Study Expects More Productivity from Higher Ed

Miller Center report on higher ed is business as usual with a twist — calls for increased productivity and low-cost approaches to delivering education.

A new report by the National Commission on Financing 21st Century Education, an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, contains some pleasant surprises.

I was expecting the worst: a call for mo’ money from the federal government, state government, and probably the private sector, too. You know the logic: There’s no problem in higher ed that more resources won’t fix.

Indeed, the executive summary of “Investing in the Future: Sharing Responsibility for Higher Education Attainment” unfolded largely as expected in the first two of nine recommendations:

  • Increase federal and institutional support. Mo’ money!
  • Enhance state revenue to support higher education. Even mo’ money!

Then, lo and behold, I came to Recommendation Three: “Stimulate the development and implementation of low cost education delivery models.” That sounded promising. Lower cost models are exactly what higher ed needs. The report elaborates:

New approaches alter or supplement the traditional approach in one or more of the following ways:

• They eliminate the uniform pace of learning and replace it with individually paced instruction.

• They provide alternatives to classroom-based instruction.

• They offer opportunities to work and apply skills while learning.

• They award credentials based on students acquiring and demonstrating specific skills rather than completing a set number of credits. In addition, some new models use data analytics to design support tactics to help students successfully navigate and complete their education.

Recommendation Four was even more encouraging: “Encourage productivity in the postsecondary system.” You don’t often hear the word “productivity” uttered in association with the words “higher ed.”

“Higher education productivity” refers to the number of degrees conferred per dollar of spending. The Commission believes that most public institutions can improve their productivity and graduate more students while lowering or holding steady the cost per degree. We think that a reasonable goal for most colleges and universities is to increase productivity by at least 1.5 percent per year over the next decade to yield an average annual savings of $5 million from all public institutions between 2017 and 2025.

Specifically, states should (1) reward colleges and universities that increase productivity; (2) negotiate tailored productivity agreements with individual colleges and universities, and (3) provide competitive grants to institutions to help them build data systems that track student readiness and performance.

Recommendation Five recommended creating incentives for students to graduate on time. One common sense idea was to reform financial aid policies to enable students to take courses in the summer.

There’s more to the report, mostly suggestions on how to find more money and how to help low-income kids. All told, it’s thin gruel for those who, like me, regard higher education as an institution geared to exploit America’s middle class. While many of the report’s ideas are worthwhile, college and universities have little reason to implement them. It’s much easier to pass on higher costs than transform the organizational culture. Still, the study does make clear that there are alternatives to Business As Usual.

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8 responses to “Study Expects More Productivity from Higher Ed”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    ” Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the incoming chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the government has made it too easy for students and their parents to borrow too much, in turn driving up prices.”

    this is sort of a “duh” observation – but give Ms. Foxx credit – she’s smarter than the average parent and offspring apparently.

    It ought not be such a revelation as Ms. Foxx also says this:

    “I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money. He borrowed a little bit because we both were totally on our own when we went to college, totally. […] I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have it dumped in your lap”

    Now Ms. Foxx is viewed as an enemy of higher ed on the left – who love the free money for all but folks who claim they are Conservatives here in BR also want those college loans SUBSIDIES and not satisfied with violating one Conservative “belief” as they then double down and demand that the same govt who gives free money to anyone who says “education” – that same govt to “force” colleges to be subjected to govt-imposed price controls.

    In other words all that talk about “Conservative” is just blather when it comes to something they want – bring on the government – the same kind that liberals bleat about.

  2. Conservatives here in BR also want those college loans SUBSIDIES

    What on earth are you talking about? Which conservatives on this blog support college loan subsidies?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      they support College loans which ARE subsidized by taxpayers!

      How many Conservatives have advocated for the govt to get out of the Student loan business and let the private sector handle it?

      how about ZERO here in BR?

  3. I don’t have a huge problem with gov’t giving student loans (although I would happy to see them privatized). My problem is gov’t handing out student loans like candy — indiscriminately, with little thought to whether students will have the capacity to repay the debt. And now we’re seeing the consequence of that indiscriminate lending — indiscriminate loan forgiveness.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I have a BIG problem with the govt giving out student loans – BECAUSE – once they do – there is no way to control whether or not they are ” handing out student loans like candy — indiscriminately, with little thought to whether students will have the capacity to repay the debt.”

    worse than that they are having the very effect that folks here in BR decry – increasing tuition costs.

    this is what happens when you subsidize something – and where are the small-govt “conservatives” on this issue in BR?

    all I hear is blame on the schools and cries that the govt should control their prices… blasphemy!!!

    cut the loans and the price of tuition will come down.

    Virginia Foxx is a hard-core NC “conservative” who not only has it right – she’s willing to stand on her principles .UNLIKE most of what I’m hearing from folks who are OBVIOUSLY … FAUX Conservatives.

    They want those govt goodies.. no question about it.. but many of them argue against “goodies” for others and especially those on a lower economic tier – because those folks are “wasting” those goodies..

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Productivity! This is one of the better paths forward – it has to be possible to get the students out the door with a degree in less time, with less fuss and feathers. Productivity is apparently a word that causes shudders in faculty circles, but they are selling a product and they are mostly at the point of elastic demand.

    Yes, for the students who can pay (or who are dumb enough to take on the debt) college can be the whole four-year package with all the glorious living with the modern dorms and the gourmet food plans and fitness centers and Division 1 glory, but there needs to be a way to just pay for the classroom, the prof, the labs, and skip all that other secondary stuff.

    The government loans are not subsidizing the STUDENTS. They are subsidizing the institutions….I am actually a whole lot more comfortable with the taxpayer providing grants and free rides to the best-prepared low income students than I am with providing loans to middle and upper class families who are merely cost shifting. THAT is the practice that has allowed the mission bloat that is a large part of the cost rise.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Geeze Steve – I could not have said it better myself!

    Bacon would argue the opposite that loans for low income is throwing money away on someone who likely won’t finish and end up in debt then renege on the debt…

    In the meantime – we spend money on remediation of middle income to get them up to speed to pass.. but if we spend money on low income to do that – we’re giving them undeserved entitlements!

  7. I think the Miller Center should have been bolder. Costs and cost shifting are out of control in higher education and government loans help subsidize it. The cost shifting makes undergraduates pay for many things that have little to do with the base educational mission. It is well know that undergraduates have to subsidize college athletics. JMU, for instance, had the second largest athletic deficit (before student fees) in the country according to a recent report. They charge $1,331 per student to make up this deficit.

    Unfortunately, this is far from the end of the cost shifting. At the University of Virginia, for instance $122M in research was funded with “Institutional Funds” in 2015 according to the NSF.
    Institutional funds are internal (vs external sources like NIH grants).
    That is about $5,500 per student per year that goes to subsidize research (and away from education)! Most of this money comes from unrestricted funds, which are typically tuition and state funds (and most universities put most of this bill on undergraduates). To carry this further then, undergraduates are going into debt to cover this subsidy of research, and student loans are subsidizing this debt. (see ).

    I do not think there should be any state subsidy for the type of uses above and it should be excluded from any sort of federally subsidized loans or grants totals. This would go a long way to controlling the spiraling cost of education. I have no doubt that the Bennett Hypothesis is correct and that increases in financial aid spending is enabling the huge increases in college costs, making it less affordable, which is a perverse effect. Financial aid should be focused on the truly needed, an should exclude costs like the ones above that are outside of the core educational mission.

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