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Thursday, June 29, 2017 12:19 am

Real innovation

Rethinking, not just reforming, public higher ed

Job-specific training should be done by corporate training centers or trade schools.


We can all agree that Illinois’ public higher education system is in a state of crisis – or rather crises. Bruce Rauner, living in his own private Illinois, believes that tax-supported colleges and universities cost too much, thanks to bloated bureaucracies, high pension payouts, union work rules and redundant course offerings. Then there is the crisis perceived by much of the public as the governor himself drives both bond buyers and new students away from Illinois state schools, in the hope that the prospect of ruin will allow him to extort anti-worker concessions from lawmakers.

Ask me what is the crisis in public higher ed – no one has asked, but it could happen – and I will tell you that college costs too much, yes, but it is students, not taxpayers, who are being ripped off. Degrees that certify the completion of glorified job training cost more and more and are worth less and less.

Yes, there have been innovations of a sort, such as the University of Illinois’ expansion (so far to 800-plus courses) of massive open online courses or MOOCs. Proud as I am to live in a state where one can become a Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication from the comfort of one’s own home, making it more convenient to earn a university degree in corporate voodoo will not reinvigorate the commonwealth.

None of these “innovations” comes close to addressing the core problem, which is that too many Illinois kids are being funneled into colleges whether they ought to be there or not. The goal of a reformed higher ed ought not to be doing more with less, but doing less, period. Not all the useful work in the world needs college training, and not all the bright kids in Illinois ought to be college students.

Shouldn’t we put post-high school education back into the real world, where it used to dwell? Classrooms are good places to learn how to know but not how to do. Lots of subprofessions, from architecture to teaching and, yes, journalism are better taught in ateliers or design collectives or apprenticeships under the personal guidance of masters in the field. Every trade has its own traditions, its own ethos, its own ethics, and those are best learned on the job.

Imagine some of the public money that now supports conventional higher ed going to small independent shops run by artisanal bakers or organic farmers or web designers to support apprenticeships. Not only would such stipends rescue kids not suited to conventional classroom work, they would in many cases make the difference between such independent types going out of business.

In my better world, much of the job-specific training offered by the U of I and kindred institutions would be done by corporate training centers or trade schools largely funded by same. Why should public money pay the costs of preparing a private workforce? Why does the American Bar Association not finance law schools? As for the convenient sciences, elite polytechnic universities like the U of I ought to substantially be paid for by the entities, military and commercial, that profit from them.

We need managerial reform less than we need market disruption, led by thinkers who work a little harder to make post-secondary education fit every kid rather than work furiously to make every kid fit for college. Mr. Rauner, I am convinced, is not the man to do such thinking. (Nor is education secretary Beth Purvis, who is playing Anna to Rauner’s King of Siam.) He takes a narrow utilitarian view of what education is good for, which is to make money, which he regards as an unquestioned good for both the individual and the state. His kind of reform is about mission only to the extent that he sees higher ed as an economic engine. Innovation used to be a happy accident of work universities did for better reasons; turning higher ed into a lean, mean inventing machine would not reform higher ed, it would pervert it.

He also takes a similarly narrow view of reform. His “reformed” higher ed is administratively streamlined, with lower overhead, less “redundancy” in course offerings and teachers getting paid what they can get, not what they are worth. None of these things have much to do with the quality of higher ed, however much they promise to lower costs to taxpayers. Rauner’s agenda, in short, vastly underestimates what might be done – and ought to be done – with public higher ed. Illinois needs not a vastly reorganized system but a radically reimagined one.

Mr. Krohe is the author of  Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois from Southern Illinois University Press. In the bookstores after July 26, it is available online at and other dealers.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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