Eight big ideas for improving higher education

(Illustration by The Heads of State)
  Enlarge Photo    
Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:00 AM

America's higher education system is still widely regarded as the best in the world, but it is not without flaws, from rising tuition to graduation gaps to questions about how much today's college students actually learn.

In The Washington Post Magazine, reporter Daniel deVise explored eight big problems facing the academy and, aided by experts, offered up big ideas to help solve them. Should we end merit aid? Revive the core curriculum? Tie public funds to finishing college? DeVise took questions, comments and ideas for other solutions in an online discussion Feb. 22. The transcript is below.


The Higher Education problem will be solved: But not by any of the suggestions in this article. All of these suggestions assume that our system of higher education is acceptable if we just tweak a few little things. But higher education is not acceptable because it is not economically viable. In fact it is supported only by imposing crushing student debt loads on young people who will get very little in return. The only winners are tenured professors and the well paid administrators and staff. Their hubris and greed have caused student debt loads to exceed the total of all credit card debt in the country. It is obvious that this not viable or fair, and it will not be allowed to continue. The real answer was announced by Bill Gates last year when he proposed that within five years a world class college education, with world class instructors, will be available on the internet at a cost of $2,000. Now look at the suggestions in the article. All of them are based on perpetuating the broken system we now have. All of them pander to the liberal elite who support the current system, make money from it and just want to "improve" it a little bit. Their system is about to fall and the only problem we have is that we allowed so many young people to assume such massive debt to perpetuate the greed of "higher education". It is already too late for too many of them. In fact, last year the "schools" supported a bill that made student loans non dischargeable in bankruptcy. Why was that necessary to do that if their education product was valuable and their intentions were good. It is time to end the financial fraud of "higher education".

Daniel deVise: There are some great points in here. I thought about addressing the shift in the burden of financing education from government to students (UVA, for example, has seen the state share of its budget drop from something like a quarter to 7 or 8 percent in 20 years). But I honestly couldn't think of a way to "fix" that. . . At least not one that doesn't involve money falling from the sky. As for the $2,000 college education, Burck Smith of StraighterLine is doing that now -- gen-ed courses at $99 a month. But Inside Higher Ed did a fairly critical appraisal of that product a few months back, suggesting that you get what you pay for. (Not to say StraighterLine isn't a good deal -- perhaps it is -- but it ain't the same as going to Dartmouth, as Smith would be the first to admit.)


Silver Spring, Md.: You advocate for standardizing three-year degrees. With so many schools already in dire financial straits, how could colleges and universities stay afloat with the loss of revenue? Beyond that, could students get the same level of education in three years as opposed to four?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. Great points --

If you push a student out in three years, that creates space for another student, and more revenue, right? Trachtenberg (GWU prez emeritus) and others speak of a broader effort to use university facilities more, much more, like all summer and all weekend, and all that seems like nothing but added revenue for a college. As for the amount of learning in three years, I guess that

Daniel deVise: there's two ways to look at this. Some reformers look at the three year degree as the same learning in less time. Others suggest requiring less learning, as in fewer credits, for the three-year degree. I think most advocates of the three-year BA envision it as the same learning in less time. Another solution to all this is having the student stay another year and get a master's, as UVA's Teresa Sullivan has suggested.


Mt. Lebanon, PA: Why not have our schools offer a year-round curriculum for credits earned towards a high degree or even a college degree ?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. Yes, there are some leaders in the field who suggest that colleges should abandon the old, agrarian calendar (just as the many year-round K-12 districts have done) and throw open their doors 24-7. I gather that many community colleges already do this. The idea is that if college campuses were fully occupied 12 months of the year, the population served could increase by, what, a third? This is addressed briefly in the magazine essay on the three-year degree.


annapolis, md: Where would you put writing skills?

Where would you put requiring full time professors to teach more rather than relying so much on adjunct instructors....Downsizing the "publish or perish" syndrome?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. Writing skills fall into that remediation piece, which is addressed in the article -- lots of students enter higher ed unable to write a college essay (half or more at some community colleges, I think, and 5, 10 or 20 percent at a decent state university, if I remember correctly). There's good ideas to fix the remediation effort, some of them addressed in the mag article. As for the product produced by the K-12 system (which I covered for 11 years), goodness, that goes so far beyond the boundaries of anything I could have addressed in a piece on higher ed reform. . . Professors and teaching time: The authors of the book Higher Education? spoke at the recent Education Writers convention and talked about how half the profs in any given department at any given time are on paid sabbatical and hence not teaching, and also about how little teaching the average star professor does generally. That, too, is sort of addressed in this mag piece in the section on homework and study time -- some scholars suggest there's not enough priority put on classroom teaching, certainly not at the top research U's, although one person e-mailed me and pointed out that teaching is very much the focus at probably the large majority of colleges that are not Research Institutions.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How do we keep higher education affordable to middle class families with average students? I note in Philadelphia the Penn State system serves just about the entire state, except for Philadelphia. Temple University used to be an accessible and affordable college, but it has increased its standards and become a world class university. There are few options for someone who wishes to stay in Philadelphia and commute to a four year college who does not qualify for a scholastic or sports scholarship.

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. I gather that one of the big trends in higher education is that states used to subsidize nearly 100 percent of the cost of a public college education and now that subsidy has been largely eliminated. Legislatures think it's up to students and their families to make the investment if they want the return (in future earnings and such), and they look to colleges to raise tuition rather than to themselves to boost the annual outlay to state colleges. Options? Well, there are now more layers of public institutions, at many different price points. Many more students spend the first two years in community college, at a couple thousand dollars a year, and then transfer to a four-year university. That's one. But, you're right, a public college education isn't nearly as affordable as it was a couple generations ago.


New York N.Y.: What do you think of online higher education? Do employers treat a degree from places like the University of Phoenix with respect?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. Carol Twigg, a leader in online ed, told me that there's really not too much mystery about the quality of online versus bricks-and-mortar classes. Research consistently shows they are more or less the same. Professors have told me, though, that you cannot replace the quality of human interaction that you get in a classroom, with people responding to each other and a true dialogue playing out. I have to think there is still a considerable stigma attached to online education, at least as a way to earn a bachelor's degree. Top universities are selling their brands, and the prestige associated with them, and I don't think anyone would seriously argue that there is any fully online college with an Ivy League-sized reputation. I suppose that may change. I know institutions like USC have struggled to persuade outsiders that their very high-quality all-online degrees are the "real deal".


Point #8: I agree with some of your points, disagree with others, and find the whole list an excellent place to start a conversation. Well done. Re Point #8, while I agree, I might add that not just community colleges are actually "reteaching high school." The fact is that even in private, four year institutions, many students are coming in without sufficient reading, math, critical thinking and critical writing skills that should be obtained by high school. Haven't we simply pushed the old high school expectations onto the colleges, and in response say that it is important more students go to college? Essentially, aren't we just moving the goal posts?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. In reply: Yes.

Consider that a century ago only one-tenth of people (or something like that) finished high school -- there's a reason it was called "high" school. Fifty years ago, a fairly small share finished college. Society itself has moved the goal posts, right? With a 75-85-95 percent high school completion rate comes (I think inevitably) an ever growing share of graduates who haven't really mastered the high school curriculum. Yes, colleges are reteaching high school to some students, and high schools are reteaching their own curriculum, and there are enormous bottlenecks at high schools in grade 9 and at colleges in grade 13.


Old Lyme, CT.: My old high school began a program, after I graduated, where the senior year of college bound classes could count as the first year of college courses at a nearby college. The college and high school have since abandoned this program. Yet, is this an idea that should be reconsidered and explored some more?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. I gather that higher education has a love-hate relationship with this notion of students taking college coursework in high school. AP and IB have spawned massive increases in the number of students who effectively complete their first year of college while still in high school (at least on paper). Indeed, I think many seniors assume they are required to do this in order to get a fair shake in the admission office at a top college. Yet, those same top colleges seem to be rather unconvinced that those AP and IB courses really measure up to the comparable first-year college courses. I gather that the transferability of AP/IB credits has tightened up somewhat over time.

Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that colleges rely on those huge gen-ed lecture courses for revenue. Think of 400 students, all paying tuition, in a single lecture hall, and do the math! Those courses subsidize all of the 10-student seminars at the upper level. Some reformers say colleges shouldn't charge students full tuition for the big lecture classes, because they are taught at such low cost. But the colleges would respond that they need that revenue to support the smaller, more costly classes at the upper end.

So, I think college coursework in high school is probably at an all-time high, but the academy is wrestling with how to handle all those credits when the students arrive at their doors.


Teaching Assistants who can't teach: I remember when I was in college having T.A.s who were the teachers, several of whom spoke unintelligible English in subjects like chemistry, math, biology, etc.

There was no way I could learn anything from these people!

How frustrating then and I'm guessing now too since fewer american citizens know chemistry, math, biology, and other hard sciences.

Students (especially working class and working students) are on the short end, now more than ever.

All our systems have become corrupt, not just education. It's more than fixing higher ed. Everything is skewed toward the wealthy and powerful, to hell with everyone else. Facts based on 30+ years of data.

Daniel deVise: You have presented a couple of distinct criticisms there. I have heard many times that there is a shortage of homegrown STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) majors, which is probably the reason why your TA's spoke a different native language. And many, many colleges are working to produce more high-quality, homegrown STEM graduates. (UMBC is a celebrated example.) As for TA language problems, yes, I've heard that complaint -- and I guess colleges ought to screen their TAs to make sure they are effective communicators. . .


Fairfax, VA: Focusing on just engineering higher education, I am surprised that you only considered 8 problems. Among others that should be examined are:

1) Faculty qualifactions to teach. My observation is that academic credentials alone are not sufficient. Just because one has mastered a technical discipline, does not mean he/she can teach it effectively. There appears to be no requirement or metric for teaching skills, just academic credentials.

2) Work experience doesn't appear to be valued in the current hiring system, just academic credentials.

3) How can engineering professors train engineers beyond very basic math and sciences when they don't have experience working as engineers themselves? (One cannot train to student to develop answers when one doesn't know the questions.)

4) In order for engineers to be granted licenses to practice engineering, states require several years of professional experience in addition to academic credentials and passing grades on licensing exams. (In some cases, you are not even permitted to take these exams before you have several years of professional experience.)

5) Engineering schools need to be more than crude filters, they must start adding value not just weeding out weak prospects. The ultimate product is a good one, but not because of any value that is added on campus.

6) Curricula needs to be updated, not just perpetuated. In many instances engineering curriculum is old and out-of-date. Engineers are being trained for the 19th rather than the 21st Century. Industry must be mored engaged in developing curriculum, as opposed to just tenured professors perpetuating what they know.

7) The fact that accreditation by ABET for new courses and curriculum takes several years is in part an indication that engineers are being trained for careers in the past, not in the future.

I could go on and on...

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. Your suggestions are interesting, albeit a bit biased toward engineering. I stopped at 8 because I was pretty much out of space. I had about 12 ideas mapped out. The last ones weren't, honestly, my favorites. I was going to do something on online education... But what? I ended up incorporating online into the item on remediation. I was thinking of doing something on state government funding -- stabilizing it in some way, as in putting the money in an income-generating fund that yields predictable sums -- but that didn't seem quite so exciting as some of the other ideas on the list!


Geology Prof: Hi, I am a pre-tenure Geology Professor. For what it's worth, I'd make about 2 1/2 times my pay in industry, and I'd work less too. There seems to be an impression that we are a bunch of Ward Churchills that are intellectually and physically lazy. Rather, I'd suggest that 50 hours of my 60 hour work week are spent teaching at my major land grant school. I spent all Sunday preparing for class, for instance, and most of my colleagues were here. We care deeply about our students, and yet face hostility from state representatives that think it is possible to teach 5 classes a semester and perform research. Here are some challenges I see in higher ed are these: 1) After 3 years of budget cuts, we don't have any teaching assistants that can do the more rote tasks that can allow me to concentrate on improving the class. Nor can I assign creative and difficult-to-grade homework, as I just don't have the time. There is a good chance we will have a 0$ operating budget next year--no copying, losing our single office staff, no field trips, etc. 2) About 1/3 of the geology majors I see have major gaps in their high school learning. We spend a lot of effort bringing students up to speed. 3) No one outside the University seems to understand how hard and time intensive it is to teach a good intermediate to upper level science class. There are no on-line classes in upper level geology. Students need to go outside and look at rocks. They need to use computers to analyze data. They need to come to our seminars to hear what is important in the field.

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. I think your comments are far more interesting than anything I could say in response.

I agree, there's a perception professors have an easy gig. I concur that I've seen many profs who are very very busy -- the profession seems to attract a lot of folks with super-charged ambition and energy. I'm sure there are also professors who do very little. Same with journalists and every other profession, I suppose.


Maryland: Your points are well taken, but for engineering and the "heavy" sciences two of them would be impracticable: reducing college to 4 years and increasing homework. For an electrical engineering student 4 years is barely enough now to cover what is needed, and I can tell you from personal experience that the amount of studying pretty much fills up all available time not in class. We studied on Sat nights while the Poly Sci majors partied.

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this.

I suspect that the "homework" deficit in higher education may be less of a problem, less of a concern, in some of these "heavy" sciences?

Let me reiterate that a three-year degree, its proponents say, is clearly not for everyone. I'm sure there are plenty STEM folks who could plow through a BS in three years, or a master's in four, and I believe there are already a bunch of examples of this. But some majors are more intense than others, right? If I, for one, were to attempt an advanced degree in a heavy science, we'd be talking not years but decades.


ohio: I would think that going to a year-round calendar would be fine for those students who can afford college (upper middle class students) but not fine for those students who are working to pay for college AS they go to college. I attended a SLAC and very few students would work during the school year(some as resident assistants or tutoring) but now I am teaching at a large public university and the majority of students are working part time jobs AND going to school. So, I would think these students could not afford to take classes over the summer and/or do more weekend activities.

Daniel deVise: I'm going to start shortening my answers, to get more of these questions answered.

Yes, well noted -- many college students work. Those with full-time (or even part-time) jobs are probably not the ones who are going to complete four years of college in three. They'll be heroes for finishing it in four!


Alexandria, VA: First, I definitely agree with some sort of a rating system. Many of my colleagues received the "same" degree as I did, but took multiple choice exams and movie rating 101. I studied Frankl, Bosch and Ricardo and never had a multiple choice exam. I don't really see how we gained the same amount of learning. Why has society pushed vocational learning to the back burner? Most trades require a similar level of knowledge and skill as a college degree. Can we lose this modern stigma associated with trade/manual labor or is it too late to turn society?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this.

At the recent Education Writers Assn conference, one speaker encouraged us (reporters) to go out and do a story that compares/contrasts the differing levels of rigor in the same course offered at different schools. In other words, two profs teaching the same course, but with vastly different amounts of required reading and writing.

Interesting thoughts on vocational learning.

_______________________ Poll: Rank our eight ideas and share your own.


how about: Not everyone should get a college degree. We are telling people that being a plumber or an electrician isn't good enough anymore, so there are shortages of people in those professions. AND there are plenty of jobs one could do without a college education, but so many people have been sold the bill of goods, that they need that education, that they go and get it - so companies -require- it, when they don't really have to, since there are so many college grads out there. Most of the rest of the world does not have -everyone- go onto higher ed. It is the very best who are allowed to go (since it is mostly paid for by the state - there are those who pay for themselves, since they couldn't get in academically).

Daniel deVise: This doesn't really answer your question/comment, but I should note that some scholars feel strongly that the academy undervalues the associate degree. Some of the people who are out there chasing a BA and will never achieve it (because of work/family/financial issues) end up as college dropouts when they could have completed an AA, which gives them both higher earning potential and a powerful sense of having accomplished something. At least, that's the argument.


