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Andrew S. Rosen

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A Lazy River Ride to a Higher Ed Crisis

Posted: 11/18/11 02:33 PM ET

Americans who pay attention to education issues think they know two things for certain: our K-12 system is a disaster, but our higher education is the best in the world. They're not quite right on either count.

Yes, our K-12 system has enormous problems, but after decades of denial and resistance, there are glimmers of progress. The 2011 "Nation's Report Card" showed steadily rising math scores, for instance, and states are working to build common standards for what students are expected to learn.

Our higher ed system, meanwhile, is facing increasing skepticism over whether the ever-higher cost of college is worth it. Americans take justifiable pride that our research universities lead the world in the production of knowledge, and that foreign students clamor for the chance at an American college or graduate education. And even in today's economy, most parents remain hopeful that their kids' college educations will be a good investment.

If we're not careful, however, challenges in our K-12 system could be compounded by problems in our colleges and universities. The strength of our higher education system as an engine for our economy is faltering. While our most elite universities continue to top worldwide rankings, we have dropped from first to sixteenth in college degree attainment. In the meantime, our traditional universities are engaging in an unsustainable spending race to attract students, weighing themselves down with administrative bureaucracy, and leaving graduates burdened with unmanageable debt. Public institutions (including community colleges), which once offered an accessible springboard into the middle class, now suffer from a business model that's broken: after decades of relying on state subsidies that are now getting slashed, many of these schools are cutting capacity, raising tuition, or both.

Today's universities essentially do not compete with one another on what should be their core goal: enabling learning. Instead, they compete over measures like the number of students to whom they deny admission, the number of books in their libraries, and the on-campus lifestyle they are able to provide. It's shocking how much of the focus (and spending) of today's university is devoted to amenities that have nothing to do with education. Many traditional universities are morphing into full-blown resorts. They have athletic facilities that are better appointed than most health clubs. They've replaced traditional dining halls with sushi bars, steakhouses, and "lobster night." Their theaters and museums rival the cultural offerings in many smaller cities. Modern residence halls -- schools don't call them "dorms" anymore -- offer double beds, plasma TVs, and in-suite laundry. One campus has a 645-foot winding Lazy River that students navigate in inner tubes, a 20-person hot tub, and a Cascading Water Wet Deck.

In a higher education marketplace driven by rankings and an arms-race mentality, today's luxury amenity on one campus quickly becomes an all-but-required feature at every campus. There is nothing wrong with families who can afford it choosing to devote disposable income to send their children to a luxe college. But the taxpayer is on the hook for this frippery, whether through direct grants, tax deductions or state funding. And there's no opt-out button. Traditional higher education offers a bundled product: an all-inclusive package that requires most students to pay for all these features, regardless if they want them. You can't buy just the education; to get it you have to buy the French bistro and football team as well. All of this costs money -- which is part of why college costs keep rising sharply and student loan debt just passed the $1 trillion mark. Students who borrow to finance a college degree will pay for these amenities well into middle age.

While today's college experience may be unrecognizable to someone who graduated a generation ago, the classroom looks much the same, but for the addition of an electronic whiteboard and outlets for laptops. Studies show that colleges are spending a smaller percentage of their budgets on instruction and more on recreation and administration. In 2014, the number of college administrators is projected to overtake the number of faculty.

We need colleges to compete on education, not frills. We need to become sharply focused on the things that will drive our economy and help produce creative, educated, employable citizens.

We need to measure learning outcomes. We need to make higher education more accessible, more affordable, and more accountable. We need to make room for nontraditional students who are being turned away at community colleges for lack of funding. We need to embrace new and innovative models in higher ed -- including private-sector universities -- and not just scoff at them because they don't feature Gothic buildings, a 200-year history, or Division I sports.

One of the most important steps in solving a problem is recognizing it. By that measure, the K-12 sector deserves credit: nearly 30 years after A Nation at Risk, reform advocates are at last making strides toward building a culture of data-driven decision-making and real accountability.

In contrast, America's higher education system seems unaware of its weakening foundation. Particularly in difficult budgetary times, we must refocus our attention and resources on what made us great in the first place -- educational excellence -- not unaffordable outside-the-classroom amenities. There's still time to avert a real crisis -- but only if we pay attention to the looming threat.

Andrew S. Rosen is the chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc. and author of Change.Edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy