July 18, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:27 am
THE ARTFUL STRATEGIST

State's higher ed reform puts a skeptic in charge

Of all the shuffling and consolidating that Gov. Dan Malloy came up with this year to pretend to balance the budget, perhaps nothing was as painless and under-the-radar as the merging of the state's various higher education fiefdoms.

For a small state with a population about the size of Chicago, Connecticut has been home to enough different college and university campuses and administrative bodies to service several medium-sized countries.

In the best of times, politicians love to provide generously for the care and feeding of higher education. The campuses provide teaching and research slots for political pals, they funnel research money to projects blessed by politicians and lobbyists — and in a state such as Connecticut, generosity toward higher ed is a subtle way of saying goodbye to the brass mills and typewriter factories and textile plants, and hello to high-tech and Shakespeare scholars.

And even then, the community colleges can be trotted out and funded well, with an acknowledgement that someone must learn about heating, air conditioning and car repair.

It is a political Garden of Eden. You fund, or overfund, higher ed; you bask in the praise — with the recognition that the means to evaluate the "investment" is almost nonexistent. The marginal value of that next dollar you spend on higher ed? Who knows? Who cares?

Long before the recent job-gobbling recession and ongoing economic sluggishness, a federal Monthly Labor Review study in the 1990s noted that many college graduates were accepting jobs appropriate for high school graduates, because the United States has "a surplus of university graduates."

Of course, now that every state has dreams of being the next high-tech oasis, the lust for college graduates is unabated, whether or not there are jobs at the end of the rainbow.

The interim president of Connecticut's new Board of Regents of Higher Education, Michael P. Meotti, has an admirable record of being honest about the weirdness of higher education expectations, finance and governance. It was Meotti, in his previous role as higher education commissioner, who earlier this year declined to revel in Connecticut's ranking as the seventh highest herd, by percentage, of post-secondary degree holders in the nation.

He noted that while our suburban assembly line of affluent suburban kids will certainly give us an admirable population of college grads, other states were increasing their percentage at a faster rate than Connecticut.

Meotti followed up in March with a concern that Connecticut might not be getting its money worth from its generous spending on higher education; that the impressive numbers might just reflect a Northeastern population of college-bound kids who know how to finish their homework on time.

That question of smart kids succeeding, whether or not the state sprinkles generous dollars all over campus — or even whether the college they attend is particularly outstanding — is not unique to Meotti, although I'm putting some words in his mouth that he would say more delicately.

Writing in Forbes magazine last year, the eminent British historian Paul Johnson pondered whether the best colleges "are characterized not so much by what they teach and how they teach it, but by the extent they provide opportunities and encouragement for students to teach themselves."

Meotti was a big fan of consolidating the Department of Higher Education and the community college overseers and the state university system. He is expected to get his wish, to take over the whole mess, which is expected to save the state a few million bucks in administrative nonsense, but more interestingly, will, at least in theory, put one man in charge of puzzling through the great mystery that is higher education.

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

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