The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Scott Walker Prepares to Reform Higher Education

Bad Boy Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, fresh from taking on collective bargaining and triumphant after winning the recall election, is headed for more controversy, more upheaval and more angry squeals as he prepares to go after yet another sacred cow. His next mission is to take on Wisconsin’s higher education system. On June 19, Walker and officials from the University of Wisconsin announced a “revolutionary” flexible degree program. From the press release:

The unique self-paced, competency-based model will allow students to start classes anytime and earn credit for what they already know. Students will be able to demonstrate college-level competencies based on material they already learned in school, on the job, or on their own, as soon as they can prove that they know it. By taking advantage of this high quality, flexibility model, and by utilizing a variety of resources to help pay for their education, students will have new tools to accelerate their careers. Working together, the UW System, the State of Wisconsin, and other partners can make a high-quality UW college degree significantly more affordable and accessible to substantially more people.

It is one thing to proclaim an ideal, and something else to develop a system that actually works, but the language at least points toward exactly the kind of flexible programs Via Meadia and others have been advocating.

Change has to come. After World War Two the United States built its modern university system by extending a model that was originally intended to groom the sons of a social elite to succeed their fathers as government and business leaders to manage the preparation of tens of millions of people for the business of life.

The template doesn’t work in many cases, and the result increasingly is that training and job preparation takes too long and costs too much. The problem isn’t that America has “too much” education. The problem is that a 21st century society needs to be able to teach more skills to more people at a much lower cost and in much less time than our 20th century institutions can manage. It’s really that simple. The most urgent business of a state university system at this point must be to reform and improve the kind of education (in many cases, training) that can enable the state’s citizens of any and every age to acquire skills and prepare themselves to flourish in a rapidly changing economy.

Those who like myself are the products of the traditional elite educational system are naturally and properly concerned about the future of liberal as opposed to utilitarian education as this transformation takes place. But even we have to recognize that the first priority of state governments has to be to get the utilitarian stuff right.

Scott Walker will not be the last state governor to try his hand at education reform. It will be a bumpy road, and there will be failures and lessons learned. But through efforts like this one, through borrowing best practice from other states and countries and through trying new ideas in many states and many institutions, public and private, non-profit and for-profit, we will eventually develop an educational system that better serves the people than the one we have now.

Last month saw a crisis erupt at the University of Virginia. Now we have some radical proposals surfacing in Wisconsin. There will be more. The conflict between society’s need for more education and the high costs of the system we’ve built is intensifying. The fiscal squeeze at every level of government makes it impossible to manage the problem simply by shoveling more money into a dysfunctional system. Higher education in the United States is headed towards the biggest and most revolutionary upheaval since the birth of the mass modern university system at the end of World War Two.

Published on July 7, 2012 2:00 pm
  • cacrucil

    This sounds great! Via Meadia is right when it says “change can’t come soon enough.” The people of America need education and job training at a price they can afford.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “Students will be able to demonstrate college-level competencies based on material they already learned in school, on the job, or on their own.”

    That will be key if he can make it happen.

  • Eric from Texas

    WRM,

    I think “Liberal Indoctrination” will be at far greater risk than a traditional “liberal education” under a decentralized approach to education. In fact, without the heavy-handed gatekeeping of the Far Left seen in traditional universities, there will be a good number of students free to get lectures that look favorably on the writings of Milton, Burke, Hume, Adam Smith, the Framers of our Constitution, Hayek, and the ancient Greek and Romans. Far more to learn among those writers than the PC claptrap that is foisted on students today.

  • Lexington Green

    Agree strongly with Eric from Texas. Liberal education in the traditional and valuable, even priceless, sense of the term, has been attacked and virtually destroyed by the existing academic-government complex. Breaking up that monopoly and letting voluntarily organize their study of the classics will lead to better education. You do not need a Ph.D. to read or teach Thucydices or Jane Austen. Further, it is seriously wrong to limit study of timeless books and art to youth. Reading the Iliad at 19 is a different experience from re-reading it at 49. To participate in study and discussion of a classic work with an array of different people at different life stages and with different backgrounds will vastly improve the experience. The humanities are going to enter a golden age once they are liberated from a decrepit, late 19th Century research university model that never suited them in the first place. On the other hand, understand and teach physics at the highest, cutting edge level, you do need to have at least a Ph.D. level of training and practice, though the existing Ph.D. model may change. The two types of study could and should be allowed to go down different paths to be most useful to students and to anyone in the community who wants to study and learn. Breaking down the barriers to higher education will not only expand it geographically, but will expand it across the human lifetime. This is all good. Get out the bulldozers, and push the dead Blue Model off into the ditch, in the academic world as in everything else.

