We are. State Penn.

November 11, 2011

The PSU mess spotlights need for systemic change in higher education

Full disclosure. I am not a Penn State grad, but I am a fan, a big one. Not just of its football team, but also the role the university has played in my family’s history. It was Penn State that transformed a coal miner’s son into an educated man, my father, who through the GI Bill graduated from PSU before dedicating his life to education. He never forgot that gift, and lived in gratitude — which is why I never thought I would write this: “I am glad my father is not alive to see the Penn State mess.”

The details are horrific. Unbelievable in every way. Damage done at every level. It’s all much more than public relations or damage control. It pains me to even mention those terms in this regard. No. The problems here are much, much deeper. Systemic.

I place blame where no one else is looking. The cloistered world of higher education. Change has to come and hopefully, the PSU example can create a more transparent and relevant system of higher education here in America.

Penn State, like many colleges and universities, has become the ultimate bubble. Where football trumps education. Where binge drinking is celebrated and institutionalized. Where on any given fall Saturday, 100,000 people engage in a false culture of alcohol-fueled friends and good times. It’s where the 84-year-old head coach, who isn’t really coaching, has that fact covered up by assistants. Where students are encouraged to mortgage their futures by taking on mountains of debt. Where too many families part with their lives’ savings to fund educations that employers don’t want, while jobs in engineering and the sciences go begging.

It’s where tuition dollars fund climbing walls. Where free laundry service has more promotional value than a new physics lab. And it’s where quality is set by a ranking in U.S. News & World Report. In this alternate reality, is it any wonder that a coach, an athletic director, a college president could overlook child abuse to protect one of their own?

Two years ago, Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” ran a horrifying piece about Penn State and its love of alcohol and abhorrent behavior. When I told my Penn State friends about it, they denied all of it.

When now-disgraced former Penn State President Graham Spanier came to power, it was as a reformer. But he soon caved to alumni and hometown pressure to keep the wine flowing. The party going. In the “This American Life” segment, Spanier almost sounds proud that PSU was named the top party school in America.

Need further proof of just how far colleges have distorted our perceptions? Google “the best college in America.” You get thousands of hits by schools identifying themselves as the best. Google “the worst schools in America,” and you find few lists or reporting. Clearly marketers have swamped objective reporting and commenting when it comes to reviewing colleges and universities. In their world, they are all the best.

For years, I have screamed that the bubble had to burst. PSU might be the first pin prick in the process. Here’s how to accelerate it:

1. Public institutions have to start being accountable to the public. We pay the freight to keep PSU, its administration, and faculty in business. Yet, the institution failed to reflect the values of its paying constituents. Theirs is a culture of secrecy, cover-up, and protecting insiders. As taxpayers, we should demand greater visibility and transparency from the public institutions we expect to instill life skills in our kids. PSU has become a company town with one product. Football. It protects its own for the good of the company. That reeks. The odor can’t continue.

2. The National Association of Tuition-Paying Parents. Right now, parents have little or no voice, other than to keep writing checks. Somehow, some way, parents need to tilt the balance of power. An association modeled after AARP but focused on the rights of tuition-paying parents, would pressure schools to become more open, responsible citizens.

3. Start an HMO for education — a Tuition Management Organization. The ever-escalating cost of college, much of it fueled by the very bloated bureaucracies that failed to take even the most basic steps to protect young people at Penn State, has to end. Blank checks breed lunacy. We need the HMO model applied to colleges to rein it in. Imagine if an organization would arise to aggregate student lives and negotiate with providers (colleges) for discounts. What kind of deal could be devised with a Big Ten University if 6,000 incoming freshman refused to pay their tuition until they all received a 30 percent discount?

4. Demand transparency in pricing. Everyone seems to get a different deal. College prices are fraudulently (I contend illegally) overstated to suggest quality. Those in the know negotiate. Others overpay. Colleges must be made to publish their real price and the actual costs paid by each family by income (anonymously to protect privacy) so consumers can shop and compare. The Internet has empowered the consumer in buying everything from homes to cars. Not education. Why? How are colleges insulated from the real world of supply and demand? Product quality?

5. Transform college football by establishing a pro minor league at select schools. It’s preposterous that these kids risk lifelong injury for their universities and colleges, make hundreds of millions of dollars for these schools, and receive nothing — often, not even an education. College football should be a two-tier system. Big time programs pay athletes and stop the charade. Smaller programs compete for the love of the game. Cheating schools lose their programs.

So as of this morning, the riots have calmed at PSU. Some wrong may have been righted. But without real change and true transparency in higher education, all of this is a short-term fix to a system that is out of control and out of touch with what the real world now expects from organizations.

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