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Productivity Is Taking Hold in Higher Education

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The recent 2010 National Higher Education Productivity Conference in Indianapolis highlighted a number of factors that will influence how we help to change American higher education policy in the immediate future.

Having been abroad during the academic year 2009-10, I returned to the States to find "productivity" a key word in political, corporate, and educational discussions of higher education.

The productivity conversation is well underway and the theme has become familiar to almost everyone involved. From its beginning as a multi-state project with most $150,000 planning grants to the current 18-state, multimillion-dollar national initiative, Lumina Foundation and its partners seem to have succeeded in setting the higher education agenda for the next several years.

It is a tribute to Lumina, but also to the 11 states who have managed its productivity grants, the seven new states who have joined these 11 and are networked as Productivity Strategy Labs, and to the state advisers and other key persons involved in this work.

Before I delve into this, since the term "productivity" can have multiple meanings, I'm using the following definition, which can be found on page 6 of a new paper "Navigating the 'New Normal," released at the conference:

In simplest terms, productivity in higher education is defined as cost per degree:

Productivity = educational resources used/degrees produced

Leaders in higher education claim that they've become more productive in recent years, and by this definition, that's true -- they have produced more degrees for every dollar spent. But this "productivity improvement" resulted chiefly from recession-related reductions in their spending; colleges and universities have not awarded significantly more degrees and credentials. That has to change in order to make the United States competitive globally.

A major factor, of course, is that virtually every state is in tough shape financially and will remain in tough shape for some years to come. When states face budget shortfalls in the billions and cannot run deficits, they cut discretionary expenditures or play games with essential items like retirement trust funds. Colleges and universities are a discretionary budget item. "We were state-supported; then we were state-assisted; now we're just state-located," goes the old saying. Only now it is not just whining.

It is easier to have conferences about "doing more with less" than it is to do more with less: to figure out how to enroll more students, improve retention and completion rates, and cut your budget by some large amount -- all at the same time. However, a conference such as the Lumina convening is a good place to start -- a place to share ideas, concepts, strategies, and programs to start to move the meter, to make progress, to begin to respond to the looming crisis.

The conference highlighted many concerns, each of which I will discuss:

• Not enough state legislators were there.
• The "buffer agencies" are under strong pressure.
• The productivity agenda may be too utilitarian.
• The reward system is broken.
• Higher education may be essential to the solution but it also is part of the problem.

Not enough state legislators were there. By my count, there were 16. This is not surprising, given all that is going on in the states. The elections that had been held only a few weeks before resulted in large turnovers in state legislatures. There also were regional higher education meetings (SREB and MHEC) that conflicted with the Lumina conference and drew legislators away. In addition, legislators are preparing for very difficult sessions early in 2011. So it is not surprising that not many came to Indianapolis.

The good news is that the speaker of the House in Arizona attended, as did the chairs of the higher education committees in California and Iowa.

But we may be entering one of those political quagmires in which few, if any, elected public officials care to confront an unpleasant reality. It is easier to call colleges and universities fat and inefficient than it is to confront the causes of fat and inefficiency -- or even the truth of their accusation.

I do not know whether the elected public officials of our states have the will and the courage to support higher education as an essential contributor to the well-being of this nation. And if some do, I do not know whether they will be realistic or instead support simplistic approaches to very complex challenges.

The "buffer agencies" are under strong pressure. This is a new term for me, but "buffer agencies" apparently has some currency in the OECD and elsewhere. It refers to the organizations that are placed between colleges and universities and government to help protect academic freedom and some degree of institutional autonomy. State higher education governing and coordinating bodies are good examples, as is the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

But in reaction to the fiscal downturn, some governments are seeking to eliminate these buffers (who get "slapped from above and kicked from below," grumbled an official from the UK) in the name of efficiency. The productivity agenda may contribute to efforts to do away with them. There is discussion about eliminating Virginia's State Council of Higher Education, for example, and placing its responsibilities in the office of the State Secretary of Education. Similar discussions are occurring in other states. The continuing attacks on accreditation are an example at the federal level.

States need to spend their money for higher education differently but higher education institutions are unlikely to welcome most of the changes. These might include, for example, paying for attainment rather than enrollment, investing less in "elite" institutions and more in those that can serve the needy populations, and eliminating the unnecessary duplication of programs and professional schools that has come to plague higher education in many states.

With the "buffer agencies" weakened, and universities that will use a fair amount of money to lobby for their own interests, the prospect of change in higher education funding lessens.

The productivity agenda may be too utilitarian. It certainly is helpful that President Obama and many governors have endorsed the need to increase higher education productivity over the next 15 years. But the description of our responsibility as educators has become dangerously utilitarian, and dangerously focused on economic competitiveness.

There is more to life than getting your first job. There is the second, and third, and so on, as the economy changes. There is learning intellectual skills that enable you to create jobs for others.

We don't need to start the "culture wars" of the 1990s over again. But we do need to define what we mean by "high quality" education, and the definition should include more than job training. We want to help people learn what it means to be human, to be socially responsible, and to be aware of the best that has been thought and said throughout our history.

This is not a new issue, of course. In 1871, a young man told Henry Adams that he was at Harvard because "a degree from Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago." So it should not be a surprise that this year a large number of Harvard graduates sought jobs in the banking and investment industry. That's where the high-paying jobs are.

Nonetheless, despite good intentions, we are at risk of experiencing the unintended consequences of our practical approach to higher education.

The reward system is broken. For all the talk about vast increases in the numbers of students enrolled (many of them will be older persons returning to complete degrees they began years ago) and successfully completing their degrees or certificates, the leaders of colleges and universities are usually rewarded for their success in making their institutions elite: top 30 research universities, highly selective admissions, and so on.

The formerly blue-collar commuter institution now is a flashy residential university seeking a high place in a magazine's ratings. The land grant university, established to provide education to the rural population of the state, all but abandons this mission in a headlong quest to become one of the nation's top 30 research universities. The urban university in a city with high poverty and high unemployment announces that it, too, will become a great research institution.

This is not because college and university leaders are bad or incompetent. But institutions always will act in their own best interests unless their behavior is governed to some extent. This is as true for universities as it is for banks and investment companies. Whether we like it or not, both the media and higher education leaders define "quality" in higher education primarily by research volume and admissions selectivity. The people hired to run universities will not survive unless they act accordingly.

We need to fix the reward system, by, for example, recognizing institutions that serve low-income students exceptionally well, or that form strong and successful bonds with primary and secondary schools in their communities that improve the education pipeline. The 2010 National Productivity Conference highlighted how states like Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee are trying to fix the reward system. Two of the Productivity Strategy Labs focus on stronger college and student incentives for completion (Steps 1 and 2 in Lumina's Four Steps to Finishing First policy agenda for increasing productivity).

Higher education may be essential to the solution but it also is part of the problem. In their quest for eminence in the national rankings, many of our "best" colleges and universities are strengthening a class-based system in American society. They are what the Education Trust labeled "engines of inequality." If higher education helps state economies recover and the children of the states do not have better lives as a result, we shall have failed.

In 1864, Matthew Arnold, one of England's leading poets and the greatest literary critic of his time, expressed bewilderment that two eminent men had declared that England was living in a golden age of "unrivaled happiness." Immediately thereafter, Arnold wrote, he stumbled upon a lurid newspaper account of a homeless and destitute young woman named Wragg who, in despair, had fled from a workhouse and strangled her illegitimate child. "Wragg is in custody," the news account concluded.

Arnold was no political radical. He had been elected to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. He was the son of a famous headmaster of Eton. But he earned his living as an inspector who traveled a circuit of English schools and wrote reports on their adequacy. He had come to believe firmly in the necessity of education for all children, and he argued for it, mostly in vain, to the end of his life.

What Arnold sensed was a total disconnection between the prosperity of some and the abject poverty of others. Whenever some industrialist or member of government trumpeted the great virtues of the age, Arnold suggested, someone else should at least murmur, "Wragg is in custody."

Many educators care. The level of commitment at the Lumina Productivity conference was tangible. Women and men from all over the country who are engaged in higher education in very different capacities were there not just to enjoy the coffee breaks and conversation but to ask questions, to argue, and to learn from the program and from one another.

In a very difficult time, when thoughtless slogans and silly ideas are paraded as theories, we should present an agenda that emphasizes increased higher education productivity, greater efficiency and effectiveness in using scarce resources, and imaginative responses to a 21st century world.

We also should insist that higher education is not just about jobs and the GDP. It is about becoming more fully human, understanding our cultural heritage, and knowing that we help to create the world in which we and future generations will live.

An important part of the productivity agenda is extending the right to live well to countless others who now are deprived of that right.

When the next magazine rankings come out and some universities crow while others pout, it may be worth murmuring, "Wragg is in custody."