by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef contends in his latest Martin Center column that at least one former university president sees what ails the academy.
Often, the strongest criticisms of higher education come from insiders. One insider is Daniel Johnson, who retired as president of the University of Toledo in 2006 after an academic career that included several senior leadership positions. He has recently published a book, The Uncertain Future of American Public Higher Education, that illuminates many of the worst problems besetting higher ed.
Much of Johnson’s analysis is excellent, but he misfires on some. I will start with the book’s best sections.
While some of our higher education traditions are sound, many others, Johnson argues, are outmoded. They lead to “unaffordable costs for students, ineffective and inefficient delivery of instruction, and failure to adapt to advanced, lower cost, and more effective technologies and methods.”
Foremost among those outmoded traditions is the way colleges award credit for “seat time” rather than for learning. The truth, Johnson says, is that the credit hour system “measures neither education nor learning.” Thus, we compel students who pursue college degrees to spend huge amounts of money on courses when what they really want is knowledge—knowledge that could be more expeditiously delivered.
Johnson points to three alternatives to the traditional credit hour system—The Bologna Process (widely accepted in Europe), the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, and the Turning USA Initiative—each of which, he writes, “stress active learning, knowledge, and competencies, not seat time credit, as the path to a degree.” Unfortunately, the inertia of the higher education system, combined with the fact that most faculty members like the status quo, prevents us from making much progress in replacing the seat time tradition.