Treat Higher Education Innovation Equally

July 26, 2012

In a July piece of Insider Higher Education, Audrey Watters laments the hype being given to MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses) and their potential to change higher education. In the column, she wonders about the dropout rates of these courses and whether students are actually learning anything.

Of course, those are fair questions. This line of thinking—in a vacuum—isn’t the problem with sparking innovation in higher education. In fact, these are questions we should be asking ourselves every time someone develops a new model for delivering education. The problem is the selectivity in which these questions are asked.

These are the exact same questions few are asking about traditional higher education courses. We know there are high dropout rates in both two- and four-year traditional schools—to the tune of about half our students, if not more—as we highlight in our report, Leaders & Laggards. And we know that there are studies which suggest too few students actually learn anything of value while they are in school. How can any rational person raise concerns about a new program without first raising these same concerns about an existing one?

Of course, Ms. Watters is not alone in her prejudicial evaluation. The Obama administration sought to impose “Gainful Employment” penalties on schools that have high rates of students that could not find an adequately compensated job after graduation. That regulation was thrown out by the courts this month. Why? Because the criteria used to determine whether a school was in compliance was deemed to be arbitrarily drawn. And where was the dividing line, exactly? It was strategically placed such that it would not affect traditional schools, but would substantially harm newer, independent and private sector institutions. In his ruling, Judge Rudolph Contreras stated that, “The debt repayment standard … was not based upon any facts at all.”

This is where we stand today in higher education. If you try to do something new, the powers that be are going to examine your program with a nuclear microscope and eventually find something, anything wrong with it. But, you can be as inept as you want if you’re an established institution, and no one will think twice about it.

Make no mistake—we desperately need a thorough, critical examination of our higher education programs. Yet unless that assessment is conducted under one set of rules for all institutions without predetermined outcomes, we’ll never identify the improvements we need in our colleges and universities. Worse, we’ll drive out some of the best, most innovative ideas of our generation.

Domenic Giandomenico is Director of Education and Workforce Programs at ICW.