a proposal for college reform

Last week, I wrote that it pays for colleges merely to select the most qualified high school students and then put their energy into attracting and retaining famous scholars. They don’t actually have to educate their students, because their graduates will succeed anyway. Those admitted to selective institutions are on a track for success at age 18; a college degree will certify their talent and thus give them a big income boost. Parents, students, professors, administrators, and prospective employers have little incentive to worry about how much value the college actually provides though courses. Only the state and the taxpayers have a reason to care.

Here is possible strategy for a college that wants to break the mold:

1. Select applicants who are most likely to benefit from the education that the college offers, based on a whole new admissions process that is not designed to cherry-pick the applicants who are already most advanced at age 18. When students are ready to graduate four years later, evaluate them using a comparable assessment and boast about the “value-added.” If a college uses this approach, its SAT scores and average high-school GPA may fall, and then it will sink in the US News and World Report rankings. I would make a virtue of that result and brag about adding value instead of selecting applicants who are bound to succeed.

2. Both during the application process and at graduation, assess students on their ability to address complex, multidimensional problems, ideally in cooperation with others. (My university’s Gemstone program is an example.) Set them problems that require a combination of interpretive skills, quantitative analysis, management and communication ability, and strategic thinking. Develop the assessment with input from private-sector employers and civic leaders who can certify that a high score means readiness for work and citizenship.

3. Constantly reform the curriculum and pedagogy to maximize gains for all students on the assessments described above. Perhaps a good approach would be to assign teams of students to address elaborate, multimensional problems over six weeks or longer. Given the same faculty-student ratio and the same faculty work-load that we have today, a college could reassign its professors to interdisciplinary teams that would advise teams of students working on projects. I’m not sure that this is a great idea, but it certainly seems more promising than having professors lecture to huge classes and rely on graduate students to translate their thoughts.