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America's higher ed system could go the way of Detroit

Higher fees and indifferent results could doom American universities, just when we really need them.

America's university system is important – now more than ever. America's long-term competitive advantage is built on innovation, and innovation has been driven by our strong university system, a system that since World War II has been the pre-eminent in the world.

James Fallows, the national correspondent for the Atlantic and a perceptive observer of American culture, suggested in a recent article on the decline of America that the excellence of our university system is the one thing that gives him hope that America's downward trend can be reversed.

All of this makes last week's Economist article subtitled "Will America's universities go the way of its car companies?" more than a little worrying.

The article reports on a recently published book by liberal academics Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, titled "Higher Education -- How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids," as well as recent reports from more right-wing think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Goldwater Institute.

The picture of our universities painted by these three sources suggests administrative bloat, escalating prices, declining productivity and indifferent student results.

College fees have been rising much faster than our ability to pay them. Since 1970 the cost of the average state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students and 24 for out-of-state students. This at the same time that median household income has only grown by a factor of 6.5. The increase in college fees is even greater than the increase in health care costs over the same period.

Moreover, the average college student is spending less time studying. According to the AEI study, the average student in the '60s spent 24 hours a week studying – now that number is estimated at 14 hours per week. And college graduation rates have declined to the point that public universities do not routinely report four-year graduation rates (which are approximately 40 percent), preferring the six-year figure of just over 50 percent, hardly more encouraging.

At a time when most experts believe that more rather than less education will be needed to gain a decent job and be a productive member of society, it is sobering to note that the generation of current college students will be the first in our nation's history to have less education than their parents' generation.

Apparently college professors, rewarded for their research rather than their teaching, have come to an implicit agreement with their students: If you don't bother me, I will require less work and make sure you get a decent grade.

C and D grades have all but disappeared from college transcripts.

As one Colby professor explained it to me, today's students believe that they are entitled to at least a B, given the extraordinary price they are paying for their education.

Tenured professors' teaching workloads are modest and sabbaticals more and more frequent. The result is that lots of grad student teaching assistants do much of the real teaching.

According to Hacker and Dreifus, 20 of Harvard's 48 history professors will be on leave this year. If this weren't enough, the Goldwater Institute report stated that between 1993 and 2003, spending on administrative positions increased faster than spending on teaching faculty. At some universities today, as many as half of full-time employees are administrators.

All of this is a damning indictment of our university system -- a system that holds the key to America's competitive advantage. It is not clear how we will get out of this mess.

With state spending likely to be severely constrained over the next several years, as most states struggle to balance budgets, the public universities' share of the state budget pie is likely to decline.

Maine's university system, in particular, will be hard hit because our economy lags the national economy and our social welfare and pension costs will be exacerbated by the fact that our population is aging faster than any other state's.

In practical terms, this means for all states, including Maine, that there will simply be less money to allocate to higher education.

The kind of cost reduction that Maine's university system is now undertaking is symptomatic of the national condition, and even this is unlikely to be enough.

What America needs are new models for delivering higher education. Philanthropist Bill Gates suggests that "place-based universities" may not be the predominant model in an Internet age.

If America's universities do not wake up to this challenge, they may, indeed, go the way of Detroit – with great cost to all of us.