Governors Can Design Higher Education for the Future
I’m not sure about your state, but here in Louisiana we are in the process of transitioning to a new governor. This month, John Bel Edwards replaces Bobby Jindal as the state leader. Although I’m not a politician, I still like to give advice to those in office—even if they don’t listen.
If there’s one thing I know about (other than the physics of Star Wars), it’s higher education. Here are some key points to consider as governor of a state (this should apply to all states).
Short Term vs. Long Term Gain
Everyone wants things to get better—right now. But that’s not always the best plan. Consider a human that wants to get better at some sport. Sometimes these humans might resort to steroids and other performance enhancing drugs to be more competitive—and sometimes this works. However, this short term gain can have long term consequences. Performance enhancing drugs can have long term effects that aren’t so useful. Taking PED might get what you want, but you pay for it later.
The same is true for higher education. You want to make a better university system. Maybe you want higher graduation rates—that would look good, right? Well, getting higher graduation rates is pretty easy. Just give everyone easy grades. Simple solution, right? Wrong. In the long term, you end up with a degraded university system that really doesn’t provide students with essential learning opportunities.
Why Do We Go to College?
Whenever you make decisions regarding higher education, you have to think about the role of the university. What does it do? Why do students go to college? I think the best answer to this question is that a university is a community of learners. Both the faculty and the students are the learners. This means that research and teaching are both essential functions of a university.
This might sound weird—but you can’t have productive university research unless you sort of leave it alone. The best fundamental research is not research with a particular outcome, but it is pure and basic research. You can’t say “all university research must have industrial ties.” If you do, you are limiting new research that hasn’t even found a function in the “real world.” Better yet is just sit back and see what grows out of the universities. Oh sure, this can be frustrating since sometimes stuff will turn out to be useless. But you never know when the next superconductor or antibiotic will be discovered.
You Can’t Make a Worker-Producing Factory
On the learning side of the university’s role, we have students. The expectation is that a great university will produce students that are ready for the work force. Better universities means better workers, right? I think that is actually true—but it’s not so simple. What if you said something similar for football:
Heavier players make a better offensive line.
Again, this is mostly true but it misses the point. There is a correlation between heavy players and performance, but heavy is not the cause of their performance. The same is true for universities. You can’t turn the university in a worker factory to make it better any more than you can make a better offensive line by over feeding the players.
If you do think that worker training is a good idea, then isn’t this just a shorter path to having robots replace all of our jobs? If a human can be “trained” for a job in 4 years, couldn’t a robot be programmed to do a similar thing? Oh sure, there are some jobs that would be difficult—but what about the countless jobs that could be robotified? Instead, we should have humans spend their time learning to be better humans, not better workers.
Performance-Based Funding is Just a Bad Idea
Better universities should get more funding, right? That’s the best way to motivate these underperforming schools—threaten them with lower funding. So, if you have a low performing institution—wouldn’t that institution just get worse with lower funding? That’s what I would guess. On top of that, when you come up with these performance metrics (like graduation rates), it forces the administration to get higher graduation rates and not make a better learning environment.
It’s like I said before, there are three things you could want from a university:
- High academic standards
- High graduation rate
- The university is accessible to all people
You can’t have all three of these things. At best, you can have two. If you want high standards and high graduation rates, you can’t let all the students get a chance.
But those are just my own thoughts on higher education. If you are a governor and you want some more ideas, just give me a call. I will be happy to help.