Taking on 'Sacred Cows' in Higher Education

Article excerpt

Few would argue that American higher education is a formidable presence in the world. But to James Carlin, it's on the brink of crisis. It's time, he says, to stand up and say "enough is enough" to soaring tuition, unproductive professors, and lower standards.

A successful businessman and self-styled Paul Revere-with-an- attitude, Mr. Carlin stepped down last month after four years as chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. But that doesn't mean his voice will go silent. He plans to keep asking the tough questions that frequently cause a tempest inside the ivory towers. He's even in the process of organizing a loose national confederation of business people to take his reform message around the United States.

Carlin's central concern: Soaring tuitions are causing rising indebtedness of students and parents. Tuition at four-year institutions has risen more than 100 percent since 1980. Median family income has grown just 12 percent in the same period. He predicts that unless costs are brought under control, a year at a private college will cost $50,000 a decade from now. Even state colleges and universities will be $15,000-$20,000 "unless we turn the trend around." That's simply unacceptable, Carlin says, since college is considered a necessary ticket to a better life, and nearly two- thirds of high school graduates go on to college today compared with just a few percent of the public at the turn of the century. "Tuitions and fees have gone crazy - off the Richter scale," he says. "Why are the costs of delivering higher education so high? Why are admissions standards so low? Why is it so easy to graduate?" In an interview in his Natick, Mass., office, Carlin is blunt about what he doesn't like - and how things should be fixed. "Colleges and universities, in general, are grossly inefficient and ineffective in terms of how they manage their enterprises," he says. "But if somebody makes a suggestion that maybe you shouldn't have four Egyptian history professors on a campus where only 10 kids are majoring in Egyptian history - and maybe you ought to let three of those professors go - you've got a {faculty} revolution on your hands." Such statements make critics cringe. Carlin, they say, oversimplifies complex problems and poses business solutions to something that's not a business. It's clear that Carlin takes cues from the free market. He adamantly denies that he wants to remodel higher education as a business. But in the next breath, he points out that the 3,600 colleges and universities nationwide are a $200 billion-a-year industry -and businesslike efficiencies must be adopted to contain costs. "You've got underutilization of the physical plant - you've got tenure - which basically ties your hands on how you can manage your work force," he says. …

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