Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University, paints a stark picture of the modern university in his new book, Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.
Vedder laments the rising cost of attending college, the falling standards, increased government regulation, and a de-emphasis on teaching. Vedder is an expert at diagnosing many of the problems within the research university, although at times he offers impractical and improbable solutions.
Teaching Versus Research
One of Vedder’s primary concerns is that teaching undergraduates is no longer a priority at many universities. Instead, research, athletics, and other business ventures (conference centers, hotels, hospitals, etc.) garner a large amount of administrations’ attention and university budgets.
He writes that at many universities faculty members only teach for 4-8 hours a week. At these universities, undergraduate classes are thus taught by adjunct professors or graduate students. This may save the universities money and give faculty members more time to write research grant proposals, but it is not in the best interest of students.
In the essay, “Who Killed Homer?: The Prequel,” Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath agree with Vedder’s assertion that teaching is growing less important to academics. In reference to applicants for offices within the Society for Classical Studies, they write, “How sad that we are to vote for those who give us the least amount of evidence that they have taught the ordinary student in any personal fashion or written anything anyone has read.”
Hanson and Heath explain that in 1992 twice as many scholars published 50 percent more material in twice as many journals than they did in 1962. Hanson writes, “No one has calculated how much capital and how many ditched classes and ignored students were invested in this new experiment in mass publication.” Vedder agrees, saying there have been more than 20,000 articles published about William Shakespeare in the past 20 years, and at some point research has diminishing returns. Accordingly, Vedder’s proposal for change here is reasonable, restore the balance between teaching and research by increasing teaching loads.
For teaching to reclaim a place of honor, incentives would have to change. Currently, professors receive prestige and recognition for researching microscopic subcategories, not for producing competent students. Vedder explains that many departments within universities are funded by research grants. Therefore, de-emphasizing research within the university would require a major institutional shift, one that no university or faculty member has any incentive to make.
A Broken Financial System
Vedder argues that government student loans have contributed significantly to the rise in college prices. According to Vedder, the Bennett Hypothesis states that colleges raise their fees because they know taxpayer-backed student debt will provide the means for students to stay in school. Students never see the money they are given for college and thus have no true concept of how much debt they are going into.
Moreover, colleges are incentivized to accept all students who apply, regardless of that student’s academic record. Vedder notes that students who are underprepared for college often do not graduate. They are thus left in massive debt, but with no degree.
To discourage colleges from accepting students unlikely to succeed, Vedder recommends that colleges have “skin in the game,” by being penalized when their students default on school loans. Vedder also suggests phasing out federal funding and allowing private institutions to take over. Although radical, this is one of Vedder’s better proposals. It would turn the enterprise of student loans into a commercial affair. Students will be looked at as more of an investment rather than a piggy bank for colleges.
Vedder also argues that the growth of the university bureaucracy is unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible. He writes, “This massive administrative explosion is expensive, significantly adding to the costs of higher education.” While the private sector works hard to trim costs, colleges are not so incentivized. Vedder explains that before 1976 faculty members outnumbered college staff 2.4 to 1, but now the reverse is true.
He observes that the University of California president’s office alone has 2,000 employees. Vedder points out that not only is this bureaucratic takeover increasing the financial burden on students, it is also taking away power from faculty members. This is possibly the root of why so many universities are losing their focus on academics and instead pouring resources into athletics and other non-core activities, according to Vedder. He writes, “Administrative bloat both raises costs and diminishes academic quality.”
Accreditation Is Also a Mess
In the section “Accreditation’s Nine Deadly Sins,” Vedder rightly points to the current accreditation process as one of the major issues facing higher education. Accreditation is so complex that colleges often have to spend millions in creating reports and answering queries for it. Moreover, accrediting agencies wield so much power that they can all but force a law school to spend thousands on its library or force business schools to hire more professors with doctorates.
Vedder also argues that the accreditation system is not transparent, as reports generated for it are rarely made public. Further, colleges seldom lose their accreditation, even when it is clear that they are offering a sub-par education. Vedder does not believe that accreditation reports provide useful information to consumers or to donors.
He writes, “The dominant purpose of accreditation is to inform- to provide information to potential students, their parents, those governing universities, taxpayers, donors, and even sometimes the institution itself…” However, Vedder does not believe that accrediting agencies are giving the public such information. He writes that major schools are rarely chastised or seem to make meaningful improvements.
In particular, Vedder does not like the binary nature of accreditation. He does not believe an institution should either be accredited or not, but instead should be given an accreditation score. This score would help consumers differentiate between higher-quality colleges and lower-quality colleges.
