National Edition

Bob Kerrey talks about reforming higher education

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8 2014 5:15 p.m. MST

Former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey, seen here in a debate against Republican Deb Fischer in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, has bold ideas about the future of higher education innovation. After serving for a decade as president of the New School, a private university in New York City, Kerrey is now executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship.


Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, has long had a passion for education reform.

After leaving the Senate in 2000, Kerrey served for a decade as president of the New School, a private university in New York City, and he is now executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship.

The Minerva Project has partnered to create an innovative new university experience meant to offer an Ivy League-style education at half the cost. Students at the Minerva School at Keck Graduate Institute learn college material, but rather than attend classes at a traditional campus, they spend time in various cities throughout the world. They move as a group from one city and country to another, all the while taking courses that blend online and traditional instruction.

Kerrey recently spoke with the Deseret News about his views of innovations in higher education.

DN: How did you become so interested in and passionate about higher education?

Kerrey: It began to be a focus when I went to college, and ramped up when I was a governor, then senator. I was elected to the Senate as the Cold War was coming to an end. Those events gave me accelerated appreciation for the importance of higher education for nations and individuals. Being a university president for 10 years deepened my enthusiasm for the work of higher education. It’s very gratifying work.

DN: In what ways do you consider the U.S. higher education system to be a success story?

Kerrey: First, this is still the preferred country to come to for a higher education degree, and that’s a pretty good test. The second area is in research, where we have a tremendous competitive advantage.

One of the most important things that happens in higher education, for most entering freshmen, is that first time experiencing real freedom. There is evidence that higher education institutions are doing a very good job of helping that young person to make high-quality decisions. I wish they were partying less, drinking less and getting into slightly less trouble. But for the most part, they are not getting into trouble.

If you look at aggregate numbers of all college graduates, they will earn as much as 40 percent more than those who don’t go to college. Even considering accumulated debt, it looks to me like a substantial success.

DN: Despite those successes, you are a strong proponent for reforms in higher education to lower costs, increase access and improve the quality and skills of graduates. In your view, what factors are responsible for driving up the cost of higher education?

Kerrey: Higher education is very competitive. We compete for students, faculty and donors. But as we compete, we often add something alumni like or that helps us recruit students. We don’t really compete by trying to provide higher quality and lower cost. We have all these intercollegiate athletic programs, and brand new buildings and residence halls. It’s not unimportant. But unless you have a great Division 1 football or basketball team, ESPN won’t pay enough to justify all these programs.

Graduate programs can be very expensive, and undergraduate tuition ends up paying the cost along with a tremendous amount of overhead on administrative and academic sides. When we talk about salary costs, the first thing people talk about is university presidents and deans. They don’t look at the academic side (professor salaries). It’s off-limits. Under shared governance, the faculty has significant authority in decision-making but no real repercussions in dealing with the consequences.

People say that online education is not as good as sitting in a desk on campus. But look at what the [Massive Open Online Course] edX is doing for MIT and Harvard — it’s spectacular. It doesn’t cost. Why can’t we use it? You get a certificate for completing the courses, but it doesn’t add to the credits you need to graduate.

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