There’s an old saying: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Yet, politicians never seem to learn this lesson. A classic example is the American public school system. American public schools have helped millions to become productive, creative and inventive. They have been a major factor in our country’s dominance in the world.
But in 2001, politicians decided to fix public schools by instituting high-stakes testing. This transformed schools from places where youngsters could explore a wide variety of subjects and discover what they found exciting, into a laser-focused system where the only thing that counts is a score on once-a-year achievement tests in math and reading.
This “fix” has seriously damaged our schools, relegating art, music, civics and history to relative unimportance.
After all this, politicians now want to “fix” higher education. They seem unaware that American higher education is the envy of the world where almost 900,000 foreign students clamor to attend each year. One of higher ed’s strengths is that our 4,700 colleges provide a smörgåsbord of whatever students desire, competing with each other to provide the best education possible. What allows this has been relative freedom from politics and bureaucracy.
Politicians have already done extensive damage by cutting funding, thus requiring higher tuition and forcing students to borrow huge amounts of debt. Incredibly, the legislature has cut higher-ed funding by a whopping $169 million over the past eight years, and the University of Kentucky has suffered 40 percent of that cut.
After all of this damage, politicians now want to fix higher-ed institutions using “performance funding” measures. One such measure is retention rates, in which funding would be reduced if dropouts were greater than some arbitrary standard. If a kid prefers beer and wild parties to homework, politicians want to penalize the college if the kid flunks out.
Is higher ed responsible for a student who drops out of school to support the family? Or transfers to another university? Or simply gets homesick and wants to go home? Or becomes pregnant? Or incurs an illness? Or what about a college that wants to give a low achiever with great potential an opportunity? Should the college shut the door in order to decrease dropouts?
Another performance measure is the amount of money people earn after college. But is that a measure of college quality? If students want to pursue their ambitions in music or art, realizing that they probably won’t get rich, should the government step on their dreams? Some politicians seem to say yes.
It’s important to recognize that college is not just a place for job training. The most valuable role higher ed can play is to help students learn how to learn. A broad liberal arts background helps provide the breadth of understanding that is helpful to enable badly needed critical thinking.
Technology is moving so fast that most graduates will need to learn multiple skills over their careers. Having the ability to quickly adapt will be more important than zeroing in on a single competence.
Everyone should be free to follow their ambitions. Politicians should realize that investments in higher education have big payoffs for the economy, industry and the students. They need to begin building back financial support.
And paramount, they need to give each higher-ed institution the freedom to operate and compete as it sees fit and give up the counterproductive idea of performance funding. It ain’t broke.
Marty Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Related: March 22 Herald-Leader article, “Senate would fund Kentucky universities based on competitive metrics”