"Cost-Effective" College Plan Could Chill Innovation

"Cost-Effective" College Plan Could Chill Innovation

By Julio M. Ottino and Mark P. Mills - October 26, 2013

Rising prosperity and all associated social benefits flow from innovation -- none of which is found in the halls of Congress. It is in the halls of colleges and universities where we find and foster innovators -- and where America’s unique advantage resides.

More innovation yields more growth, and consequently more taxes and perhaps fewer political battles in a world where the economic “pie” expands.

With the latest political budget fracas behind us (for now), attention will return to the affordability of higher education precisely because of the pivotal role universities play in our future. But affordability and effectiveness are entirely different things.

The White House has proposed a federal system to rank the cost-effectiveness of universities. The logic? Education is expensive and cash is precious in these tough economic times. The government could use ratings to allocate federal funds based on cost-effectiveness.

But imagine for a minute proposing a similar government ranking system for, say, Silicon Valley. After all, technology start-ups are also essential to America’s future. It’s costly to create new businesses. And, as with universities, Washington “spends” billons of dollars on start-ups in the form of tax treatments, grants and subsidies. The government, using the same logic, could use rankings to ensure the most bang for the federal buck.

A cost-based federal ranking system would be as much a disaster for the uncontrolled fecundity of Silicon Valley as it would be for our universities.

The best thing about America’s educational system -- where we find half of the entire world’s top 100 universities -- is that, just like Silicon Valley, there is no system. It is Darwinian and ideally suited to the chaos created by technology and social change, and by the reality that the future is unpredictable.

What we do know is that the future will be different largely because of technology. Technology’s impact on education is not readily amenable to any single measure of effectiveness. The two most remarkable transformations now underway within universities are effective for opposite reasons.

First we see the trend towards MOOCs: Massively Open Online Courses. The information revolution has yielded broadband communications increasingly affordable to billions of people, bringing video anywhere anytime from desktop to palmtop. The student-teacher ratio for MOOCs is measured in the thousands, even tens of thousands, to one.

MOOCs amplify popular lecturers and bring ABCs and algebra to broad audiences. They make basic learning accessible to millions who would otherwise have nothing, making the entire planet a virtual campus.

Meanwhile on the physical campus, instruction is also adapting to powerful tech trends. Digital technologies are infusing disciplines from history and literature to the arts, journalism, and medicine. And we find that students who use social media to interact fluidly and across disciplines are increasingly eager to connect in person. Consequently the educational imperative now is to foster cross-disciplinary interactions that are necessarily personal and on-site. And they are effective.

Design for America, launched at Northwestern University and spreading out amongst many universities, is just one example (there are myriad similar ones) that physically brings students together from different universities and disciplines in order to generate creative solutions for anything from childcare to hospital care to home products. “Design” itself is an increasingly hot field, inherently multi-disciplinary. Design is where companies like Apple and Ford excel.

On-campus interdisciplinary studio-based courses have student-teacher ratios measured in the single digits. Expensive, to be sure, but effective. We’re producing the kind of talented, flexible, and creative individuals everyone says we need more of in every corner of the economy.

America’s elite institutions can take much credit for priming the pump on both hyper-integrated on-campus learning, as well as hyper-distributed lectures through MOOCs. Variants on these models are spreading rapidly across America’s university system where we find that there is no magic framework or student-teacher ratio. And there is no single fiscal metric for effectiveness.

MOOCs aren’t for everyone, nor are hyper-connected courses. Variants and fusions of the two extremes are blossoming at hundreds of first-rate public and private institutions. The American educational system is uniquely adaptive because it is large, diverse and malleable.

The temptation to measure effectiveness is doubtless inspired by the current stubbornly high unemployment rate and low salaries for too many university graduates. But that problem is mainly a consequence of the current state of the economy, about which nothing can be done by tinkering with universities. Changes in higher education reveal themselves in generational time frames, not in short political cycles.

In any case, when it comes to fixing problems, only 19 percent of the public believes the government will, in general, “do the right thing,” according to a recent Gallup poll. Juxtapose that against other polls that show more than half of those surveyed think the state of higher education is good or excellent. While there’s more work to be done to improve universities, as with Silicon Valley, the appropriate leadership won’t come from inside the Beltway.

And we cannot measure universities by their ability to produce trained workers. There is a vital place for vocational training in schools and corporations. But the reality is we can no better predict and lock in today than we could have 50 years ago what we think the future will demand of our universities, their students or future innovators. 

Julio M. Ottino is a professor of engineering and dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University. Mark P. Mills, a physicist, is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute and a member of the McCormick Board of Advisors.

Julio M. Ottino and Mark P. Mills

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