New Book Offers Solutions to the Failure(s) of Higher Education

Published October 18, 2019

Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America, by Richard K. Vedder (Independent Institute, 2019), 416 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1-59813-327-1; $28.95

Richard Vedder is such a giant in education and economics that he was able to persuade 28 colleagues to write detailed prepublication comments about this book. Vedder’s ninth book is written with the verve of one who sees all with the clear vision of youth, and it is the very best book on higher education I’ve ever read.

There is no one as qualified to explain in detail where we are and where we need to go in higher education. Vedder has spent his entire life in academia and is now in his 54th year of teaching economics at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio—a school often called “Harvard on the Hocking” for the river that runs through it.

This book is the best starting place for any reader to understand the ongoing failures of today’s colleges and the ways to begin righting the wrongs. It answers most of the questions on the minds of families facing decisions about college for their children. Why go to college? Is it worth the cost? Will students receive the wisdom that helps make for a successful future?

For the reader with college in the rearview mirror, the book answers the important questions about the system for which they may still be paying off loans. Why do growing endowments not lower tuition costs? Why do so many colleges have an “edifice complex,” a desire for bigger buildings that don’t improve academic achievement? Why have campus diversity programs become such a scandal?

Vedder documents all the elements that have undermined higher education, including poor governance, low teaching loads, and a dysfunctional accreditation system. Political correctness limits academic debate and increases conformity. Reasoned debate is disappearing.

Cost Escalates, Quality Declines

American higher education has lost its way, says Vedder. Costs continue to escalate, there has been a documented decline in both the quality and quantity of the education transmitted, and there is a growing disconnect between educational experience and life prospects. Political agendas are inhibiting intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truth. Students emerge from college with little knowledge of our nation’s history and the achievements of Western civilization.

While growing incomes and wealth have made almost everything else more affordable, it now takes a larger portion of income for most Americans to pay for college than it did a generation ago. Private colleges use little of their endowment money to reduce tuition costs.

The main fault, Vedder tells us, is the vast infusion of government money which allows these institutions to avoid market discipline. Easy money from federally funded loan programs artificially boosts the demand for a college education, which in turn enables institutions to exploit students and creates a money trap for most graduates outside of focused fields such as engineering, technology, accounting, and nursing that teach vocationally useful material.

Gross Inefficiencies

Vedder describes in detail the inefficiency with which most schools operate in the absence of compelling incentives to lower costs and improve. The ratio of administrative employees to faculty has been growing, buildings are empty much of the year, and teaching loads for tenured faculty are shrinking.

At most universities, 25 percent to 40 percent of expenditures aren’t directly related to the academic mission—things such as food services, medical clinics, collegiate athletics, and spa-like amenities. As administrative staffs have soared in size and importance, the faculty has lost its influence in the management of the school and appears to be bribed by lower course loads.

Vedder contrasts nonprofit colleges with profitmaking companies and industries, where the incentives reward efficiency and customer satisfaction and punish failure. He describes the downfall of major corporations that did not incentivize improvement. A study of almost any college shows virtually no such incentives, whether it is to ask the ground crews and janitors to work more quickly or department heads to increase teaching loads and thereby reduce the number of professors.

Wrong Priorities

Universities should give priority to disseminating information rather than creating information through research, says Vedder. Too often the latter takes precedence because it brings in direct funding. What is so striking is how little information universities provide about how much students are learning and any benefits for life after college.

Vedder notes that 40 percent of recent U.S. college graduates are underemployed, filling jobs traditionally done by high-school graduates, casting doubt on the value added by their higher education.

Calls for Innovation

Vedder’s solutions to the problems of tuition price inflation, lack of intellectual diversity, and feeble student gains from a college education are Information, Incentives, and Innovation.

Tying financial incentives for administrators and teachers to performance would help to reduce costs and improve quality. This could be done by rewarding departments or even professors with a share of overall revenue based on student enrollment in their classes.

Vedder writes that “higher education change must be tied at least in part, to innovations—new ways of doing things, with some using new technology, others perhaps utilizing older technologies in heretofore unused manners.”

Vedder’s discussion of online courses is particularly insightful. They are surely useful, Vedder says, but not quite all that proponents hoped for. He says he lectures his classes much as he did 50 years ago and as Socrates did 2,400 years ago.

Education in America is in crisis, both K-12 and college. This book will enlighten you about the problem and solutions as no other can.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior policy analyst for the International Climate Science Coalition.