Send in the Feds

Glenn M. Ricketts

Robert Zemsky has been a go-to man on higher educational policy analysis for the better part of four decades at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was founding director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education. The author of six previous books and numerous articles, monographs, and studies, Zemsky is also the founder and CEO of the Penn-based Learning Alliance, a consortium of higher education consultants who advise client schools seeking program or management reforms. He has served on dozens of boards, panels, and commissions, including the Bush administration’s 2006 Spellings Commission, an advisory panel convened in 2005 and charged with recommending reforms for postsecondary education, and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, a federal advisory body that evaluates private accreditation organizations for the U.S. Department of Education. So when Zemsky publishes a book calling for a top-to-bottom overhaul of American higher education, it makes news, generates widespread discussion and commentary, and will be consulted by those seeking counsel on what’s wrong and what to do about it.

Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise is, however, a book that one hopes will exert minimal influence over the direction of public policy on higher education. That’s because Zemsky believes that the comprehensive reforms he advocates can only be realized through a massive initiative from the federal government amounting to a virtual federalization of higher education.

And we can’t go about it halfway: the impetus must come directly from the Oval Office, Zemsky argues, working down through the Department of Education to include the governors of states with large public university systems and their presidents, selected policy wonks, bureaucrats, and other officials numbering perhaps one thousand altogether. If he’s learned anything over the past four decades, Zemsky writes, it is that higher education is unwilling and often unable to change under its own steam. Too complacent, too fractured, too inert—it needs a shove from the federal government to provide the “dislodging moment” that will spur reform. Publishing further critiques, as he himself has done, or convening another federal body such as the Spellings Commission would be continued exercises in futility. Thus, although Zemsky concedes that such a massive undertaking as he proposes would be politically and logistically daunting, he concludes that it’s our last best hope.

A great deal is wrong with American higher education, although there is much more to reckon with than the “policy” issues Zemsky addresses in Checklist for Change. He never mentions the serious erosion of traditional academic freedom and open debate, long burdened under intrusive speech and harassment codes, as well as the ideological ascendancy of multiculturalism, feminism, globalism, and more recently a fervent, almost apocalyptic environmentalism that propels a burgeoning and expensive “sustainability” movement encompassing everything from dormitories to course topics to cafeteria trays to the parking lot. Perhaps these issues are not within the purview of a policy analyst, or perhaps Zemsky simply sees no problem with them; it’s impossible to know from what he’s written in this book. In any event, his diagnosis focuses on four problem areas:

  • The out-of-control costs of an education. Most schools have dismally failed to control costs, often because they don’t even make the attempt.

  • Faculty detachment. Particularly at major research institutions, the faculty have essentially become “independent contractors” focused on narrow fields of research and detached from any sense of community or institutional needs.

  • Easy money from the federal government. The vast majority of institutions have become complacent about receiving Pell grants, Stafford loans, and other forms of assistance that facilitate a student’s enrollment in college. But once they have the money in hand, Zemsky complains, the same schools exhibit little regard for shepherding students through to graduation, which many fail to attain.

  • An incoherent curriculum. The curriculum has swelled to include ever greater numbers of niche courses reflecting arcane faculty research interests at most institutions, without offering perplexed students much or any structure or guidance.

There is little to disagree with in these findings, at least when they’re stated in such general terms. Who can dispute the fact of runaway costs, although curiously Zemsky never mentions, much less responds to the research of William Bennett or Richard Vedder, both of whom have contended that the easy availability of federal funds has been a principal driver of mushrooming educational costs. As Vedder argues in Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (AEI Press, 2004), tuition increases invariably generate political pressure to ensure that “everyone has an opportunity” to attend college, which leads to an expansion of federal funding by Congress. This results in increased demand, sparking another tuition spike, which then spurs another round of calls for increased government funding. With so much federal money virtually guaranteed, recipient schools have had little incentive to practice fiscal responsibility.

