07/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Higher Education Should Maximize Service, Not Status

We're at the end of another academic year. Lots of commencement speakers are giving graduates advice (ho-hum) in this difficult time. But it's the institutions themselves who need advice: Wake up! The place of higher education in the social fabric has changed, and so have your responsibilities.

Here's the new definition of prestige: an institution that serves the people of its state or region carefully at a price all of them can afford. Now, make that part of the definition of 'elite'."

Change is in the future for higher education. It has to be if we're going to meet this country's economic needs. Almost weekly, President Obama continues to emphasize the importance of postsecondary education to the nation's future. The federal government is living up to its commitment. Colleges and universities have to step up.

One of the biggest changes on the horizon is that public institutions are being asked to focus on maximizing service, rather than status. That is a big shift. And it won't be easy. The need to educate more people at lower cost is bumping up against the effort to restore the economic integrity of the nation. But in the long run the two are closely related.

Purpose, tools, leverage, and intestinal fortitude are needed in order to initiate significant change, especially among a set of institutions as powerful as colleges and universities. The question is whether any state has within it a group that sees clearly what it wants to do, has the tools to get it done, can muster social and political support to sustain the effort and has the courage to "put it on the line" in order to succeed. Let's start with three key goals:

We need to pay colleges and universities for student completion rather than for enrollment and attendance.

We need to ensure that students learn what they need to know and be able to do: that their studies prepare them for useful work and participation in their communities.

We recognize that state and federal support for postsecondary education is not sufficient to permit colleges and universities to spend as much money per credential as they do now. We need to reduce the unit cost of program completion.

None of those goals will be achieved if colleges and universities keep doing business the way they have. For decades, budgets have been primarily enrollment-driven: colleges and universities are appropriated funds based on the number of students enrolled, not on the number of students who complete their coursework. If a state wants more completers, and our economy needs more completers, the state should pay its institutions of higher education for completion rather than simply for enrollment.

Unfortunately, in the United States, institutions of higher learning, and their presidents, are often rewarded for increasing their status -- becoming more elite -- rather than for increasing the depth and reach of the services they provide. Institutional advocates sometimes will argue that status and service are synonymous, but they are not.

This matters if we're going to achieve our goals of supplying qualified workers for our economy. Much of the workplace need in the decades ahead will be for "middle skill" workers: completers of community college degrees and certificates, and of for-profit institutions that make extensive use of on-line instruction. Like all workers, they will need continuing education to remain current as their responsibilities change. But their post-secondary education can be acquired at institutions that have fewer amenities, and lower costs, than large universities.

That's not the stuff of rankings or prestige, as they now are defined. But it is essential to attaining our nation's goals and ideals.

So, in these trying times, we need to ask: Does anyone in higher education have the courage to act decisively and make these changes?

Doing so requires that the major players be willing to advance suggestions for change that would upset comfortable ways of behaving ("We've always done it that way!" and "No other state does it that way!").

Some ideas, like having high schools teach general education so college can be completed in three years, will be outrageous, at least to some. But without new and even outrageous ideas we're not going to come even close to making the United States the leading nation in educational attainment.

Leadership should not be confused with martyrdom. Radical reform is not synonymous with foolishness. But change is not without risk. Not changing is, however, the biggest risk.