American Higher Education

Higher ed leaders would be wise to internalize these wise words from Toshihiro Nagamatsu: “We are always at our worst. You may think you are a good company today, but make no mistake you are not. You may become better tomorrow, but still you are toward the back. At any moment, somewhere in this world there is someone doing the same work better. There is no end. You must continually seek to improve” in academics as well as administration.

Over the course of 20-plus years, top administrators made a grievous and potentially fatal error: They allowed the price of education (tuition, board, meal plans, and fees) to exceed its value. The same has happened in some European countries — notably, Great Britain.

In public higher education, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding was diverted to for-profit businesses for tax breaks, to attract companies to a state or town, or to hire or retain employees. In the past, money was given by the state with few or no strings attached. While that has now changed, the damage is done and tuition and fees are unlikely to go down to the levels of twenty or thirty years ago (inflation adjusted).

Even if prices were to return to levels 20 or 30 years ago, prices remain high given the lack of wage growth needed to pay tuition and fees over that same time period.

To make matters worse, higher education is reflexively averse to much that comes from the for-profit business world, and that includes process improvement. Sure, many universities today have process improvement activities going on in administrative functions (which suffer from extreme bloat, meaning, over-employment — particularly in the higher-paying jobs). But that is not nearly enough — and where it exists, process improvement often yields poor results due to misunderstandings, poor methodologies, and bureaucracy.

Remarkably, universities still have nothing going on with respect to process improvement in academic activities — teaching, the value-adding part of the university — work that I pioneered beginning in 2000. Administrators remain unwilling to challenge faculty to improve teaching, department administration, and various academic committee work.

Is it too late for higher ed to save itself? It might be. The top universities (Ivies, certain small private colleges, and flagship state universities) will survive and prosper because their prices will continue to be paid by someone, regardless of the quality of the education. Most others will struggle. No matter what, the fundamental problem remains: price exceeds value.

There are a few ways out of this mess: offer discounts, close academic programs, lay off staff and faculty, merge with another university, take over another university, or close the university. No imagination here.

What would be imaginative is to overcome one’s preconceptions and do what some for-profit companies do to survive their own decades of mismanagement: Lean management. And, specifically, get everyone engaged in kaizen, from president to the lowest levels of the institution, to eliminate the massive amount of waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness that exists in higher education. Do you want fact-based evidence of the need to improve all aspects of higher education? See this, this, this, and this.

These books describe the waste that exists in higher education, the opportunities for improvement, and the path to revival of higher education from its current moribund state.

Higher Ed Books
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