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Op-Ed: American universities have a value problem

As such, American universities continue to see enrollment climb, along with the nation’s student debt levels. Degrees have become essentials.

Prevailing wisdom contends that students graduating high school must pursue a minimum four-year degree before they stand much chance of getting anything beyond entry-level employment; so, though they can seldom afford it, they invest in continuing their education at the university level.

There, students are running into a conflict of priorities, and an absence of value that the free market, university leadership, and public awareness of the problem, have all failed to influence.

As recent reports have revealed, the student fees paid on top of tuition as part of the price of attending a university are frequently — even routinely — going to support college athletics, particularly football programs.

The American fixation on college sports presents an apparently unavoidable temptation to administrators and presidents: the prospect of boosting enrollment, national prestige, and maybe even some revenue by investing in developing and promoting football teams saps money, strategy, and attention from the student body at-large, threatening the foundational academic mission of the institutions.

What is worse, as the above-mentioned Huffington Post/Chronicle of Higher Education research shows, the athletic investment frequently fails to pay off. In effect, entering the brackets of NCAA competition broadly resembles the plight of students hoping that a four-year degree will help their employment prospects: only a few, elite programs actually and consistently provide the touted benefits, and they are part of a self-fulfilling rewards system whose membership is static.

So indebted students continue to subsidize programs that are unlikely to benefit the schools, and distract those schools from investing where it truly matters.

Coaches, sports fans, and spectators alike have bought into the illusory notion that athletics provide an intangible value: campus communities are formed around cheering on a team, and athletes who might not otherwise make it to college at all are rewarded life-changing scholarships, alongside priceless lessons in cooperation and dedication.

If those values are in fact being provided, then surely the free market would balance them with the costs of increased student fees, the compromise of standards in order to accommodate academically under-performing athletes, the specter of traumatic sports-related injury, and the trickle-down effect of college sports (and the incredibly high stakes surrounding them) to America’s high schools.

But American higher education, as a prerequisite for participation in the economy, is more like America’s healthcare system: an unresponsive, change-resistant necessity that survives by extorting a captive demographic of consumers. Neither patients nor students have much choice when it comes to price, nor recourse when it comes to value or accountability for which they are paying.

So while a few outliers pursue cutting-edge personalization technology or elect to install internal qualitative measures to improve accountability and service, the broader industries lag such progressive change and strategic realignment.

Universities aren’t subject to the demands of its student body so much as they are responsive to ESPN broadcasting agreements, Nike equipment and uniform outfitting contracts, and keeping pace with industry standards for coach salaries (even while tenured professors become a relic of the pedagogical past).

With the forces of the free market failing to disrupt a stagnant healthcare system, federal action was taken. The controversial HITECH Act, which set mandatory timelines for transitioning to digital records systems, improving coordination of care, and other challenging benchmarks for hospitals and physicians to meet.

American higher education needs similar disruption to better serve students, employers, and the interests of the nation and world in the new millennium. It is not a simple consumer-oriented good or service like any other, and can no longer afford to be treated as such.

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