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Five Lessons K–12 Can Learn from Higher Ed by Jenna Robinson

Colleges aren’t perfect, but they can be instructive for the public schools.

U.S. colleges and universities don’t get everything right. On the whole, they’re overpriced, operationally hidebound, and ideologically stagnant. Despite those problems, American higher education does some things very well—well enough that students from around the world still choose to come to the United States to get advanced degrees.

Primary and secondary schools could learn a lot by taking a close look at some of the best practices in higher education. The underlying difference is that higher education behaves more like a free market, where individual choices and actions determine the outcome.

Here are five things that universities gets right:

1.  Students learn at their own pace. When a student gets to college or university, she arrives with a cohort of other students. They’re mostly the same age, and they’ll probably all take English 101 within their first year on campus. But that’s where the class structure ends. After English 101, students all go their own ways, taking classes to suit their particular talents and interests. Entrance exams mean that students enroll in the math or foreign language courses commensurate with their skills. And if a student flunks differential equations or organic chemistry, he doesn’t have to be held back a whole year. He moves on with the rest of his courses while he retakes the one problem class. There are even classes like “economics for non-majors” that allow students to explore a subject without taking difficult prerequisites or learning complicated methodology.

In K–12, students advance in lockstep with their peers. Students must learn all subjects at the same speed. Special talent in math or language doesn’t result in early promotion to the next level. Until students reach late middle school or early high school, they are expected to learn at exactly the same rate as their peers. And adherence to social promotion (which is allowed in half of U.S. states) means that all students advance from one grade to the next, regardless of achievement. This practice occurs despite the evidence that retaining students who fail their courses generates better outcomes for those students.

2.  Students and parents have skin in the game. Paying tuition affects parents’ and students’ behavior in two ways. First, they shop around for the best deal—not necessarily the cheapest school, but the school at which they can get the most bang for their buck. Second, paying tuition motivates students to care about their educational success (or lack thereof). No one wants to see their hard-earned dollars go down the drain—and scholars have found that this is true for money spent on higher education, particularly as a student approaches graduation. Loans, savings, and money earned from working are better motivators for students to stay in school than scholarships or grants.

If students fail their elementary school courses, they don’t have any financial stake in that failure—at least, not until very far in the future. And parents can’t easily make comparisons to tell whether they’re getting any bang for their buck. Thus, they don’t have strong incentives to hold schools and teachers accountable. More importantly, parents who send their children to public schools can’t take their education dollars elsewhere. Even if one student leaves, the school district will quickly fill her spot with someone else.

3.  Professors are required to have degrees in their field. Community college and university departments only hire professors and lecturers with degrees in the subjects they teach. Professors teaching Introduction to American Government at State U. can be expected to have a Ph.D. in political science—probably with a concentration in American politics. They also research in that same field, keeping abreast of the latest scholarship on their topic. Professors are experts in their own discipline when they enter a classroom to teach undergraduates.

In K–12 schools, many teachers have degrees in education and have spent more time studying pedagogy than the subject they teach. In many states, teachers are even rewarded with raises for getting advanced degrees—regardless of whether that degree is in their field. But the success of programs like Teach for America makes it clear that an education degree can’t substitute for good subject knowledge.

4.  Students can attend any school for which they’re qualified. College students aren’t “zoned” for particular schools. Even public colleges and universities don’t limit applications to students from certain area codes (although they often cap out-of-state enrollment). This system means that every student who chooses to go to college must weigh the costs and benefits of each option and make a decision about where to apply and attend; they cannot simply rely on a default option. Because students can choose where to attend, colleges compete to offer students what they want: good graduation rates, tuition discounts, face time with professors, and opportunities for extracurricular activities. The importance of U.S. News and World Report’s yearly college rankings is a testament to the power of education consumers’ choices.

In stark contrast, a large majority of students in most public school districts simply attend the school for which they’re zoned, and few students consider charter, private, or home-school options.

5.  Professors are paid as individuals, not as a collective. University professors in demanding fields, with unique or extraordinary talent, or with impressive resumes are paid more. Thus, the mean salary for a professor of engineering is $117,911 annually, while a history professor earns $82,944. Instructors, who do no research, earn less than tenure-track professors, who are expected to publish. Moreover, professors are evaluated on their merits when they are up for tenure. How many journal articles have they published? How good (or bad) are their student evaluations? Have they performed any administrative, advising, or outreach work to the satisfaction of the committee? University teachers receive no credit for simply sticking around for a requisite amount of time.

In K–12 public schools, however, “longevity pay” accrues to all teachers who continue to show up. Schools award tenure, in most cases, simply for teaching for a certain number of years without getting negative reviews. Most tellingly, teacher pay is rarely based on individual merit. Teachers receive raises en masse, sometimes for school performance and sometimes just because it’s a good budget year.

Higher education is by no means perfect. But by allowing some market processes, it has avoided the worst failures of the public school system. Politicians and K–12 educators should take heed.


Jenna Robinson is director of outreach at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is courtesy of FEE and Shutterstock.