Where Colleges Don't Excel

By Thomas Toch and Kevin Carey
Friday, April 6, 2007

Millions of anxious high school seniors have been hearing from college admissions offices in recent days, and if one believes the rhetoric cascading from campus administration buildings, corporate headquarters and the U.S. Capitol, students lucky enough to get acceptance letters will be entering the best higher education system in the world.

Hardly a week goes by without a prominent politician or business leader declaring America's advantage in the global battle for brainpower, citing as evidence a study from Shanghai's Jiao Tong University that rates17 American universities among the world's 20 best.

But those rankings are based entirely on measures of advanced research, such as journal articles published and Nobel Prizes won -- measures, that is, of the work that's done mostly in graduate programs. And while advanced research is vital to the nation's economic competitiveness, so is producing enough well-educated workers to compete for the high-value jobs of the future.

Undergraduate students are going to make up the bulk of those workers because only 13 percent of the nation's 17 million students in higher education are at the graduate level. Yet a hard look at our undergraduate programs suggests that when it comes to the business of teaching students and helping them graduate, our universities are a lot less impressive than the rhetoric suggests.

Seventy-five percent of high school graduates go on to higher education, but only half of those students earn degrees. And many of those who do graduate aren't learning much. According to the American Institutes for Research, only 38 percent of graduating college seniors can successfully perform tasks such as comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials.

And it's an open secret that many of our colleges and universities aren't challenging their students academically or doing a good job of teaching them. In the latest findings from the National Survey of Student Engagement, about 30 percent of college students reported being assigned to read four or fewer books in their entire senior year, while nearly half (48 percent) of seniors were assigned to write no papers of 20 pages or more.

Ironically, our global dominance in research and persistent mediocrity in undergraduate education are closely related. Both are the result of the same choices. The 17 institutions atop the Shanghai rankings are driven by professional and financial incentives that favor research and scholarship over teaching. Funding from the federal government, publish-or-perish tenure policies, and college rankings from the likes of U.S. News & World Report all push universities and professors to excel at their research mission. There are no corresponding incentives to teach students well.

Take the U.S. News rankings. Ninety-five percent of each college's score is based on measures of wealth, fame and admissions selectivity. As a result, college presidents looking to get ahead focus on marketing, fundraising and recruiting faculty with great research credentials instead of investing their resources in helping undergraduates learn and earn degrees.

This problem can't and shouldn't be fixed by government regulation. Independence and diversity make our higher-education sector strong, and that shouldn't change.

The way to drive higher education institutions to stop ignoring undergraduates in favor of pursuing research is to provide more information about their performance with undergraduates to the consumers who pay tuition bills: students and their parents.

By investing in new ways to gauge the quality of teaching and learning and by requiring taxpayer-subsidized colleges to disclose their performance to the public, the federal government can change the market dynamics in higher education, creating strong incentives for colleges to produce the caliber of undergraduates we need to compete in the global marketplace, incentives to make the rhetoric of being first in the world in higher education a reality.

Thomas Toch and Kevin Carey are, respectively, co-director and policy manager of Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company