  • Earl of Sandwich

    We already have community colleges and AP tests. Are more systems really needed?

  • An

    Gov. Walker and Gov. Perry (with his $10k 4-year degree program) have announced welcome ideas to reform and improve upon education, but I am afraid our system is beholden to the idea everyone needs a “degree.” One-third of America has a Bachelors degree and two-thirds of Americans have taken a college level course, but most jobs do not need a degree. The fact that 80% of people are employed outside their field of study attests to this point. Heck, skilled blue-collar jobs such as plumbers and electricians make more than the average BA theses days.

    By funneling everyone into a degree program, the graduates have increased competition while standards have been lowered, this more than anything has resulted in the drop of starting salaries for college graduates. It’s the perfect illustration of supply and demand. What makes this even worse is that opportunities to the bottom half, or bottom two-thirds, are closed off as credential-ism creates a social barrier much harder to break than any imposed by the New England blue bloods back in the day. And the latter is what I fear most about our growing education bubble.

    For example, Sidney Weinberg rose from being a Janitor’s assistant to CEO of Goldman Sachs and did not even finish high school. Weinberg is much revered on Wall Street and was responsible for the rise of Goldman from a fringe player to a respected investment bank during the middle of last century. Weinberg’s tale is not unique though as one of most successful Salomon Brothers CEO started out as a mail room clerk. In today’s Wall Street, you need an MBA from a “target” school to be considered for the grunt jobs of the past.

    In addition to higher education reforms mentioned by Gov. Walker and Perry concerning 4 year degree programs, what I would like to see happen is a series of certifications much like a CPA or an ASE certification (auto mechanic). We also need to institute more apprenticeships outside of the blue collar world as most jobs in business are learned form “doing” rather than “studying.” These programs should be offered without being attached to completing a bachelors or associates degree.

    I went to a “target” school for college but my views on education have been tempered through experience and reflection. My belief is that if we keep worshipping the alter of the bachelor’s degree, we risk denying opportunities to millions of talent Americans based on a piece of paper.

    There are people who cannot for the life of them, integrate a tetrahedron or understand a page of Chaucer, but could run rings around most of our business elites today. We only need to look back at our own history and see how.

  • Kris

    “Scott Walker Prepares to Reform Higher Education”

    What?! Recall him!

  • http://peacocksandlilies.com/ Lola-at-Large

    This is similar to the program my governor, Mitch Daniels, started with Western Governor’s University, a multi-state program.

    It’s a brilliant program and how I plan to earn my Master Degree. You pay a lump sum for a semester, take all your courses online (except for certain programs, like nursing) and can go self-paced. Whatever credits you can earn in that time are yours to keep for the same fees. For hard-working, ambitious folks like me, it’s a perfect fit. Glad to see Wisconsin is paying attention.

  • Corlyss

    25 years ago, when Cisco was paying high-school juniors $100,000/an. to manage system network servers, I wondered whither college education and the entire cumbersome system built around the premise that every infant was destined to go to college.

  • David

    Walker is fighting against a recent trend of colleges to make it much harder to earn credits for what students already know. Years ago, a 4 or 5 on an AP exam earned you credit for the relevant course. Now, it’s a 5 minimum, and even that doesn’t always suffice. Colleges viewed AP credit as enabling a student to graduate in 3 years, thus depriving them of a year’s tuition. That’s the reason for the change, and exactly what Walker is fighting against.

  • Richard S.

    This process might also transform the hiring process. Because the Court has made it impossible to use intelligence tests, and other like tests for hiring, employers turn to the BA as a proxy. Competency certificates might bring some worthwhile change to the hiring process.

  • Charles R. Williams

    Why have we turned to educational credentials that have no defined content to screen people for entry level jobs and then systematically debased the actual content of these credentials. There are two inter-related reasons: Griggs vs Duke Power and the massive government subsidies for these credentials.

    The problem reformers will encounter is that any system of credentials based on demonstrated competencies of the sorts of cognitive skills we are concerned with will have a disparate impact on protected minorities. The subsidies for worthless credentials will not go away either.

