In its December 17th Editorial on the UC system, the LA Times unintentionally highlighted in one paragraph much of what is wrong with our higher education system: “Colleges and universities across the nation, prompted by ubiquitous rankings based on factors that often have nothing to do with the quality of education, have been engaging in an academic arms race for top managers and star professors, who command big salaries. It's a race that has gone to extremes, and California could indeed choose to drop out of it. But it would do so at a tremendous cost.” In other words, a ranking system, which has little to do with educational quality, is driving the priorities and practices of universities, but since everyone is conforming to this misguided system, the University of California must do the same. Moreover, ranking guides like the U.S. News & World Report Annual College Guide motivate schools to pour money into high-ranking star professors and administrators.
What this editorial does not say is why schools need to compete in the star system in order to achieve the highest rankings. One possible response is that a large part of a school’s rating relies on its perceived reputation by other comparable institutions, and these schools often base their assessment on how a university pays its stars. However, a better explanation is that since universities and colleges are not ranked according to any real assessment of educational quality, there is no incentive for these institutions to put money into instruction, and so they push funds into expensive research and administration.
As I argue in my forthcoming book The Tuition Trap: Why Costs Go Up and Quality Goes Down at American Universities, the lack of any shared assessment criteria in higher ed simply allows schools to spend money on anything they want to pursue, and this usually means that schools use tuition dollars and state funds to support high compensation packages for its stars. After all, since universities are able to get away with substandard education, they can use money intended for educational activities to promote non-educational priorities.
The problem then is that a lack of educational quality control results in increased costs and a further diminishment of quality, and in a system of incremental budgeting, schools will simply spend as much money as they can get. It is also important to stress that since the only thing that controls the spending habits of schools is a lack of funds, universities spend a great sum of money trying to raise dollars from multiple revenue streams. The only solution to this problem is for schools to be ranked in part according to how well they teach their students, but this would require some type of shared assessment, and so far, schools have resisted any standardized testing.
While universities should not be ranked on how well their students do on standardized tests, there does have to be some shared way of judging the quality of instruction. After all, universities and colleges spend a great deal of time assessing students and faculty, and so they need to share and compare this data. However, until some other source replaces the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking system as the central method parents and students use to compare schools, there will be no way of motivating schools to concentrate on educational quality, and without a concentration on quality, there can be no way of bringing down costs. As paradoxical as it sounds, the best way to contain cost creep is to have high standards and a transparent way of judging quality.