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Editor's Note

The Growing Two-Class Education System

University Business, Oct 2004

I was just finishing Peter Smith's new book, The Quiet Crisis...How Higher Education Is Failing America, when a press release crossed my desk that grabbed my attention with the headline: "Higher Education Stalled Despite High School Improvements; Students, Families Lose Ground on College Affordability."

Failing? Stalled? Losing Ground? These are not typical words used to describe our national education system. So I finished the book and read the press release and accompanying report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. And, yes, Houston, we have a problem....

The report, "Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education," is the first to examine 10-year performance trends. It found that although more high school graduates are prepared for college, most states, and the nation as a whole, have made few gains in college enrollment and completion over the last decade.

The enrollment point caught me off guard. I assumed that a larger percentage of high school students were attending IHEs because IHE enrollment is at an all-time high. However, when I questioned the Council on the point, I was told that the actual current IHE enrollment percentage is lower than in the past because high school enrollment is much larger. And when I thought about it and looked at our local high school, our freshman class is at an all-time high.

"We see big gains in high school preparation over the last decade, but the bad news is that these improvements have not been reflected in significantly higher college enrollment or completion rates," said James B. Hunt, former governor of North Carolina and chair of the National Center's Board of Directors. And, he stressed for most Americans, college has become less affordable over the last decade.

Hunt further remarked that the report should serve as a wake-up call for the nation, the states, and for our colleges and universities. He makes the case that "we can no longer attribute all of our college access and quality problems to the failure of public schools."

The report also points out that the gaps in college participation between high- and low-income students have widened.

In his book, The Quiet Crisis, Peter Smith doesn't mince words when he says that "America is becoming a two-class society, and the great divide between the classes is education." Smith, founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay, and a former member of Congress from Vermont, argues that our IHEs have not changed to address current challenges.

Smith contends,"The classic academic model has worked pretty well for America for the last 250 years, so what is the problem? The problem is that continuing to rely on it flies directly in the face of what we know about how people learn, the opportunities that technology presents to transform the educational enterprise, and our historic record of failure with a rapidly diversifying population."

The American teaching model is as "outdated, outmoded and outlandish as an ox cart plodding down I-95," Smith argues. "Virtually all of our schools, from nursery schools to post-graduate institutions, reflect an educational model that has been in place since the 14th century. We still operate on the assumptions that all important teaching and learning happens in the classroom," he says.

The solution? Smith asserts that technology can solve part of the problem by "transforming our capacity to support high-level learning anywhere, anytime, for anyone." He makes the point that the traditional academic model is based on "outdated assumptions about the use of time, space, and responsibility." But, he says, "Technology changes all that, permitting radically different uses of time and space, and different allocations of responsibility that will allow for deeper and better learning for many more people when it is harnessed to support learning..."

Obviously there are no easy solutions to the issues addressed above. But there is no argument that, as Smith says, we are indeed facing a crisis in our educational system, which must be resolved--fast.

University Business welcomes reader feedback. You can write to Tom Halligan at

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