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How Competition Is Killing Higher Education

By Mark C. Taylor
May 17, 2012 7:02 PM EDT
Illustration by Keith Shore
Illustration by Keith Shore

Competition, we are constantly told, encourages individuals, institutions and companies to take the risks necessary for innovation and efficiency. But in higher education, competition often discourages risk taking, leads to overly cautious short-term decisions, produces a mediocre product for the price, and promotes excessive spending on physical plants and bureaucracies.

The construction arms race on campus is the most visible example of competition run amok. To become more attractive to potential consumers, many colleges and universities undertake overly ambitious expansions. In some cases, new facilities contribute to educational programs, but too often they are tangential and trap institutions in a costly cycle: The new athletic center, dorm or student center starts to look faded when competing schools open theirs, and it never ends.

It’s about “keeping up with the Joneses,” an official at Wright State University said in a Dayton Daily News article last fall detailing why colleges in Ohio were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on student centers and other nonacademic attractions in a down economy. In Georgia, state legislators are reviewing questionable practices used to fund 173 projects to build student housing, parking garages, stadiums and recreation centers.

Private universities with large endowments often start the cycle. Schools such as Harvard University and New York University, for example, take on billion-dollar debts. In a trickle-down effect, less affluent schools also feel pressure to borrow and spend -- money they do not have.

Gaming the System

This is not the only cause of financial difficulties, but it makes them worse. Richard Kneedler, who was president of Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania for 14 years, estimated in 2009 that an astonishing two-thirds of the 700 private colleges he studied were at risk of financial failure.

Obsession with school rankings is another way that competition has warped higher education in the past few decades. College presidents, administrators and professors dismiss the importance of the U.S. News and World Report survey and other ratings, but they are always looking for ways to gain advantage.

I’ll give an example from Williams College, where I taught for 37 years. A decade ago, the new president conducted a review of the school’s tutorial program, which was modeled on one at the University of Oxford. The tutorials consisted of eight to 10 students who met with a professor weekly in groups of two to three to discuss papers they had written. The new administration opted to expand the tutorials -- a choice based on more than academics.

Williams had dropped from first to third in the U.S. News rankings, a matter of concern on campus and among alumni. One way the school could reclaim its top position was by reducing overall class size and decreasing the faculty-student ratio. When the faculty voted to increase the number of tutorials, the administration changed its accounting system without announcing it. A tutorial consisting of 10 students, for example, that met three times in groups of three or four counted as three classes. Maybe it was a coincidence, but within a couple of years Williams was again No. 1 on the U.S. News list.

Doctoral Degree Glut

Graduate schools also try to game the ratings system, and their competition is global. Every year, leading research universities anxiously await the Academic Ranking of World Universities, the World’s Best Universities: Top 400 and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

These lists affect the recruitment of top students and the level of financial support. Schools engage in bidding wars for so-called star faculty who are supposed to bring prestige to graduate programs and help attract lucrative private and government grants.

Second- and third-tier universities often create unneeded doctoral programs to become eligible for additional federal support and to increase their global profile. For example, the University of North Texas has 36,000 students and advertises itself as “a student-focused public research university” offering “97 bachelor’s, 82 master’s and 35 doctoral degree programs.”

Even this is not enough. Although severe budget shortfalls have led to cuts of as much as 90 percent for some programs, the university is adding new doctoral programs in a quest for the elusive top-tier status. This makes no educational sense and violates basic market principles. If successful, the University of North Texas will join too many other schools that are spending large amounts for unneeded programs that turn out products -- doctoral graduates -- for which the supply far outweighs the demand. This is a national issue, as pointed out in an article this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

While overestimating the value of competition can lead to less, not more, innovation, underestimating the value of cooperation tends to discourage the exploration of possibilities for creative interaction. With escalating costs, limited resources and growing political concern about student debt, institutions should be developing innovative ways to cooperate that will prove to be mutually beneficial, in the same way that companies merge and become more efficient.

In the past, cooperative arrangements were limited to schools near each other, but teleconferencing, Skype and the Internet have exponentially expanded opportunities for interaction. Universities can no longer afford to teach every subject that students think they need to study.

Fiscal conservatives who typically extol competition see its insane effects in higher education. John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, wonders why all public universities in his state have to offer every major. “It’s not just inefficiencies,” he says. “It’s, ‘I want to be the best in this.’ It’s duplication of resources.”

Outsource Some Subjects

Some subjects can be outsourced; for example, let one college have a strong French department and another a strong German department. In other cases, costs can be shared by splitting a faculty member’s time between two or more institutions, physically and virtually. For the first half of the semester, what is taught at one college can be remotely transmitted to another, and for the second half of the term this process can be reversed. Faculty members would no longer be affiliated with a single college or university and would be required to become much more mobile.

To consolidate resources without jeopardizing the quality of research and teaching, universities should form consortiums to share faculty. The most effective organizational structure would be to have a core faculty of select members of the home department and from departments at participating institutions, which could be supplemented by colleagues in the undergraduate programs at related universities. Qualified faculty members would participate on a rotating basis, and courses would not be limited to offerings by resident professors but would include lectures and seminars conducted remotely. With more faculty members from different institutions involved, the quality of education would probably improve.

In every complex system -- be it educational, economic, political, social or biological -- competition and cooperation must be effectively balanced. When competition becomes excessive, it becomes counterproductive.

The recent announcement that Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are cooperating to offer free online courses is a promising development. Much more needs to be done. In coming articles, I will describe how overspecialization renders much undergraduate schooling irrelevant, and how globalization and online education provide opportunities for rethinking higher education.

(Mark C. Taylor is chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University, professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Williams College. His recent books are “Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities” and “Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy.” The opinions expressed are his own. This is the first of three articles on how online learning will challenge the status quo in higher education. Read Part 2.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

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To contact the writer of this article: Mark C. Taylor at mct22@columbia.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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