The Three "I" Words Key to Improving America’s Universities

Dr. Richard Vedder | Published 9/21/2021

Dr. Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder, senior advisor to Optimal, is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, and is the author of numerous books and articles on higher education, including Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America. He also served on the Spellings Commission to study affordability, accountability, quality, and innovation in higher education.

Views and opinions expressed in board advisor's writing are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Optimal.

Whenever someone presses me to summarize the keys to improving higher education in America, I say I can do it with just three words: Information, Incentives, and Innovation.

Positive higher educational change requires that the major players – universities, students, their families, even political leaders – know more about what schools do and how well they succeed or fail. That requires having good information about what goes on in higher education. You can’t improve something unless you know what the problems are.

In this inaugural epistle to the Optimal community, I will elaborate only briefly on the three “I” words but expect more in subsequent columns. There are a lot of missteps by students seeking postsecondary educational opportunities because of faulty or incomplete information.

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Here’s a disheartening fact: A majority of American students entering a four-year college full-time fail to earn a bachelor’s degree in the advertised (and expected) four years. About two in five students do not get a degree in even six years.

Going to college is satisfying intellectually, socially and sometimes even financially, but it is a risky decision. The best fit for one student may be the worst choice for another. For some, applying to Harvard makes great sense, while for others it would be a terrible waste of time and money. The human race is not 7 billion identical people whose tastes, preferences, aptitudes, and resources are all the same. Indeed, it is the differences in humans that complicate life but make it far more interesting and vital. That is why providing information to the various participants in the college decision-making process―especially students and their families―is so very important.

The best fit for one student may be the worst choice for another, which is why providing information is so important.

But information, while vital, is not enough. Teachers, administrators, students, and others involved in higher ed sometimes need to be nudged to improve educational outcomes. Whereas highly successful innovators and business leaders are incentivized financially, that is typically not the case in higher education. Incentives are important for fostering growth.

As our stock of human understanding increases―in considerable part because of research conducted at colleges and universities―the best way to do things changes. I've noticed that teaching is the only profession where there has been no measurable improvement in productivity since Socrates taught the youth of Athens 2,400 years ago. However, the advancement of computer-based technologies in only the past half-century has allowed for remarkable changes in the way we disseminate ideas, which we must embrace to improve higher education. Innovation is what brings it all together.

In a world where there are literally several thousand different providers of college degrees, picking the right one is a huge challenge.

Making a college choice is not a trivial decision, and for those inexperienced at making major investment decisions involving years of time and tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, it can be a daunting exercise. While tastes and preferences vary, most young people look at college as a ticket to a good life, including the minimum middle-class creature comforts like nice housing, occasional neat vacations, the latest electronic gadgets, etc.

In a world where there are literally several thousand different providers of college degrees, picking the right one is a huge challenge. We will pursue further dimensions of this challenge in the coming weeks.