Colleges need to put students first

It's time for a new college compact that puts teaching and learning first. Here are three ways to make that happen.

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For parents and high school graduates, one of the biggest decisions they will ever make is where to attend college – a must in today’s economy. And the competition among schools for students is stiff. Some build new student unions, X-Games-style climbing walls, and state-of-the-art dorms. They advertise during college football games and on subway platforms. Colleges want you, your tuition dollars, your loans and your grants—but will they actually teach you?

It’s time for a new college compact that puts students first.
Two out of every five full-time freshmen who start a four-year degree never finish. These students will likely spend tens of thousands of dollars without earning a degree, incur debt that is guaranteed by the government and learn little that’s applicable to a future career. They will start their working life in a hole.

When a young person fails to complete high school, we always blame the schools for their failure. But when they fail to complete college, we blame the students. We say they weren’t prepared, couldn’t handle being on their own, or had financial pressures that drove them from school.

It’s time to flip the switch.

There is much to like about America’s colleges and universities, many of which are the best in the world and conduct some of the most important research that helps our economy grow. But there’s also much to improve upon, particularly from the perspective of their true customers, who appear to be an afterthought: students.

The system is no longer serving the best interests of students or their families, and the time has come to propose a new compact with America’s colleges to restore the promise of higher education:

  1. Reprioritize teaching and student learning.

The problem starts with the fact that too many professors have never been taught how to teach. Surveys of more than 3,500 faculty members at the University of Florida System, for example, found that 80 percent had never taken a class on instruction. This lack of training is fueled by the incentives laid out by Washington, which emphasize research at the expense of teaching. For every $100 the federal government spends on research grants, it spends just 24 cents on teaching grants. That’s $33 billion against $79 million. It’s no wonder that tenure decisions are increasingly based on publications and research prowess. Research is good. Research is essential. But let’s not forget that our students need professors who can teach.

Unsurprisingly, the result is that students aren’t learning. A study of some 2,300 students at 24 schools across the country found that 45 percent exhibited no gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing over two years in school. Add that to the fact that only 39 percent of students graduate with a bachelor’s in four years, and the magnitude of the problem is clear.

By 2020, every school that accepts federal aid dollars should have in place a plan to train professors to teach, as well as to evaluate student learning. This should not be a top-down system dictated by Washington, but one designed by frontline stakeholders, and tailored to each school’s respective mission. And the federal government should help schools to achieve this by mandating that at least 1 percent of federal grants to universities go towards investments in teacher training and learning innovations—to rebalance the scales between research and instruction.

  1. Right to know law for college consumers.

Another problem is that federal law bars prospective students from accessing important data on the income and employment outcomes of graduates—which are collected but not publicly available. The result is that prospective students don’t have the tools to choose a quality school. So while an aspiring engineer can’t see which schools produce the highest-paid, highest-employed engineers, she can still find out which schools have “lots of beer.”

Congress should rescind the law blocking access to data on student outcomes, so students aren’t left in the dark when choosing a college.

  1. Restructure federal financing to protect students.

Unfortunately, the government’s response to these problems has been to continue its no-strings-attached approach of pumping $126 billion per year into student aid. Not only does this leave schools unaccountable, but it actually contributes to rising tuition costs by subsidizing the perk wars raging across college campuses.

The federal government must clamp the brakes on spending by capping Parent PLUS loans. This will work to end the cycle of rising costs and debt and disallow schools from being able to continuously pass price hikes onto the student body. And colleges should also be held accountable for not only high default rates but also for high percentages of students who are failing to make their monthly loan payments.

A college degree remains the most important vehicle for middle class attainment. But the quality crisis in higher education is draining the economy and chipping away at the American dream. A new compact with American colleges is essential if we hope to foster a new era of middle class prosperity.

Kenneth Megan is the Fellow for the Economic Program at the centrist think tank Third Way.

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