In the 1960s the U.S. led the world in the percentage of its population attending college; today we are tied for ninth place. As a post-industrial economy, the U.S. has to compete in the world on knowledge and skill, and as a result, increasing college attendance is becoming an even more important part of our national strategy.
At the same time, state financing for education is declining and critics of the American university system are becoming more numerous and more vocal. What follows in this blog is a suggestion for re-organizing higher education in the U.S. to respond to the most important concerns expressed about our universities.
I propose that the universityof the future should consist of four components:
1. An undergraduate college
2. A graduate school (if a university)
3. A research institute
4. An outsourced, franchised athletic organization
The first three units would stand on their own financially; there would be no cross-subsidization based on tuition, though the University would be free to allocate non-tuition revenues as it pleases. For example, parents paying tuition for the undergraduate college would not have part of their tuition go to support varsity athletics.
The research institute would be a focal point for all research in the University; it would not receive tuition funds. The institute would be funded by research contracts and/or funds raised internally by individual schools. For example, there is no natural funding constituency for English so the University would have to allocate non-tuition funds for English research.
A group of faculty peers would evaluate proposals for research and approve requests to apply for grants or internal funding. Every faculty member requesting internal or external funds would have to indicate how the findings of his or her research can be applied to advancing knowledge and improving society. Research of interest to only a handful of other researchers would be discouraged.
Varsity athletics has grown in influence far beyond its contribution to education. Athletes receive special treatment and often do not graduate. Because we are a nation (and world) consumed by sports, and because alums place so much importance on football and basketball, it is unlikely that any University would voluntarily suspend varsity sports. Very few schools receive any contribution from varsity sports to the general fund; the subsidy runs in the other direction. Coaching salaries have become an embarrassment even if paid by alumni fan clubs.
In this plan, the University outsources and franchises major varsity sports like football and basketball to a profit-making organization. The concept is the same as farm clubs in baseball; the University should not try to operate farm clubs for the NFL and NBA. Instead, an athletic franchisee pays the University to license its name and use its venues for games. Professional football and basketball should help fund the university franchised teams as they are preparing players for the pros. Over time the franchisee will purchase stadiums and coliseums as universities can ill-afford to build and maintain these little-used facilities. Athletic coaches will no longer be employees of the University and the franchisee is free to hire players and pay salaries Team members are not enrolled in nor do they attend classes, though they may choose to get an education on the same basis as non-athletes.
Professionals at the University would decide on how to allocate their time between the two teaching units and the research institute. They would be evaluated on this time allocation and research faculty would not be favored over teaching faculty.
Instead of tenure, I envision a series of rolling five-year contracts. A faculty member’s contract is renewed each year for five years, providing ample notice that one needs to find another position. To terminate a contract, a committee of peers and deans and/or department chairs would have to agree. Taking an unpopular stand on an issue, angering a legislator or a Congressman, or any action related to academic freedom would not be grounds for termination.
Because of the huge amount of information available online, much of education will shift from learning facts to solving problems. Students will work in teams, make presentations in class and work on projects in the community in their upper-class years. The purpose of a college education is and should continue to be one of encouraging critical thinking and problem solving.
The hybrid course will come to dominate instruction. This is a course that is taught partially on line and partially in a physical classroom. Telepresence systems will replace older videoconferencing technologies to create a much more intimate feeling when class participants are in different geographic locations.
While technology will create a modest improvement in productivity, and while the teaching faculty may teach more courses than today, these two changes will not be enough to double or triple faculty productivity, much less provide an order of magnitude improvement.
Education is one of the most difficult processes to automate. As long as instructors and tutors are needed, which is the foreseeable future, labor expenses will continue to dominate university costs. As state aid declines, the federal government will have to increase its support of higher education as a strategic initiative for the country.
Elsewhere in this blog I have suggested that each employer should pay a percentage of a college graduate’s salary to his or her alma mater when hiring someone. The college has prepared the student for the employer and a royalty scheme seems only fair to compensate the school and help repay government support for education.
The President of the University of Oregon has proposed another innovative solution to provide funding for public education. In a New York Times (11/23/2010) op-ed, he suggests that the state legislature commit to a guaranteed fixed contribution to the university for 30 years. He would have the University use this money to pay the debt service on 7% taxable bonds. The school would raise an amount equal to the bonds and would expect to earn a sufficiently high return to fund its operations and build an endowment over the 30 years that would finance the University into the future. While there are a number of assumptions in this proposal, it represents fresh thinking on funding, at least for public universities which have experienced dramatic decreases in state funding of late.
While American Universities are the most highly rated in the world, they need to respond to the huge challenges they face as the nation realizes it must educate more and more of the population. I believe that reforms along these lines would position the American University to continue its leadership in the 21st Century.