and private colleges that want to experiment with, as the president put it Wednesday, ‘testing new approaches to shorten the path to a degree, or blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time’.”

  • Colleges and universities should be conducting experiments all the time, and not seek extra money for doing so.
  • Assuming high school graduates are prepared for college, the B.S. degree could be awarded after three years of study by eliminating many general education courses.

3. Transparency. “…the higher-ed market would work better if students knew more about the careers and wages of graduates of programs they’re considering…”

  • This information has been available for decades from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • There is no guarantee that the higher-ed market would work better as a result of transparency.

4. Lower barriers to entry. “The technology of education is changing, as the explosion of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, demonstrates.”

  • Barriers to entry is not the problem, having been steadily lowered for decades.
  • The technology of education is changing from books to TV – a minimally impressive change.  

[NOTE: The MOOC suppliers have shrewdly gone directly to the budget/financial decision-makers: higher education administrators and politicians. However, these two audiences are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias and the need to appear innovative. They readily accept big promises of lower cost (and other favorable outcomes) on faith, while largely ignoring all downsides. It would not be the first time that technology suppliers over-promised and under-delivered, resulting in higher total costs for their customers.]

My view of how to fix higher education, both in administration and academics, is obviously quite different from the so-called “solutions” that are typically proffered. In the book Lean University, I proposed the concept of “Continuous Flow University.” Here is an excerpt:

“This model allows students to ‘pull’ educational services on-demand, in contrast to traditional higher education that is more characteristic of a ‘push’ system. The raison d’être for creating Continuous Flow University is to serve a segment of students and payers far better than they have been served in the recent past. It is not to lower costs, or to compromise quality or educational effectiveness. Lower costs, wherever they are achieved, will be a byproduct of improved processes and improved pedagogies.”

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