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Higher education: At what cost?

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/FILE 2008

Now that “Obama-care’’ has been roundly embraced, other Obama compounds seem certain to come. I’m betting on “Obamacard,’’ which plays off the president’s newish College Scorecard, a tool at whitehouse.gov that tracks the affordability of institutions of higher education around the nation. The new system has been in the press a lot lately. Think of it as an early step in Obama’s second-term focus on higher education, a sort of Reform 2.0 as a follow-up to health care in his first.

Many similarities here: Both systems are leviathan and are choked by runaway costs — tuition, room, and board at public universities rose 46 percent in the first decade of the new millennium. Both systems have been dreadful on accountability, yet they beg for federal funding. Then there’s this: We pay ridiculously for health and education because without them, our future implodes.

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As the president said in July at Knox College: “Families and taxpayers can’t just keep paying more and more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up.” The College Scorecard is one small step toward transparency: Type in a college, and it will show per year average costs (factoring in financial aid), plus the school’s graduation rate, student-loan default rate, and median student borrowing rate.

That money picture, and a whole syllabus of things, will be in our mini-survey course today. “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students” (New Harvest, 2013) is my first of many recent, ardent books. Author Jeffrey J. Selingo, an editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, is incensed that the United States now ranks 12th among developed nations in higher education of young adults. (In 1995, we were first.) Meanwhile, our graduation rate is barely past 50 percent. Mediocrity, perversely, seems to feed on moolah: Tuition keeps rising at three times the rate of inflation. But instead of digging in to bolster instruction and create efficiencies, colleges have become Potemkin Villages. Many campuses now have luxuries like lazy rivers (Texas Tech) and walk-in dorm closets (Boston University), in a resort-lite strategy to compete for student dollars. From 1998 to 2008, spending for student-service amenities (at public research universities) went up about 20 percent. For instruction? About half that.

Selingo predicts a winnowing. He thinks 1,000 places are at risk of folding or merging in the next decade — we currently have 5,300 colleges and universities. Higher education “is beset by hubris, opposition to change, and resistance to accountability,” but some light shines through the ivy. Selingo praises innovative bigwigs like Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, but also lesser-knowns like Southern New Hampshire University (its president, Paul LeBlanc, is his hero) and the University of North Texas. The main thesis here? The bundled tradition of on-site instruction plus campus life, ending with sheepskin credentials, is no longer sustainable or affordable for the masses. The system will become “unbound,” as in the title of his book. The main unraveler? Online learning. In the last five years, the number of students taking at least one online course reportedly has doubled, from 23 percent to 45 percent. The potential is boundless.

And so to “Higher Education in the Digital Age” (Princeton University, 2013) by William G. Bowen, a former head of Princeton and a high priest of whither-college studies. This is a blessedly measured book. It doesn’t argue that MOOCs (massive open online courses) — from college collectives like Coursera or edX, or companies like Udacity — are The Only Answer. And it gives “explicit recognition” to the fact that no one really understands teaching effectiveness in the classroom or online. After sifting the “literally thousands” of studies on online learning, including his own, here’s Bowen’s takeaway: Whether students learn a subject in a traditional classroom, or in a hybrid classroom/online setup, they have nearly the same levels of knowledge retention and pass rates — and this is true across socio-economic lines. MOOCs don’t transform education. But they don’t harm it either.

“This seemingly bland result is, in fact, very important,” says Bowen. Why? Because online learning programs will improve — and they can be a budgetary savior. OK, eventually; right now, there are start-up costs and learning curves but down the road it could save colleges 36 to 57 percent in compensation. Does that mean you fire teachers? No, you shift them from a lecture role to a coach role (and 69 percent of professors are alright with that, says one study). The money is saved, partly, by cutting support staff.

Financial sanity must start somewhere, unless we want to “read the biography of an endangered institution,” says Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia professor, biographer of Herman Melville, and the author of “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be” (Princeton University, 2012). Delbanco is lovely at historical context. It’s long been fashionable to criticize academia, particularly academic stars; even Abigail Adams wrote how students think professors are “taken off by public business to their great detriment.” Delbanco shows us the money, to be sure, especially how the government tap has run dry at public universities (the University of Virginia gets merely 8 percent of its funding from the state compared to almost 30 percent a quarter century ago). But mainly, he makes a plea for the great intangibles of a college education: 1) It helps you to “detect when another man is talking rot,” as the Oxford philosopher John Alexander Smith said; and 2) It makes “the inside of your head . . . an interesting place to spend the rest of your life,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard, said.

“Higher Education in America” (Princeton University, 2013) by former Harvard president Derek Bok, is our most think-awfully-big entry. Hold on to your mortarboard; it’s got five fat sections on the state of instruction at the undergrad then graduate level, with umpteen analyses of market forces at each turn, plus five forewords and four afterwords! Despite this daunting breadth, Bok keeps it real. He says that the media wrongly focuses on the most competitive schools (I’m talking to you, US News & World Report). But only about 200 colleges regularly reject more students than they admit. He also reports that undergrads spend way less time on their studies than a generation ago — and this squishy education is partly why America has slid in the global economy. As a member of the class of ’83, I felt smug: See how my tough seminars on Kierkegaard and the Cold War made me an upright citizen and taxpayer? Then again, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg were all college dropouts. Who has benefited the economy more? Let’s not do the math.

Let’s do a different kind of math. The puffy kind: Grade inflation is a hot topic in “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student” (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Indeed, two out of five students now have a GPA of A- or better — nearly six times as many as in 1969. Author Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, has spent the past 40-odd years scrutinizing college students, and “Tightrope” is his third installment (Diane R. Dean is a coauthor of this latest book). His findings, after surveying 5,000 students from 270 diverse campuses: These kids say the most important experience of their era is the creation of the World Wide Web (not Sept. 11, as Levine had predicted); 41 percent of them are in touch with their parents daily (wow); and nearly half chose their college for its financial-aid package versus a third in the halcyon days of 2006.

President Obama wants America, by 2020, to become No. 1 again for our higher education attainment by young people. It will take better choices, wiser priorities, and smarter money — by the score.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.
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