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Luis Maria R. Calingo Headshot

The Arms Race in Higher Ed -- From Both Sides Now

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As both an educator and a parent of college-age daughters, I admit finding it unseemly to treat education as a "product" and students (and fathers like me) as "consumers." Education belongs in a realm apart from shoes, smartphones and salsa.

And yet... and yet -- I'm conflicted. Experiencing, and juggling, both perspectives illuminates each in a different way. I can't remove the hat labeled "university president" any more than I can distance myself from a parent's concern that my children receive the finest education available.

A cynic would replace "available" with "money can buy," but I'm not a cynic, and I certainly don't believe there's a direct correlation between tuition and quality -- not as a university president, not as a parent. It appears that many Americans are likewise conflicted, if not downright troubled: a widely-reported 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that just 40 percent of respondents regard college as a sound investment.

Still, it's clear that a new sort of arms race grips higher education -- an ever-escalating spiral of test scores and fee increases, ambitious capital programs and student loan woes -- that can't help but color decisions that are complex and non-definitive. By "non-definitive," I mean simply that there's no one answer for every student, no one perfect college or university, just as there is no one perfect life partner.

As the annual college application ritual gathers momentum, I've been reflecting on a framework for that process, informed by some fundamental truths from my experience at Woodbury University and a number of other educational institutions.

Four short years ago, our third child embarked on the college-vetting journey, and we stood with her as she encountered the many signposts. We did the same drill as every other family: scrutinize the USNews rankings. Make a list and whittle it down. Assess academic quality. Investigate social life. Visit the campuses, take the tours, hear the spiel. As she applied and came to understand what she was really looking for, we wondered how secure and safe she would be. And whether the colleges under consideration had labeled the goods accurately.

My message to our peer institutions -- formulated as a dad who is more a witness to the process than an actor in it -- is really a lament that universities too often elevate glitz over goodness. Campuses opt for gold-plating for reasons that are both understandable and unsustainable. We all want our schools to show well. Parents make the decision at the front gate (never underestimate the power of curb appeal). Colleges want to attract students who can help sustain the institution's financial stability, and that frequently involves showing off marginal -- but admittedly attractive -- assets.

As parents, how do we measure the library against the Olympic-size pool? As administrators, how do we parse the message we're sending that sports have parity with science? How should we feel when a school decides to invest heavily in the NAIA -- or has aspirations to move into NCAA Division II or even Division I? From a fundraising POV, the competition isn't in the arena -- it's between academics and athletics.

Make no mistake; with a few notable exceptions, the academic core is affected when these choices are made. Not to single out sports, but the common response is that "external funds cover it" -- fundraising that could very well support academic pursuits. This is where the interests of parents and universities tend to diverge.

In my view, the so-called arms race distracts -- if not detracts -- from the educational mission. It does so by siphoning both resources and focus, and it paints a less-than-comprehensive picture of the institution beneath the shiny veneer. It's no surprise, then, that families -- read: prospective students -- often make decisions based on incomplete information.

So here's a bit of caveat emptor to parents, from the perspective of my day job: In a great many cases, a school's USNews ranking is where it is for reasons that will never touch your student. This isn't so much a matter of gold-plating a campus as in gilding the wrong thing. Put another way, 12th graders (and their parents) ought not to judge institutions based on reputations that were really earned at the graduate level.

It boils down to research vs. teaching. Both have enormous value, but not in equal measure for every student or every family. In higher education, there's a fiscal infrastructure supporting the doctorate-granting institution that simply isn't there at colleges and universities whose primary mission is teaching.

So let's say that as a parent, you're not really smitten by the Hilton-like dorms or the shiny, happy dining hall. You've got your eye on the right prize. The deeper question is, how well is the institution likely to serve your child's needs? And, bottom line, what are you really paying for?

There are two sacred cows in higher education -- tenure and departmentalization -- and they need to be unbundled. The way many universities are organized turns out to be a disincentive for faculty to work across disciplines. Discouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration is the very opposite of what we -- colleges and students alike -- need right now, when barriers between disciplines are likely to have real consequences after graduation.

Similarly, tenure -- a sure sign that the emphasis is squarely on the research mission -- does precious little for undergraduates. At research institutions, undergrads aren't taught by top flight professors, but by T.A.s in large lecture halls. There's no close student/faculty interaction, which is what recent high school grads need most. Meanwhile, those top scholars are, respectfully, living in a parallel universe -- they're wooed and incentivized, offered endowed chairs and reduced teaching loads and higher salaries. All of that raises the cost of educating students. And while this elite status does serve the larger educational mission, one could argue that it's its own form of gold-plating.

In institutions like ours, we strive for gainful employment of our graduates. I believe firmly that colleges and universities need to be evaluated on the ROI, the return on investment, of the education they provide. Indeed, one of our key performance indicators is "college ROI" from PayScale Magazine. I acknowledge that not all university presidents subscribe to this ideal, and that traditional liberal arts colleges aren't necessarily enamored of this approach. But ROI is a metric that's especially relevant to our students, who embrace applied, professional education.

Big power arms races tended to end by one side effectively bankrupting the other. My hope -- as a parent and a university president -- is that the arms race in higher ed will diminish when everyone realizes that gold-plating is merely skin deep.

Luís María R. Calingo, Ph.D, is president of Woodbury University (www.woodbury.edu) in Los Angeles and author of the blog Reflections on Excellence.