  • http://wwrtc.blogspot.com Art Deco

    1. Abolish the baccalaureate degree.

    2. Replace it with a series of certificate programs (< 1 year) and 1, 2, 3, and 4 year degrees in specific subjects (an academic year being understood as 500 lectures and examinations, 50 minutes in length). Require institutions if they offer a 4-year option to offer a 3-year option, a 2-year option if they offer a 3-year option, and a 1-year option if they offer a 2 year option.
    Allow some options for a diversified liberal arts program (i.e. a St. John's great books program, the medieval trivium and quadrivium, or a set of courses in philosophy, history, mathematics, and statstics) for the few who seek that.

    3. Implement the foregoing in the first instance by a federal law which requires that contracts between an educational corporation in one state and a prospective student in another state take a particular form, then work in the state legislatures to extend this to intrastate contracts.

    4. Close state teachers' colleges, as well as schools of social work and library administration. Replace them with brief vocational certification programs in educational psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, the sociology of the family, public and philanthropic administration, and cataloguing and indexing.

    5. Tear out every kind of subsidy there is to higher education, state and federal. Expand the circumstances under which student loan debt can be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings.

    6. Place all institutions of higher education under the governance of small boards elected by locally-resident alumni.

    7. Pass federal and state legislation to render grants of tenure unenforceable in the courts and to inhibit the offer of tenure as fraudulent.

    8. Require (by state or federal statute) every doctoral candidate be given each year a disclosure statement about the fate of each and every candidate admitted to said program over the previous fifty years: whether they completed the program or not, where they are working if that can be discerned, and what type of contract they have if they are teaching.

    9. Eliminate federal employment discrimination law. Instead, require companies domiciled in multiple states (or here and abroad) to provide a biennial audited statement on the demographics of their workforce, stock and flow. Allow companies plenary discretion to make use of certification, recruitment, hiring, and promotional examinations.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    Somewhat related.

    From WaPo:
    U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there (www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/us-pushes-for-more-scientists-but-the-jobs-arent-there/2012/07/07/gJQAZJpQUW_story.html?hpid=z1).

    Gist of it: many, many new PhDs in sciences and very few jobs. Goes without saying that 30-70% of new PhDs are foreigners educated on US taxpayer dime.

    Perhaps Prof Mead can explain how highly educated on our dime immigrants without jobs make us all richer.

    Oh, some of them, perhaps most, will get a job. But all it means that a highly educated American with a new PhD will be without or will be forced to take a job that requires MS or BS of HS diploma.

    We pay for foreigners education and our kids are displaced in job market.

    What’s not to like? WSJ editorialists are drooling all over themselves.

  • Milwaukee

    Why don’t we re-write the 1991 Civil Rights Act? That enshrines into law the Supreme Court decision which keeps employers from asking too many questions of potential employees, because those questions might be racist. Like asking an employee to demonstrate that they understand and can do the tasks at hand. I do think we’ve joined a mad rush to get credentials. At best Schools of Education should be reduced so education might be a minor and not a major.

    Since the integral of (school)dschool is dbus, I’m not sure how to integrate a tetrahedron. What are we integrating it into?

  • http://conservativecommune.com meep

    With respect to true liberal arts education, it’s still rather strong — at least among the homeschooling and adult education crowd.

    I majored in math & physics, and since I left undergrad, I’ve done a crapload of reading, writing, and listening to lectures (thanks Modern Scholar & The Teaching Company!) I just wrote an article for an actuarial newsletter touting the value of the Classics (I picked “easy” ones — Herodotus, Plutarch, and The Iliad) and their continuing relevance.

    That’s the beauty of the humanities — they are easy to continue on with as one goes through life….and you probably don’t get a huge amount of value from them until you hit middle age.

  • cowgirl

    One has to look no further than the very successfully http://www.kahnacademy.org and the latest edition to the the kahn academy look alike Udacity started by the head of Stanford’s AI Department and one of the founders of Google to know that higher education is on a way to a new look and it will not involved red diaper doper baby professors…

  • Recovering Lutheran

    “The fiscal squeeze at every level of government makes it impossible to manage the problem simply by shoveling more money into a dysfunctional system. Higher education in the United States is headed towards the biggest and most revolutionary upheaval since the birth of the mass modern university system at the end of World War Two.”

    As a mathematics instructor at a community college, I disagree. It is true that the current higher education system is dysfunctional, and that the dire fiscal situation in government makes it impossible to keep jacking up funding to public college and universities beyond the already insane levels.

    Nevertheless, I predict that is exactly what will happen, at least over the next few years. Fiscal reality and intelligent planning have never been features of public education at any level, but amassing power and political influence with politicians have. Do not underestimate the Bill Ayers types in the education establishment. They may be a minority (numerically speaking), but they have a frightening amount of power and influence way out of proportion to their numbers.

