09/10/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Would You Change at the University?

Governor Jerry Brown wants California's colleges and universities to do a better job getting students to graduation, and he wants it done without spending more. To entice college leaders along this efficiency path the governor has taken the unusual tack of offering one-time prize money to colleges for the best innovations implemented this year. A total of $50 million has been allocated, with each award expected to be worth at least $2.5 million.

InsideHigherEd has linked the innovation prize to the governor's failed effort last year to push MOOCs on the state's universities. Perhaps that is its genesis. But while "innovation" is frequently assumed to involve technology (and technology is usually assumed to mean using computers to self-administer learning), the parameters of this contest are decidedly broad: more bachelor's degrees or more transfers without spending more to get there. At California Competes we have been gathering specific ideas that might be prize-worthy and we have been posting the ideas on our Facebook page for reaction and discussion.

The edgiest idea so far, having University of California faculty members occasionally teach heavier loads, is not likely to be adopted. As the University of Michigan's Susan Dynarski pointed out, people like her would poach renowned faculty from any UC campus that imposed a more robust teaching expectation. This is a longstanding dilemma: the 1960 Master Plan emphasized the importance of developing teacher-scholars rather than just researchers, declaring it "difficult to think of any profession in which the problem of quality maintenance is as important as it is in the college teaching profession." But the problem has gone unaddressed. (Is the solution an antitrust exemption allowing elite universities to conspire to implement reforms aimed at improving teaching without risking loss of faculty?)

One strategy for winning the contest--a bad idea that nonetheless meets the technical criteria--would be to dramatically increase class sizes and hire highly entertaining instructors who give lots of A's. But of course that would not engender the type of learning that we need from our universities and community colleges. That's why we have suggested that the prize committee ask applicants to discuss the potential risks and tradeoffs involved in any particular policy they are implementing. Hopefully that will prompt them to go beyond just counting degrees in presenting their innovations.

Which brings me to the most recent example that we posted of a possibly prize-worthy innovation. One of the targets of Governor Brown's frustration has been the low four-year graduation rates at the 23-campus, 446,000-student California State University system (no, UC is not the state's major four-year public university system). The Northridge campus has implemented a project to push out seniors who have accumulated far more units than they need to graduate. Reformers tend to portray this type of effort as a win-win, and by the prize rules it would be: more degrees, no added cost. But that depiction ignores the intrinsic value of the education itself. Students who want stay in school longer so they can double-major, or because they feel like they are developing academic or leadership skills, are gaining something; they are learning more. That doesn't mean the reform is unworthy of a prize, it just acknowledges that most change efforts involve balancing interests. The question is when a campus should move a super senior to the end of the line so that others can get in the door. Asking colleges to discuss the risks and trade-offs of their innovations helps us all to see that our task is not about limiting education but instead rationing the subsidies.

If you were in charge, what would you do to improve outcomes at California's universities and community colleges? Whether your idea is Pareto optimal or not, send it our way (