In a new piece at the John William Pope Center, writer Harry R. Lewis suggests that higher education is suffering from a lack of trust.

Losing Trust in Higher Education

“Universities for a very long time have been based on trust.” So said the provost of the University of North Carolina, commenting on a report that a course taken mostly by intercollegiate athletes had never actually met. Dozens of other courses may have been similarly fraudulent, and a criminal investigation has been launched.

“One of the ramifications of this,” the provost went on to tell the New York Times, “is that now we can no longer operate on trust.”

That prediction applies not just to UNC, and it is a scary prospect. The entire higher education “system” operates on trust, and the public has been finding more and more reasons to be mistrustful.

The scare quotes around the word “system” are there for a reason: there is no higher education system, any more than there is a vehicle system—there are cars and trucks and bikes and motorbikes, built by competing companies to address different markets, among which consumers may move.

Similarly, students confront an array of institutions: community colleges, research universities, for-profit online universities, and so on. Also in the mix are the accrediting agencies that are supposed to provide minimal quality guarantees, but quite aside from questions about the effectiveness of those agencies, it is hard to say what accreditation should mean.

At the other end of the granularity scale, the individual student wandering into a class has little idea, and no reliable expectation, of how she will be taught or what she will learn. Official and unofficial course evaluation guides may help students gauge courses’ entertainment value or workload, but they can be worse than useless in helping students judge a course’s contribution to learning, presumably the reason students came to college.

Higher education, like K-12, has recently been called on to measure outcomes, but it is hard to be confident that the things that can be measured are much related to the real purposes. So it is still the case that most of the time, everybody is stuck trusting that the universities know what they are doing.