    Eventually the entire rotten structure will collapse. But mark my words: it will take a collapse before any reform is possible.

  • elkh1

    Hey Sandwich: he is not talking about another system, he is transforming Wisconsin’s existing system.

    Reactionary Mick, our kids are not displaced in the job market by foreign PhDs. PhD students are cheap labor research assistants and TAs doing jobs that our kids don’t particulary want to do. They do all the tedious parts of research for their professors to claim credits. Some professors may put their names on their research papers as assistants. A lot of professors claim all the credits. They are exploited mightily by the slave drivers, the Professors. Of course the professors were slave-driven when they were PhD students. One of the reasons that our science PhDs cannot get jobs is because our environment is so hostile, e.g. the Big Pharmas, our favorite whipping boys, are doing their research, hiring their scientists in places like Singapore. Our political class loves to immitate the Europeans in setting up insane regulations and roadblocks to control the productive class. And they left. Foreign PhD students can only apply for work visas after they landed jobs. Most of them return to their homelands or work in places like Singapore which is replacing us as the Mecca for research scientists. Another reason, most PhDs will do post-docs hoping to land a teaching job in our universities. Well, our higher ed is crumbling and is not hiring.

  • Brock

    What does the Khan Academy model of education look like in the liberal arts? I certainly understand how you could record micro-lectures and arrange discussion groups for students going through the same materials, but how do you test it? I’m sure WRM must have some idea, but it seems like an incredibly hard problem to solve without a computer that can pass a Turing test itself.

  • http://jamesbbkk.com JamesB

    In most areas of economic life in recent times, the trend has been for prices (real prices, not nominal prices) to decrease over time. This trend shows the effect of the irresistible force resulting from improvements in efficiency. This trend has not occurred in education. The day of reckoning is coming, and it will not be without pain.

  • teapartydoc

    Does this mean folks won’t have to spend $100,000 to pass muster for flipping burgers?

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griggs_v._Duke_Power_Co. RM3 Frisker FTN

    Richard S wrote: “Because the Court has made it impossible to use intelligence tests, and other like tests for hiring, employers turn to the BA as a proxy.”

    NOT EXACTLY, the court in “Griggs v. Duke Power Co.” made testing not “reasonably related” to the job for which the test is required illegal (i.e. a generic IQ Test was not ‘reasonably related’ to either ditch digging or filing paperwork). The court did not make all tests that are germane to the job illegal. Employers ‘chickened out’ with respect to testing, eliminating _ALL_ testing. How I do it: (1) Copy ‘n paste paragraphs from the documents the candidate will use during the actual job, ask questions about the copy ‘n pasted content, (2) copy ‘n paste schematics/block-diagrams from the documents the candidate will use during the actual job, ask questions about the copy ‘n pasted content, (3) copy ‘n paste tables from the documents the candidate will use during the actual job, ask questions about the copy ‘n pasted content, (4) copy ‘n paste data the candidate will see on the job, ask the candidate to plot data in Excel, etc etc etc E-A-S-Y. Too bad so sad too many employers are S-T-U-P-I-D. Some software companies “get it” with respect to testing; although, they too may try too hard avoiding a paper trail of hard copy tests, leaving it to the interviewers to orally administer a test.

  • Brendan Doran

    ” Higher education in the United States is headed towards the biggest and most revolutionary upheaval since the birth of the mass modern university system at the end of World War Two.”

    Well. Revolutions are dangerous creatures.

    Recovering Luther has it right with his complaint against indulgences. It will take collapse to consider reform.

  • JoeS

    This means that people can take classes from a real EDUCATIONAL institution like HILLSDALE. They can have professors who love Liberty. Professors who teach the Truth about Human Nature and effective Government.

    This will also mean that students will miss out on four years of mayhem and debauchery. This gives all the advantages of college without the leftist destructive indoctrination.

  • An Nguyen

    @cowgirl Great point!. I really love what Khan Academy has done. In addition to Udacity, there is another startup called skillshare.com that allows anyone and everyone to provide classes on virtually any subject. The only downside with skillshare is the lack of formal credentials, which act as a signalling device in the marketplace.

    But unfortunately my gut feeling is that any type of online education will only help the 10-20%, as it will allow the motivated to get ahead and further increase the gap. The biggest issue with the bottom 1/3 of society is motivation. We have enough trouble already getting them to read and write at an 8th grade level, what happens when you take away the baby sitter?