There are trends in higher education that those of us of follow this sort of thing like to track. There’s an increasing focus on accountability. There are the ever-escalating cost. There’s lately a great deal of worry about how much varsity athletes are worth. There’s a push to get more an more parts of higher education online.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan has his semi-regular “ask questions of the secretary” discussion on Twitter (an event, admittedly, not geared for journalists) I often try to get him to answer my major question for all education policymakers: what are the worst trends in higher education. He never bites.

Well, former Cornell President Hunter R Rawlings III has some ideas. At a recent alumni day talk at Princeton he a great deal of time talking about what was wrong in education and what direction we should move in in the future. As he put it

[A] barrage of criticism [of American academia] stems from looking at universities as businesses: bloated, expensive, out of date, ripe for disruption like the music and newspaper industries. After years of recession, falling middle-class salaries, and rising tuition (much of it caused by withdrawal of state support), college is viewed by many Americans as a purely instrumental means of preparing for a job, any job. Credentialing is dominant now, and fits well with American pragmatism, love of business, and desire for efficiency. This is one of the principal reasons for the (overhyped) reaction to online education in the last 15 months: MOOCs [“massive open online courses”] and other online instruments seemed to offer a quick, cheap fix for the notoriously inefficient nature of academia.

But the real threat to higher education today is, in my opinion, not internal, it is ideological: the expectation that universities will become instruments of society’s will, legislators’ will, governors’ will, that they will be required to produce specific quantifiable results, particularly economic, and to cease researching and teaching certain subjects that do not fit the utilitarian model. Last year [Oklahoma] Sen. Tom Coburn got an amendment to the Senate budget bill essentially requiring the National Science Foundation to stop funding research in political science. Texas has instituted a system by which to quantify professors’ work and evaluate them according to the number of students they teach and the grant dollars they bring in. Florida came close last year to charging extra tuition to students studying humanities at state colleges in order to discourage the practice. President Obama wants the Education Department to rate universities on a numerical scale, and many states are now already evaluating universities on the basis of the average earnings of their alumni 18 months after graduation. We are in the age of data, we measure anything that can be measured, and we treat what we measure as dispositive: We take the part for the whole.

There’s nothing wrong with accountability. Accountability is a good thing. But it’s also difficult. The important part is paying attention to what matters, not just paying attention to what’s easy to count. Education is more complicated, and more valuable, than that. Rawlings:

There are scientific, and there are poetic, renderings of the brain. I am drawn to both, but… we human beings aspire to understanding and joining with higher things, universal things, things we cannot see or touch. I don’t know how to measure the value of Emily Dickinson’s poem, but… she knew how to measure the brain, the sky, the sea, and even God.

Whatever we do, let’s not let the bean counters diminish the creation and teaching of qualitative things.

An understandable reaction of many taxpayers is something like this: “If the school is funded by MY taxes then its only right that I get to define its goal, purpose, and operation?”

But that’s not the best way to ensure real accountability.

Every taxpayer’s idea of how a university should operate isn’t actually all that efficient. Taxpayer A might want one thing, taxpayer B might want another. In practice this means decisions go to state politicians, who often don’t have the long-term perspective in mind.

So much of the recent accountability focus in higher education seems to have to do with how much money college students earn once they graduate. But that’s not what colleges exist to do (maximize graduate earnings) and too much focus on that would remove virtually all impractical forms of learning. And what, indeed, is the purpose of college if not to gain an understanding of the world beyond the material?

Historically if you wanted to focus on earning money immediately, by going into business or learning a trade like nursing or accounting or automotive mechanics, you didn’t have to go to college at all.

Let’s keep this in mind. By moving more and more of the trades under the traditional umbrella of college we’ve not only made these subjects more “academic” and intellectual, we’ve also moved many of the trades measures of success into the liberal arts. And that’s not a good thing, because the liberal arts aren’t supposed to be any good and helping a graduate to maximize his income. He can often make money, for sure, but that’s because he’s smart and knows the world, not because he had six classes in early-modern European history.

Measure what matters. Don’t just measure what’s easy to track. It’s certainly time to pay attention to quality, but does quality always have numerical value? Should money be the main question?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer