As Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels has been an efficiency maven, and his scalpel has gone after higher education along with everything else. He has also introduced price competition by welcoming Western Governors University Indiana, a low-cost online college that, among other heresies, gives credit for experience.
The announcement that Daniels will become president of Purdue University led to speculation that he is eager to make a mark in the roiling universe of higher education.
Certainly, the nations colleges require much greater fiscal discipline, and Daniels will provide some of that.
But he wouldnt have taken the job if it was just about cost-cutting. The recent tumult at the University of Virginia is a microcosm of a broader conflict: the staid, slow- moving university pitted against the business exigencies of a competitive future. The Virginia faculty rallied to the defense of Teresa Sullivan, the president, spurring a protest of 2,000 people on campus and condemnation of the board of trustees for its secretive tactics. The professors won this round. But the debate in Virginia was not over whether the university has to change, but how fast. Such conflicts are likely to proliferate.
Public universities nationwide are under the gun, as they keep raising tuition to make up for falling state subsidies. They are competing both with private colleges with much bigger endowments, and with low-cost alternatives to the traditional college experience.
All of U.S. higher education is facing fundamental change. It is experiencing heresies and pockets of resistance to its reigning idea: that young people should march in lockstep through four years of college and pay plenty for the privilege.
If more students decide not to buy into this model and balk at paying bloated costs, how do public universities adapt?
Consider the rising competition:
Anyone can take online courses from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University free of charge. Thousands have done so. And at MIT you can even get a credential for successful course completion.
Cheaper courses abound. The average degree at Western Governors University costs about $15,000 total.
Short-term certificates, awarded by for-profit and community colleges, are a growing option. According to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, 1 million certificates were awarded in 2010, a year when 1.6 million bachelors degrees were given.
For-profit colleges already enroll more than 10 percent of all students. While these schools are expensive and suffer from a bad reputation, only partly deserved, for recruiting too many students and relying almost entirely on federal student aid, some are flexible enough to cut costs if the market demands it. That is not true of traditional schools.
Even high-income parents are increasingly sending their children to lower-cost community colleges – 22 percent of those families did so in 2010, a survey by Sallie Mae found.
These alternatives will only become more popular as doubts grow about the value of a diploma. While the recession may explain why almost half the class of 2012 was unemployed or underemployed after graduation, a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce cites growing skepticism about whether those lucky enough to graduate have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary for success in the 21st century economy.
Colleges are responding not by controlling costs but with faculty intransigence and with grandiose plans to make online education a source of revenue that can subsidize on-campus operations. This revenue is likely to be elusive, especially if reformers succeed in breaking up the cartel that controls granting college credits.
Public universities have been too comfortable for decades.
As academic quality began to slip, the costs kept going up. Yes, there were recessions, and the states cut appropriations. But the universities responded by raising tuition, and when the states prospered again, the tuition never went down.
Rising tuition has meant increasing debt. More than two-thirds of all students borrow money to go to college – 42 percent of the students at Purdue, for example.
The only way a college president can control costs is to make changes that the faculty – the most powerful group in almost every university – is likely to oppose. Presidents who try to do such things, such as Lawrence Summers at Harvard, dont necessarily succeed. And because Daniels is a politician and businessman rather than an academic, the faculty will cut him no slack.
You can expect to hear charges of corporatization when he steps forward with proposals to consolidate departments or increase teaching loads. Daniels has no doubt watched the experience of his Republican neighbor in Ohio, Gov. John Kasich. Even though Kasich maintained funding for the state universities (they loved that), he ran into opposition when he tried to increase faculty workloads and institute a three-year degree.
Purdue, with almost 40,000 students and more than 15,000 faculty and staff members, may be a good place to test changes in higher education. The school has a plan to take its place among the premier research universities of the 21st century, says a university report. But building the research side is going to take a toll on undergraduate education, and thats where a collision is coming.
Why continue to tolerate giant lecture classes, courses taught by graduate students, and a growing number of nomadic adjuncts – all so a top-flight faculty can write papers that build their reputations among their peers?
When his Purdue appointment was announced, Daniels said he would no longer take part in partisan political activities or commentary as he finished his term as governor. His challenge is to show that higher education can withstand the tsunami that is coming. He will find that his career in a different political arena has just begun.