10/31/2013 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2013

Government Too Inconsistent, Contradictory to Run Higher Education

In my favorite literary opening, Charles Dickens noted that "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." It is tempting to think of that perspective as I reflect on the current state of higher education, or more correctly, on proposed governmental oversight of education.

I imagine that college presidents have, over the centuries, lamented the current state of their affairs, and perhaps our time is no worse. But we do find ourselves facing a dizzying array of mixed messages.

A substantial piece of this confusion arises around the issue of college costs. Most Americans view a college education as one pathway toward the American dream, while an increasing number have begun to ask difficult and appropriate questions about the return on investment in an economy as challenging as ours. And yet, U.S. government data have consistently shown, and still show, that a college degree provides the best hedge against unemployment and a substantial salary benefit over the duration of a career.

Currently we see disturbing data on the increase in college costs, a trend that is often tracked over a 30-year period. White House officials have posted a plot of the increase in public college tuition and fees over that time, and show that it considerably outstrips the rise in median family income for the same period. This is certainly an appropriate way to highlight the impact on families paying the bills, but it doesn't reveal the main cause.

I have never worked in a public institution, but I'm sure my colleagues there would be quick to cite the challenge of serving increasing numbers of students while states continue to cut support for state institutions. Perhaps the federal and state governments could communicate a bit more on this point. Indeed, private institutions have seen much lower percent increases, never having depended to the same extent on state support, although we are obviously starting from a higher base in most cases.

It is easy to imagine that colleges have engaged in reckless and unfettered spending during the last 30 years. However, all colleges, public or private, seek future success, and much of this seems to demand more spending. We see this in the use of prominent rankings of colleges, where the criteria reward budget-expanding approaches like more small classes, fewer large classes, greater expenditures in technology, and lower student/faculty ratios.

And students and families seek a range of services and facilities on campus, and will keep searching until they find them. In point of fact, these have long been part of the "value-added" proposition of private institutions like mine, but we're certainly not receiving a market-based mandate for change. And a final note on costs: While it is certainly reasonable to benchmark college costs against family incomes, it is also reasonable to do so against the higher education price index, a measure of the costs colleges face for talented faculty, technology, etc. Neither sector of higher education, public or private, has seen percent price increases even close to the increase in the HEPI, indicating that college leaders have moderated tuition costs in the face of ever-higher costs for the important services we provide. And technology, while it may help, is not the answer. As shown by Archibald and Feldman in Why Does College Cost So Much? technology leads to lower costs when it replaces workers' salaries. It does the opposite when it requires more highly-trained workers to utilize that technology. Higher education, medicine, dentistry and the legal profession all provide examples.

Another proposal from the federal government and from others in higher education would lead to college rankings based on graduates' salaries, a notion many of us find confusing at least. And I don't know of many leaders who plan to market their institutions on that basis. To be frank, my institution does relatively well on this front, ranking fourth in our state and 25th in the Midwest in a recent, well-ballyhooed study of median career salaries.

Although I risk sounding hypocritical by pointing this out, I do so to address those who would attribute my concerns to sour grapes. We recently ran a survey of our alumni, and the data were broken down, not by decades, but by historic eras such as the Vietnam War years, the post-war years, the '90s boom, etc.

It was interesting to note that, while our most recent graduates expressed some understandable concerns about their job prospects, those who graduated into the troubled job market of the late 1970s and had a longer-term perspective on their education were quite convinced of its value in the marketplace.

But at the same time the federal government is charging ahead with these salary-based rankings, the Department of Education, the Congress and many governors are screaming for better K-12 education. If I am to believe everything I read, my institution, which turns out highly successful educators, would be required to count them among our failures since teachers' salaries remain so low.

My wife and I recently welcomed to our historic residence a large group of elementary school students brought to our campus by their teachers, who are alumnae of our college. These teachers, who work in rural districts where college attendance has lagged, are seeking to instill in their young students the dream of higher education. Am I to tell them that they've failed us because they've pursued a traditionally low-paying profession?

Not likely.

Nor am I willing to write off those alumni/ae who create works of art to expand our imaginations, even if they may struggle to build a reputation for the first half of their career.

And federal and state governments have long clamored for better STEM education, citing our 17th place ranking among the nations in the world on STEM-based student achievement tests. One even sees a major oil company running public service notes in national newspapers calling for a national effort on this front. In this case, the federal government has long provided funding for scientific research and science education and has some right to expect better outcomes. But, as well as scientists and engineers do financially in their careers, a rating system built on alumni incomes would encourage all of us to push our students into the financial world.

Completion rate constitutes another area of concern and another possible rating criterion. I have no particular argument with the principle here; college is an expensive enterprise for most families and they should have some assurance that a degree will result. But I firmly believe the most important predictor of success is student engagement, and I venture to guess there are few accredited colleges at which a student cannot obtain a quality education that addresses his/her abilities and interests.

However, no college can assure that if the student is unwilling to accept primary responsibility for that important goal. College is about preparation for a successful life, and an education is not a commodity that can be purchased by a passive "buyer." And what if a student decides, presumably on the basis of some coursework, that he/she is called into major field not provided at his/her college?

No college can teach everything, and those who try risk mediocrity or worse, but we do rejoice when a student discovers an unanticipated passion. Is a transfer under these circumstances a mark of failure? Most would call it a triumph of a broad-based education. Current tracking on completion rates fails to distinguish this situation from that of a student who fails to graduate from any institution within a certain period.

Make no mistake, much good has come of the recent push to hold colleges responsible for assessing student outcomes, for controlling costs, and for graduating the students we admit. And I think it is fair to say that the national accrediting agencies have stepped up on this effort.

But before we move down the path of putting the federal government in charge of this effort, it would behoove us to resolve some of the contradictions we see in education public policy. Moving targets and inconsistent reward structures will only lead to more confusion. As the government tries to intercede with its goals as to what higher education should cost and provide, we at the ground level must and will continue to make available the type of liberal arts education that the ever-changing global market demands.