Are American universities "the envy of the world?"

Dai Ellis used to be executive director of Excel charter. That's a great school here in Boston. It's growing. Dai left Excel at the end of last year. More recently he's been thinking about higher ed in the developing world. He blogs about it at Mind Over Minerals.

Dai left a comment that I wanted to share:

This ‘envy of the world’ trope about our higher ed system is starting to bug me. Do we know what works in higher ed — as regards student learning — any more than we do at the K12 level? Like you, I’m in the no camp.

There’s no doubt our top hundred colleges & universities are the envy of the world. That’s mostly based on the quality of the research at those places and the value of attending school with a lot of other smart students who are on a path to success. I think we know what it takes to produce a great research university or selective liberal arts college ($ is vaguely involved).

But do we know what it takes to produce great student learning — and even to ensure that kids actually finish college? Looking at our full set of 4500 colleges rather than the top 100, we have essentially NO idea whether and what students are learning. Graduation rates are middling at best and horrible for lower-income students. What little research has been done on learning outcomes is depressing. And yet price inflation is healthcare-like and students come out saddled with debt.

It’s really interesting when you look at it structurally. I totally share Larry’s bias toward designing competition, choice and diversity (of models/offerings) into a school system. So why isn’t that competition creating better outcomes?

Like any other market, competition on its own doesn’t get you there. In the absence of meaningful accountability, transparency or regulation, colleges aren’t competing on the right set of things. Right now, competition among 4-year colleges revolves around US News & WR rankings and ‘Carnegie climbing.’ It makes college more expensive without improving learning or graduation outcomes, which barely figure in the criteria.

Disruptive tech-enabled innovation will address some of this by creating lower-cost options, but will it necessarily produce better learning outcomes or graduation rates if market structure stays the same? I’m a long-term technology optimist so I think the answer it that it may help, but new models won’t solve our problems on their own.

So I’m not sure that we’ve got the particular mix of centralization and decentralization right even for higher ed. It’s at least one big step better in that it’s premised on choice and competition. But funding equity is worse than K12 (even with Pell etc.); there’s minimal centrally-imposed transparency or accountability (worse than K12, where there’s cleaner graduation/persistence data and at least some minimal definition of learning outcomes headed in a better direction w/Common Core); and the state of subsidized Roland-like research to learn what works is similarly pitiful.

Your summary of Larry’s take on K12 seems to apply to higher ed with some slight tweaks: decentralization without the benefits of bottoms-up innovation that come from true competition around learning outcomes & graduation rates; and without the top-down R&D and equity benefits that can come from centralization. Curious whether others would agree?