While Vedder likely agrees that the voluntary nature of accreditation needs to be restored by breaking the monopoly of the six regional accreditors, his solution to do so is unwise. Vedder argues that all six regional accrediting agencies should be consolidated into one national accrediting agency.
This is a cure worse than the disease. This kind of consolidation would give accrediting agencies more coercive power over universities, create more conflicts of interest, and lead to a greater homogeneity of ideas within the university. A better solution is to create more accrediting agencies, not less. This decentralizes power and works towards making accreditation voluntary once again.
Vedder’s overall diagnosis of the accreditation problem is correct, however. Accrediting agencies measure inputs such as the number of credentialed teachers, the number of credit hours offered, and the number of books in the library, instead of outputs like how much students are learning and how capable they are at succeeding in a career. One of Vedder’s solutions is to measure outputs by having students take a national college exit exam. The cumulative scores of these tests would be made public so consumers will know which colleges are actually teaching best.
Vedder observes that the accreditation process is a means by which the federal government has sought to centralize control over American higher education. He writes that in the 1950s accreditation was voluntary, but now because federal aid relies on accreditation, colleges can’t survive without it. The federal government now uses accreditation as a way to force colleges to comply with a large amount of regulation.
Vedder does not suggest decoupling federal financial aid and accreditation, probably because he does not believe the government should be giving financial aid. He predicts that if the government financial assistance programs ended, so would the current broken accreditation system.
Break the University Monopoly
Vedder’s most radical proposal is to get rid of the university system altogether and instead allow students to take classes from many universities instead of just choosing one. In this scenario, accrediting agencies accredit classes, not whole universities or degree programs. Students could hypothetically take five classes from each of the eight Ivy League schools then apply to some sort of course aggregator and degree certifier to get their diplomas.
Perhaps Vedder is using this idea as a tool to start making higher education leaders think outside of the institutional box, or maybe he is merely trying to be the gadfly, making the system aware of its own shortcoming. Unfortunately, Vedder does not seem like the philosophical type, which means this might be a real proposal.
In that case, we should remember Edmund Burke’s chide to the French revolutionaries, “[Y]ou possessed in some parts the walls, and, in all, the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations.” Although the university system has forgotten its roots and indulged in excess, does that mean that it should be torn down instead of repaired?
Ignoring the Real Liberal Arts
Vedder’s view of education largely centers around economics. To him, getting a degree is an investment in one’s future income-making capacity. Like many in modern universities, Vedder confuses a good education’s byproduct with its end. If the purpose of education is merely to make yourself marketable, then Vedder is right: students should only major in practical subjects instead of the humanities and arts. Yet, if the purpose of a good education is to shape the human soul and mold the mind, then some of Vedder’s proposals are wanting.
He argues that a “college for all” mindset has led to credential inflation. The demand for high-skilled labor is not keeping up with the amount of college graduates. So we end up with debt-ridden graduates working at Starbucks. Vedder’s solution is to encourage students to major in “vocationally relevant areas of study” such as accounting, science, and economics, as well as encouraging others to go to vocational schools instead of a four-year university.
Vedder has spent decades working in higher education, yet his perspective is limited to the large research university. He does not seem to take seriously the liberal arts schools scattered across the nation. He repeatedly tears down and builds up the modern research university, but rarely mentions liberal arts colleges, much less as an alternative model.
This might be because, to him, education is only a cost-benefit analysis. However, in the case of education, this method does not work, as the benefits of learning are often not quantifiable. A national college exit exam might measure knowledge, but it can’t measure growth in intellectual, emotional, relational, and moral maturity – all things that the college experience can give.
In his book Liberty and Learning, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn states, “The Founders in their political understanding point up toward the permanent, the final, and the divine, in the same way that liberal (classical liberal) education does.” Arnn argues that modern education at its worst reduces human beings to their material needs, those needs they have in common with every animal.
The liberal arts, on the other hand, teach that man is capable of rising above matter to take part in higher things. The liberal arts teach students how to be whole human beings instead of merely readers and calculators. They cultivate character and mind instead of simply fulfilling credit-hour requirements or learning a list of facts or techniques.
Hating the modern university, although almost an understandable impulse, can lead to bad reforms, ones that harm teaching and research. Vedder’s problem might be that he hates the modern research university too much. Perhaps instead of razing the system to the ground, he might look to the genuine liberal arts model as an alternative.