Colleges need to change priorities

It is easy to understand legislators in Indiana and other states taking steps against public higher education. Public colleges and universities represent a different culture, a different set of values, a different point of view than are found in political and business lives.

In politics, the goal is to satisfy particular groups who offer their votes and money for one cause or another. In business, the goal is to satisfy the owners, which is often done by satisfying the customers of the business.

The goals of colleges and universities once were to satisfy a set of scholarly ideals maintained by the faculty. If a student could satisfy those goals, then she or he was awarded a document called a certificate or diploma; we then celebrated the event with a “graduation,” a moving on.

Yet, as public colleges and universities receive less and less of their funding from governments and businesses, the demands on those institutions are rising.

In the Hoosier state, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education is pressuring for higher and higher graduation rates from our public institutions. State financial assistance is being tied to those rates.

Previously, the state paid a per-student amount to our public schools. The push was for more college students; schools responded by increasing enrollments.

Now, the boards and administrators of colleges and universities are intent on seeing students graduate in four or two years, depending on the curriculum offered by the school.

This is considered efficient. If students take longer than the nominal time deemed necessary to complete a course of study, they are wasting their resources plus those of the school, their families and the taxpayers.

Leading administrators now guarantee students they can complete their degrees in the designated time; all necessary courses will be offered with sufficient frequency to accommodate all students who apply themselves to their studies.

Lost in all this good will for the greater good is: “How are we to know that the twin goals of education are being met?” First, do the students graduating “on time” know subject matter better than those taking additional semesters to graduate?

If certification is all we require, we can expect more students certified, whether or not they have achieved the goals of education. We see this in many of our primary and secondary schools. Certainly institutions of higher education will catch on and perfect degree milling.

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to