Neal: Daniels Sets Sights on Higher-Ed Reform

February 4, 2013

For release Feb. 6 and thereafter (660 words)

by Andrea Neal 

Mitch Daniels’ recent letter to the Purdue University community was the equivalent of a 12-page research paper on the state of higher education, so Boilermakers can be forgiven if they didn’t read every word of it. The content merits attention from all Hoosiers, no matter their college loyalties.

To summarize: The cost of college has gone up while the value of a degree has gone down. This is no longer acceptable to taxpayers or families. Higher education “is likely headed for big change” and universities that fail to adjust their operating model won’t last. Those that do will become accountable for their product, i.e. price, graduation rates and quality of their graduates. The latter, by the way, includes content knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Get ready, Purdue, for the kinds of headlines Daniels generated as Indiana governor. Daniels clearly believes that Purdue will be one of the survivors, so it might as well “be a leader in taking accountability for the excellence to which it lays claim.”

His pronouncements are already drawing notice from higher-ed reform groups, including Minding the Campus, the Center for College Affordability & Productivity and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Daniels’ tenure as Purdue president will be “fun to watch.”

Perhaps “fun” trivializes the urgent and difficult task before Daniels. As noted by the nonprofit Heartland Institute, “Higher education has been notoriously resistant to reform.”  So many constituencies have a say in campus decisions that innovation has been slow, timid and rare. Daniels will no doubt face stiff resistance from his own tenured faculty and administrators.

He has chosen wisely to lead by example. Daniels signed a five-year performance-based contract with the board of trustees that will reward him if Purdue achieves specific goals. Among the measures mentioned in his contract: graduation rates, student debt lower than the national average, fundraising and faculty excellence.

Student achievement will also be a factor though few universities know how to define or measure it. There’s nothing like the K-12 ISTEP test to assess student mastery of the variety of subject matter delivered at the college level. The contract indicates that Purdue will seek to “develop programs to measure the growth of student academic knowledge and understanding.”

This would make Purdue a pioneer and is especially laudable in light of overwhelming evidence that “today’s college students, on average, learn less than those of preceding generations,” as stated by Heartland.

Or, as stated by researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, they are “academically adrift.” Their groundbreaking 2010 book of the same title documented the following: One-third of college undergraduates experience no significant improvement in learning over four years of college; almost half show no notable advances in critical thinking or reasoning during the first two years of college.

Grade inflation has aggravated the trend. Daniels himself noted critics’ concern that a college diploma has become “a surrogate marker for the intelligence required to gain admission in the first place.” Purdue, he pointed out, has been a “proud outlier” offering rigorous and relevant curriculum.

Daniels’ eight years as governor have prepared him to be a leader in higher ed reform, and early signs are that Purdue’s trustees will allow him to do so. If Purdue hits his contractual goals, Daniels could earn up to 30 percent above his base salary of $420,000. A perfect score, which trustees consider unlikely, would mean a salary of $546,000, still only 10th out of the 12 Big 10 university presidents.

“Keep an eye on Mitch Daniels,” advises Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity.

“He showed as governor he could cut costs, confront powerful special interests, keep the price of government services reasonable and still remain pretty popular … I think he just might have what it takes to confront and overcome the many powerful forces preventing constructive change in American higher education.”

His presidency will for sure be fun to watch.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at



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