Furthermore, Zemsky casually dismisses all of the usual suspects—administrative bloat,1 senior faculty teaching less and receiving larger salaries, the construction of dormitories that resemble five-star hotels, and so on. Instead, Zemsky suggests that the continually exploding cost of a college degree is more likely attributable to “the nature and organization of its basic functions: the provision of teaching, research, and public service.” But part of those “functions” do include frequent additions to the curriculum, which create the need for additional personnel to provide the “product” to be delivered, along with the expensive gadgetry associated with the “technology” that enamors so many educators. Shrinking the curriculum to manageable size, as he suggests, would indisputably reduce costs, but Zemsky inexplicably resists the implications that his own analysis of the bloated curriculum carries for the problem of costs.

Anyone who undertakes even a cursory perusal of course listings at all levels quickly confirms that there’s a bewildering range of academic arcana reflective of the research interests of individual faculty members, especially those in the humanities or social sciences. And there’s little or no reason to think that one offering is more worthy than another. “Rock Poetry Lyrics” or “Shakespeare”—either one will fulfill your English elective. Moreover, the faculty, even at many major state schools, seem to teach far less than they once did, instead devoting the majority of their time to securing research grants, publishing within their specialties, or taking sabbatical leaves. Try to find even an associate professor who’s taught a freshman survey course within the last decade. Better still, survey the senior faculty who actually keep their office hours. But then, after holding the professoriate to an appropriate scorching, Zemsky asserts that a “strong, take-charge faculty” will be a linchpin in any effort to reform the curriculum.

Zemsky is correct that the faculty have indeed contributed hugely to today’s curricular chaos, but why he concludes that such a self-centered lot of individualist entrepreneurs and self-promoters will rise to the august responsibilities of “collective leadership” to clean it up certainly escapes me. They need somehow to see that they have a major stake in guiding the process of change, Zemsky declares, and cites the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, as one glittering example of the “collective action” he’d like to see take place at the institutional level: faculty members put their heads together, consulted, argued, and reached a consensus. But on what? What does the new curriculum contain or require? Zemsky doesn’t say, but notes with hearty approval that the faculty did all of this together and agreed on something.

Once again, however, none of this is nearly enough for Zemsky: American higher education needs fundamental, drastic change, and the impetus for that can only come from the federal government—under the leadership of the president of the United States—from which Zemsky seeks a “commitment to fix, fund, and facilitate.” It wouldn’t be piecemeal and it wouldn’t be quick; the omnibus reform he envisages would entail far more than the usual quick-fix” remedies driven by political expediency, and he believes it could require a decade or more to complete.

What does Zemsky’s vision entail? Quite a lot, much of which focuses on the various forms of student aid currently available. First on the list is a new type of aid: “incentive funding,” intended to induce recipient schools to increase graduation rates for “disadvantaged learners,” along with making Pell grants available to students who need remedial education. Pell grants should also be restructured to include bonuses as an incentive to tracking graduation rates, which would mean paying attention to students beyond their freshman year. In other words, more students graduating would mean more money for the institution. In an era of rampant grade inflation and ever-increasing pressure for greater student “success,” skeptics might cite the probable effects on educational standards of linking money to graduation rates, although Zemsky anticipates such doubts by calling for a national, federally-supervised testing system to measure what “skills and competencies” college graduates have actually acquired. Finally, he calls for three new federal agencies, not necessarily within the Department of Education, to monitor “institutional compliance” in the use of federal loans, grants, etc.

The scare word here is “federal.” For the last four decades, any educational funds or programs bearing that adjective have carried increasingly intrusive “compliance” requirements for all schools receiving Washington's money. “Compliance” includes mandatory racial quotas in hiring, enforcement of racial and sexual “harassment” codes, and most recently, the Department of Education’s coercive diktat under which colleges and universities must adjudicate sexual misconduct complaints. No need to wonder what these imperial tendencies might spawn in the vastly larger federal education apparatus Zemsky wants us to create. We must not do it.

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