Bowie, MD: As a college professor, I agree with many of your points, especially requiring more homework. My question is about the idea of a standardized test. Setting aside the large cost at a time when universities are strapped for cash and the racial and economic disparity that always shows up in a standardized test, how can you compare the knowledge of an art major to that of an engineering major? Are we still tied to the idea that reading and math, Shakespeare and Beethoven, are more valuable than dance or Amiri Baraka?

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this.

As a former K-12 reporter, I see and understand the point that offering some kind of universal standardized test in college is quite different from offering it in high school, where people don't "major" or specialize to quite the same degree.

I will say that the folks behind the CLA and the other standardized instruments say they've produced tests that measure universal qualities -- things that students should possess irrespective of major.

I know that CAS deans, several of them, have told me they believe all of their graduates, regardless of major, have learned various skills related to critical thinking and problem-solving, skills all college grads are supposed to have.

Can one test measure them all?

Far be it from me to say I know the answer to this.


wow: so you're actually saying: we shouldn't reward people for doing well, cause, ya know, they'd do well anyway. That's absurd. Merit scholarships are there for a reason. A school wants to bring the best and the brightest kids to their school - so their school gets better (you can see how something like our HOPE scholarship here in GA has made it about impossible to get into UGA - and it's a tide that brings everyone up, so the other schools in GA are better because they get very bright students who couldn't get into UGA) - that's the craziest idea I've EVER heard. So no one should worry about doing well, just live on your own for a year, then you could get all the money you want to go to college. CRAZY.

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this.

One argument is that you should bring the best and brightest kids to your school.

Another argument is that you should send forth the best and brightest kids FROM your school.

Bennett at Earlham, and others, argue persuasively that there's no good reason why any college should court the best and brightest. The point, they would say, is not input measures but output measures. Value added.


Fairfax: "...when they could have completed an AA, which gives them both higher earning potential and a powerful sense of having accomplished something. At least, that's the argument."

Why did you tack on "at least that's the argument"? This is a valid suggestion that should be explored but you just slammed the door on any discussion.

Daniel deVise: Sorry -- I added that caveat because I am trying not to take any advocacy positions myself. That is the argument. It's a sound argument. There are other arguments. Ha, sorry, I wasn't trying to undermine it!


Annapolis, MD: Online education is not a cure-all. Online education has been very successful in serving a particular segment of the populace: self-starters who are limited by time or space and who are pursuing credentials with clear outcomes (especially practical ones) and relatively low emphasis on speaking, writing, and abstract thought. That doesn't meet everyone's needs, and it remains to be seen whether online ed can adequately serve other segments.

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this.

Carol Twigg and others would argue that high-quality online programs can very much serve traditional-age, unmotivated, even high-risk students. There are, of course, many different ways to do online.


Dallas, Tx: What about ending the pressure to start College right out of high school? If a student could take a year off, assess their life, decide what they want to do, they would have a rewarding experience, in my opinion.

Daniel deVise: Thanks for this. Seems like the average student today takes considerably more than four years to finish a college degree, so if anything, reformers are urging the academy to find ways to move students through more quickly, not more slowly.

One more q, then I'm gonna sign off.


Albany, NY: I agree that much of what you talked about in your article is, indeed, tinkering around the margins. I think that the budget shortfalls in every state are going to precipitate the widespread structural change that is needed. States will have to reduce their ambitions; they can't have both a great flagship university and a great community college system. Colleges will have to differentiate themselves more; Stanford will be fine as is, but Average State can't aspire to offer 500 majors and leading research facilities and fabulous general education. And families will have to choose too: is it more important to go into debt for Yale or Williams, or to get a good-enough education at a local public, or a barely acceptable credential from a for-profit distance institution?

Daniel deVise: The shift of college from a state burden to a student burden does, indeed, seem like a defining problem in higher ed.

But I think it'll take a book to sort that one out.

Thanks very much, I'm so sorry I didn't get to all the questions. Wanna follow up by e-mail? Write to me at



Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company