Former Midland mayor and current state senate candidate Mike Canon wants Texas colleges and universities to be run more like private sector businesses, reports the Midland Reporter-Telegram. Canon, in a February 16th editorial, has many of the same complaints of everyone else who is displeased with American higher education: Skyrocketing costs and eroding academic standards. Canon wants the private sector focus on efficiency to help colleges and universities trim costs and compete to offer higher-quality services.
Unfortunately, though Canon acknowledges the wastefulness and declining academic quality of Texas colleges and universities, he is very incorrect in assuming that less government is the way to fix things. The pursuit of profit and growth are what got public colleges and universities into this bloated quagmire in the first place. Colleges and universities allow reckless enrollment increases and eschew full-time professors for low-paid adjuncts in their pursuit of growth. These trends will only increase, not decrease, in the event of government deregulation.
Colleges which need to operate like profit-seeking businesses will further "dumb down" academic standards in order to enroll low-performing, but high-paying, applicants. They will have an incentive to pass, and eventually graduate, students who performed poorly but paid generously. The idea of colleges being more like private sector businesses entrenches the notion that a degree is something you purchase rather than something you must earn.
Fixing higher education requires wise governance, not deregulation. Canon, perhaps wanting to advocate traditional fiscal conservatism, has opined poorly. Rather than deregulation, we need more strict regulation of higher education academic standards and enrollment policies. We need to accept fewer students and ensure that those who are accepted receive the resources they need to become successful. Giving colleges and universities power to determine their own policies, based on deregulation, will solve nothing.
While Canon champions outcome-based state funding for colleges and universities, thus far limited to community and technical colleges, I urge caution. Though colleges and universities should focus more on preparing graduates for jobs and careers, and providing applicable knowledge for real-world challenges, I worry that outcome-based funding could lead to unhealthy partnerships between public colleges and private sector employers and an increase in unethical data manipulation. Basically, I worry that colleges and universities would have motivation to focus less on education and more on job placement, perhaps tweaking statistics to make the situation appear far rosier than the reality.
College X and University Y would urge Company A and Corporation B to hire their recent graduates for part-time or temporary jobs in order to maximize their outcome-based funding. In exchange, Company A and Corporation B would gain preferential status on campus when it came to contracts and recruitment. Over time, the relationship between higher education and private sector employers would become unwholesome, perhaps going so far as employers receiving kickbacks from colleges and universities in exchange for helping those institutions appear to have 100% of recent graduates employed (employed including, of course, part-time and temporary positions).
As a teacher I can attest that education is not simply a "bought and paid for" service. It requires effort on the part of both student and teacher and is best achieved when there are wise guidelines instilled. Blindly calling for deregulation to increase efficiency through competition is dangerous and wrongheaded. A college is not a factory. Good governance can be complex and nuanced and sometimes require more guidance, rather than less, to fix a problem.