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Embracing Complexity

Originally written in September, 2006

We ignore complexity at our peril. Cut corners in the manufacture of O-rings and you have the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster; underestimate the expertise required to mount a major disaster relief effort, and you have post-Katrina New Orleans.

Now the recently drafted Report on the Future of Higher Education (also known as The Spellings Commission Report) proposes a set of one-size-fits-all measures which, if adopted uncritically, could cripple America’s extremely varied and complex system of colleges and universities – a system that, imperfect as it may be, is currently the envy of the world and the engine for America’s economic, scientific, and technological leadership. Alarmingly, Education Department officials seem to be looking for ways to implement these recommendations without congressional approval.

To its credit, the Report makes a compelling case for higher education as an important national priority. It effectively highlights the crisis in higher education affordability, especially for minorities and the poor. It recommends more federal support for need-based financial aid. But it ignores the complexity of American higher education, and fails to appreciate the reasons for and the value of that complexity. By advancing proposals that would homogenize higher education, the Commission missed an opportunity to rally America’s families, policymakers, and educators to the cause of building a stronger, more accessible, more affordable system.

Make no mistake, America’s higher education system is extremely complex. Its more than 4,200 institutions include public, private, for profit, technical, secular, and faith-based institutions with enrollments ranging from fewer than ten students to more than 115,000, four-year graduation rates ranging from less than 1% to more than 97%, costs ranging from a few hundred to more than forty-five thousand dollars per year, and teaching styles ranging from the intimate student-faculty interaction of residential liberal arts colleges to the on-demand (if less personal) on-line programs of the University of Phoenix. Its students are part-time, full-time, traditional (18-22), non-traditional (adult), and graduate and professional with widely varying needs, ambitions, motivations, interests, and abilities. Colleges and universities prepare future engineers, scientists, rabbis, farmers, journalists, bankers, accountants, doctors, nurses, artists, technicians, , dancers, lawyers, and teachers.

America’s system of higher education is complex because the post-secondary educational needs and expectations of our citizens, our society, and our economy are extraordinarily varied. Sadly, by ignoring the system’s variety and the varied needs of its users, the Spellings Commission has produced a report that could inflict Katrina-like harm on our colleges and universities.

The difficulty begins almost immediately with the Report’s assumption that the sole purpose of higher education is workforce development. As the father of a college senior, I am unabashedly in favor of preparing students for the world of work. But the purpose of higher education goes far beyond providing job skills. We also expect our postsecondary institutions to transmit values, develop civic virtue and leadership skills, refine aesthetic awareness, and nurture analytical abilities. Our marvelously complicated system of higher education is currently capable of meeting each of these objectives, depending on the interests, needs, and aptitude of the learner. Admittedly, were higher education to be solely focused on workforce development, it could be much more efficient, dispensing with literature, history, philosophy, religion, music, and other “impractical” fields. On the other hand, this narrow definition assumes that we know what skills the workforce will require and in what relative numbers – not just four years hence, but ten, twenty, and thirty years down the road. Anyone who has observed our economy over the past few decades will find this a highly dubious proposition.

Some of the Commission recommendations flowing from this assumption are simply naïve, promising what cannot be delivered. Others pave the way for intolerable government intrusion into individual privacy and academic freedom. A Department of Education database with extensive personal information on every student was already rejected as unacceptably intrusive by Congress in its recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – a position endorsed in a recent poll by over two-thirds of the American people.[1] The suggestion that institutional accreditation should be the responsibility of government bureaucrats is equally chilling. Standardized testing for all institutions ignores the variety of students’ educational objectives and raises the specter of government control of the curriculum (the power to test is the power to determine what is taught). The elimination of barriers to transfer credits regardless of the nature of institutions would weaken American higher education by insisting on mindless standardization: the equivalent of making the nation’s transportation system “more efficient” by decreeing that all vehicles – trains, automobiles, motorcycles, buses, tractor-trailers, and airplanes – should have interchangeable wheels.

The Report simply ignores too many of the current system’s strengths and assets and discounts too many of its triumphs to represent a helpful contribution to the national dialogue on higher education. In its quest for simple solutions, the Spellings Commission has not only missed an opportunity to send a clear message about the necessity of public support for higher education, but has proposed measures that could substantially weaken a healthy system.

[1] Ipsos Public Affairs poll, July 2006; published in NAICU’s “The Week in Review” vol. Xxv, no. 6