President Obama has set the higher education agenda for the remainder of his term by linking consumer fears with politics. There is substance in the president's arguments about sticker price, the squeezing of the American middle class and the failure to provide access to a higher education degree for those who seek it.
The fundamental flaw in the president's argument is, of course, that his "scorecard" will be based upon research data that are often unreliable or nonexistent. American consumers cannot "score" a college or university if the numbers behind the scorecard are bad. It's the same argument that has been used now for a generation -- and justifiably so -- against college ratings groups like U.S. News & World Report.
The underlying tragedy will be that national policymakers and the higher education community will likely be caught up in an acrimonious debate that will only lead ultimately to a standoff. But the rhetoric masks far deeper problems that American higher education must address soon.
If consumer research indicates that sticker prices have hit a ceiling beyond what the American public can tolerate, its colleges and universities must now look at dramatic and sustainable ways to continue to guarantee their existence and relevancy.
The harsh reality is that all but a handful of colleges and universities are heavily tuition-dependent. This leaves them vulnerable to consumer demand, economic downturns and policy reformers who point legitimately to abysmal outcomes as a sector. Compounding this problem is the growing confusion over regulatory control best illustrated by the president's efforts to link federal support to higher education outcomes. What happens when the carrot is turned into a stick?
The debate raises an interesting philosophical question. Is the improvement of outcomes really about policy or does it signal a need to reinvent the way that colleges operate, manage and fund the enterprise?
The cold truth is that few colleges and universities are so well-managed that their operations are tantamount to "machines that run unto themselves." Sticker price ceilings forecast a future of depressed salaries, retrenchment, decreasing innovation, declining support for faculty and eroding services for students.
Within the higher education community, there is a sense that the old methods don't work to meet the educational needs and demands of the 21st century. Shared governance -- that mixes volunteer boards, well-meaning but entrenched faculties and a wide spectrum of consumer preferences impacting families' choices -- produces a stalemate in a leadership vacuum.
What, then, lies ahead?
First, American colleges and universities must recognize that they have reached an inflection point in their evolution. The older financial models are collapsing. Volunteer boards of trustees -- typically filled with well-meaning alumni -- cannot move the agenda because they lack the education, experience and understanding of the pressures facing higher education. At the other extreme, beware of the business-oriented trustee armed with the latest business school case study, business philosophy or human resource redesigns. Leadership must come from within, led by presidents and the senior staff who report to them and faculty leadership who understand the obstacles and potential of what is at stake.
Second, presidents and faculty should seek common ground when looking for ways to hold down costs. A successful strategy begins with the recognition that most colleges and universities are "mom and pop" shops that lack sophistication, innovation and attention to best practices. They are often an amalgamation of "turf" that represents a better subject for criticism than faculty practices where much of the innovation actually rests.
Third, internal reform carries with it a special need to examine opportunity beyond the gates. Shifting practices requires change -- and change is always hard in higher education -- but colleges and universities must immediately develop strategies by which they can compete through cooperation. As administrative leadership, working with faculty, professionalizes key internal economic drivers like admissions, development, athletics, library and computer services, academic support and student services, they must seek cooperative partnerships with other colleges to end the practice of "reinventing the wheel" institution by institution.
What administrative practices can be undertaken in common? What services can be shared? How can a focus on education enhance the ability of faculty to strengthen, increase, diversify and connect program offerings with peer and aspirant institutions?
In doing so, can colleges and universities acting collectively avoid the bureaucratic infrastructure and stalemate that characterizes many public higher education systems and often the federal government itself?
Fourth, higher education must begin a much deeper, ongoing discussion with the ed tech community. If faculty are educational program innovators, a broader dialogue with the ed tech community where new tools already exist or can be developed quickly can change almost overnight the way in which colleges are administered, and critically, depress the costs associated with them.
Higher education may well have reached its next inflection point but there are two very different futures ahead. The first gets America nowhere. The second -- led by courageous presidents, innovative faculty, and best practice senior staff -- addresses the cost crisis collectively.
In the end, isn't it better to solve the problem rather than have the solution imposed upon higher education? The tools are there. Is the leadership up to the task?