A Lesson Plan for Public Colleges

While researching a story on the admissions practices of elite American universities for Reason magazine recently, I stumbled across a comparison of public and private technical colleges by Kent A. Farnsworth in the October 27, 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, that was remarkable for two reasons: One, it was favorable to the point of glowing toward private colleges, even advising public colleges to follow their example. And two, it was written not by some free market enthusiast, but a professor and director of the Center for International Community College Education — who describes himself as a long-standing “community college devotee.” Fransworth said he had his epiphany about private colleges when he attended a conference in Beijing organized by the World Bank’s International Corporation in 2005. He said that as president of a community college, he had always been troubled by why so many students chose to pay 10 times more to private or proprietary schools over public community colleges. The participants from emerging economies at this conference provided him the answer: Much to his amazement, he found, that, unlike the academic establishment in this country, these folks viewed the private sector in First World countries as the being far more effective in responding to the technical education needs of an economy than public colleges. “Most educators in the United States have chosen to believe that proprietary technical institutions cannot compete in quality and respectability with the public sector,” he wrote. “Yet educators in many other countries view them as setting the standard.” Why? Fransworth identifies four reasons: One, private colleges firmly keep the needs of employers in mind when developing their curricula. This allows them to build relationships with local businesses so that sometimes they guarantee jobs to graduates years in advance. Two, in order to prepare students for the workplace, these colleges place great emphasis on inculcating an ethic of professionalism, including insisting on proper attire in the classroom both by teachers and students. No strolling into class in torn jeans and an unwashed T-shirt. Three, private colleges impose on themselves strict competency-based performance standards. They don’t just indicate to employers what skills their students have been taught as public colleges do, they offer an assurance that their students have actually mastered these skills. And finally, they don’t force all students to waste time and money on courses in abstract liberal arts disciplines that have little relevance for employers. Rather, they emphasize applied courses in communications and mathematics. By the way, a lot of private colleges in India too are embracing the applied over the theoretical approach to education as I reported in a piece for Reason magazine last year called: Where did India’s skilled force come from? This is one big reason for India’s IT boom. Academics who feed at the public trough might not understand this: But the bottom-line, so to speak, is that profits are a far more effective way of enforcing accountability on the higher education industry than either the good intentions of professors or heavy-handed state regulations.