01/11/2011 03:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reforming American Postsecondary Education

Are we about to enter an era of postsecondary education reform comparable to what we've seen in the K-12 arena for almost 30 years?

In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education released perhaps its most famous and widely read report, "A Nation At Risk." Referring to "a rising tide of mediocrity" in America's elementary and secondary school system, "A Nation At Risk" described the stark challenges faced by American elementary and secondary education. The report became an immediate catalyst for the school reform movement of the last 27 years.

That reform movement included initiatives such as education secretary William Bennett's "Wall Chart of State Performance Indicators," the 1989 Charlottesville education summit between President George H.W. Bush and the nations' governors, the subsequent bipartisan national education goals effort that spanned the first Bush and Clinton Administrations, George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act," and now President Obama's "Race to the Top" challenge for state structural reform.

As with many K-12 education reform efforts, change has been hesitant, often rancorous, and has achieved mixed results. Nonetheless, there has been steady progress on standards, accountability, measurements and assessment, and a growing consensus about what our children need to know and how we should measure their achievements as they progress toward high-school graduation.

What is strikingly absent is that throughout this period of K-12 activity, American postsecondary education has received a "pass." Not a passing grade -- just a pass. There has been precious little discussion about what our young people should be learning in their postsecondary education experience.

The typical postsecondary-education debate in Washington and around the country has concerned access and funding. These topics are certainly important, but they have frequently crowded out accountability concerns about the real quality of postsecondary education. More recently, given fresh concerns about how many Americans are obtaining postsecondary degrees, the critical topic of postsecondary completion has emerged as a leading concern of the Obama Administration and several major foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation.

The benign neglect of postsecondary education reform during the last three decades, however, is rapidly changing due to three factors: the escalating cost, the pressures of competition at home and abroad, and the productivity and efficiency prospects offered by the information-technology revolution.

As to cost, a friend told me about his son studying at Cornell. In a father-son discussion a few years ago, the son remarked:

Dad, you are spending $40,000 to $45,000 each year to send me to Cornell, where I sit in a room and have people talk at me. I'm not so sure this is a good use of your money -- or a good use of my time.

When George Washington University in the nation's capital became the first institution of higher education in the United States to charge $50,000 in tuition, fees, room and board, the sticker shock (even if grants and loans cushion that shock) prompted questions concerning the cost, value, and content of such high-priced education.

Competition at home and abroad is also changing dramatically the postsecondary landscape. As costs have escalated at bricks-and-mortar institutions, several new domestic competitors have emerged: Kaplan and Phoenix Universities, DeVry University, and Western Governors University are only a few of the competitive alternatives to the traditional model. These domestic competitors will spark accountability-driven questions about cost and quality. Their growing presence will transform existing delivery systems and business models of postsecondary education -- possibly even reducing college from four years to three.

Some years ago, the Council for Aid to Education began a project to examine the added value of institutions of higher education. For example, do Ivy League institutions really offer their undergraduates an excellent education, or do these schools just select young people who are already smart? Is it possible to measure what higher education adds in terms of the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of its students? These value-added questions are also being pursued by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In recent years, we have begun to see that data relating to college completion suggest that the United States is no longer first in the world when it comes to the number of our young people obtaining postsecondary education and college degrees. If left unaddressed, this trend will reduce our future productivity and economic growth. The rapid growth in postsecondary completion during the last decade among competing economies around the world suggests that we can no longer rest on laurels that may not exist. We have gone from being first to ninth out of 36 nations in terms of educational attainment among 25-to 34-year-olds.

Kauffman Foundation Senior Fellow Ben Wildavsky's new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping The World, describes the growing global competition in higher education, especially in Asia and the Middle East. There is fierce competition for both talented faculty and talented students. Likewise, Europe's Bologna Project is working to harmonize degree standards in ways that will enable credit transfers among postsecondary institutions in several European countries. These trends are most certainly going to continue and will impact postsecondary efforts in the United States.

Finally, when it comes to the impact of the information technology revolution, the Committee for Economic Development released a report in 2009 on The Role of Openness in Changing Higher Education. Technology will increase the pressure to move from a bricks-and-mortar model to a much more productive focus on how education is delivered at every level. It is hugely disappointing that so many college and university presidents are judged more on their skills as fundraisers and endowment enhancers and less on their commitment to academia and intellectual debate. Cost, competition, and technology will, inevitably, change their focus.

America's postsecondary education sector is a vital component of our future economic growth and the health of our democracy. And its ability to transform itself to meet increasingly global competition and new questions of accountability will be a key factor in determining what its future will look like.