AMERICAN education was once the best in the world. But today, our private and public universities are losing their competitive edge to foreign institutions, they are losing the advertising wars to for-profit colleges and they are losing control over their own admissions because of an ill-conceived ranking system. With the recession causing big state budget cuts, the situation in higher education has turned critical. Here are a few radical ideas to improve matters:
Raise the age of compulsory education. Twenty-six states require children to attend school until age 16, the rest until 17 or 18, but we should ensure that all children stay in school until age 19. Simply completing high school no longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the 21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary education.
The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better. Just as we are moving toward a longer school day (where is it written that learning should end at 3 p.m.?) and a longer school year (does anyone really believe pupils need a three-month summer vacation?), so we should move to a longer school career.
President Obama recently embraced the possibility of extending public education for a year after high school: “I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.” He suggested that this compulsory post-secondary education could be in a “community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” (I helped start an accredited online school of education, and firmly believe that the coursework could also be delivered to students online.)
If the federal government ultimately pays for the extra year, it would be a turning point at least as important as the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act that gave rise to the state universities or the 1944 G.I. Bill that made college affordable to our returning service personnel after World War II. Every college trustee should be insisting that we make the president’s dream a reality.
And for those who graduate from high school early: they would receive, each year until they turn 19, a scholarship equal to their state’s per pupil spending. In New York, that could be nearly $15,000 per year. This proposal — which already has been tried in a few states — has the neat side effect of encouraging quick learners to graduate early and free up seats in our overcrowded high schools.
Use high-pressure sales tactics to curb truancy. Casual truancy is epidemic; in many cities, including New York, roughly 30 percent of public school students are absent a total of a month each year. Not surprisingly, truants become dropouts.
But truant officers can borrow a page from salesmen, who have developed high-pressure tactics so effective they can overwhelm the consumer’s will. Making repeated home visits and early morning phone calls, securing written commitments and eliciting oral commitments in front of witnesses might be egregious tactics when used by, say, a credit card company. But these could be valuable ways to compel parents to ensure that their children go to school every day.
Advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment. The University of Phoenix, a private, for-profit institution, spent $278 million on advertising, most of it online, in 2007. It was one of the principal sponsors of Super Bowl XLII, which was held at University of Phoenix Stadium (not bad for an institution that doesn’t even have a football team). The University of Phoenix’s enrollment has clearly benefited from its advertising budget: with more than 350,000 students, its enrollment is surpassed by only a few state universities.
The University of Phoenix and other for profits have also established a crucial niche recruiting and serving older students. Traditional colleges need to do far better, using advertising to attract paying older students and to recruit the more than 70 percent of the population who lack a post-secondary degree. They have a built-in advantage, since attending a for-profit college instead of a more prestigious, less expensive public college makes no more sense than buying bottled water when the tap water tastes just as good.
Unseal college accreditation reports so that the Department of Education can take over the business of ranking colleges and universities. Accreditation reports — rigorous evaluations, prepared by representatives of peer institutions — include everything students need to know when making decisions about schools, yet the specifics of most reports remain secret.
Instead, students and their parents rely on U.S. News & World Report rankings that are skewed by colleges, which contort their marketing efforts to maximize the number of applicants whom they already know they will never accept, just to improve their selectivity rankings. Meanwhile, private counselors charge thousands of dollars claiming to know the “secret” of admissions. Aspiring entrants submit far too many applications in the hope of beating the odds. Everyone loses. Opening the accreditation reports to the public would provide a better way.
The biggest improvement we can make in higher education is to produce more qualified applicants. Half of the freshmen at community colleges and a third of freshmen at four-year colleges matriculate with academic skills in at least one subject too weak to allow them to do college work. Unsurprisingly, the average college graduation rates even at four-year institutions are less than 60 percent.
The story at the graduate level is entirely predictable: in 2007, more than a third of all research doctorates were awarded to foreigners, and the proportion is far higher in the hard sciences. The problem goes well beyond the fact that both our public schools and undergraduate institutions need to do a better job preparing their students: too many parents are failing to insure that their children are educated.
President Obama has again led the way: “As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.” Better teachers, smaller classes and more modern schools are all part of the solution. But improving parenting skills and providing struggling parents with assistance are part of the solution too.
At a time when it seems we have ever fewer globally competitive industries, American higher education is a brand worth preserving.
By HAROLD O. LEVY, http://www.nytimes.com
Harold O. Levy, the New York City schools chancellor from 2000 to 2002, has been a trustee of several colleges.