I know, I know. We live in an age of political gridlock, partisan polarization, diminished expectations, and cynicism about once respected institutions. But what if? What if, as a country, we gave ourselves a good talking to and resolved to do better? How could higher education (public and private) collaborate with government on game-changing reforms? Let’s dream a bit….
Require National Service between High School and College. Lord knows there is plenty of work to be done by young and energetic citizens. Not just infrastructure projects, but elder care, tutoring elementary school kids, environmental restoration, and much more. Significant advantages:
Important work would get done, and the young people doing the work would get some training and some income, which they could save, for further education.
Young people from different regions, races, religions, economic and social backgrounds, and cultures would work together during their formative years to develop basic competencies, self-confidence, and an appreciation of the cultural variations that make our country unique. Maybe we could begin to knit up the ravel’d sleeve of civic duty and mutual respect.
Young people would have time to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Some might even find a lifetime vocation.
If further education is essential to their plans, they will embark on it with a clearer sense of purpose and stronger commitment.
They will be more mature. Colleges will need to spend less time and energy and fewer resources on student development and support services and can focus more resources on meeting students’ educational goals. This would represent a major adjustment on many fronts: fewer traditional dorms and dining halls; less energy expended on alcohol and drug policies and enforcement; more emphasis on teaching adult learners.
2. Eliminate Intercollegiate Athletics. There is a case to be made for the educational value of athletic participation – just as there is for participation in other extra-curricular activities. But that case is nowhere near strong enough to justify the exorbitant costs – financial, moral, academic, and reputational -- of intercollegiate athletic programs as they currently run amok. Robust intracollegiate athletic programs would provide most of the benefits at a fraction of the cost, and without the squalid influence of big money. Why should resources be diverted from their educational missions by participation in the money-driven sports-industrial complex?
3. Add Three Competency Requirements to the Curriculum. These won’t require students to take courses if they can demonstrate that they have already acquired these competencies; but we should ensure that they have at least minimal knowledge of these skill sets before we unleash them on the world:
Every student must know the basics of a skilled trade such as plumbing, carpentry, or electrical work. Not a shop class, but a competency requirement. Citizens need to know how the systems we depend on work. It would also help them respect those who are masters of these trades when they deal with them throughout life.
Every student must master the basics of personal finance.
Every student must have a functioning knowledge of technology.
Of course, now that I’ve opened the door to a discussion of required courses, feel free to jump in with all the other things we should require, such as environmental awareness, social justice issues, the Western Canon, etc. These are the debates that eat up huge quantities of faculty time and passion. Maybe we could just agree on my three suggestions before going on to the others? If not, then I’m going to throw in a functioning knowledge of Homeric Epic as a requirement right now.
4. Make all financial aid need-based. Private colleges and universities should eliminate merit aid. Public colleges and universities should set tuition and fees on a means-tested basis. State and federal support for higher education should be restricted to means-tested financial aid, so that taxpayers are no longer subsidizing the education of those whose families can afford to pay full freight.
5. Create one national standard for measuring the effectiveness of educational institutions. And here is how it would work: the IRS will add two questions to the annual tax return:
The data thus generated would allow statisticians to wallow in statistics, cross-tabulating educational satisfaction with age, income, profession, and a plethora of other criteria. Any institution that scores less than 50% on the second question will lose federal aid. Any institution that scores less than 40% might lose its accreditation.
That’s it. Five easy steps. You agree with them all, right?