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Higher Education at Risk

A new documentary and companion book examine the state of post-secondary education in America.
University Business, Jun 2005

In 1983, "A Nation At Risk," the landmark study from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, encouraged a scrutiny of K-12 education, the effects of which, for better or worse, are still being felt today. But some say the focus on K-12 diverted attention from growing problems within higher education. On Thursday, June 23, PBS stations across the country (check local listings) will air Declining by Degrees, a documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes to experience college through the eyes of students, parents, professors, and administrators. The program and its companion paperback volume examine whether the reality of higher education measures up to its ideal as America's "crown jewel of education." The book features a variety of perspectives, from contributors outside the academy and within, including journalists, social scientists, novelists, college presidents, professors, and foundation officers. University Business Editor Tim Goral spoke with Richard Hersh, former president of Trinity College (Conn.) and co-editor of the book, about the project and what he hopes will result from it.

Hersh: We were trying to find ways of expressing an insidious trend that wasn't being captured yet by people who were heavily concerned with K-12 outcomes. The accountability movement has been mostly concerned with issues of retention and cost and access, without talking about the underlying implicit concern--that is, what is really happening in college once you get there.

There's no doubt that higher education has become evermore important for people's future jobs and careers. But there are also other equally important goals--what we mean by a "higher" education in terms of thinking ability, with the notion of becoming a global citizen, developing your fullest capacities with regard to both head and heart. And as people recognize that higher education is more important, the issues of access and cost have intensified, largely because we are trying to make this as democratic and equitable as we can. But as you improve the access and affordability, you also want people to have access to quality; otherwise, it's a hollow promise.

My concern is that a liberal education is a relevant education for the 21st century but that people have myopically thought, in the last 20 or 30 years, that a more professional or narrow education has been seen as adequate. I believe a liberal education is an important baseline for any four-year education, no matter what the major is going to be. It's the best preparation for a life of work and citizenship. But it ought to be a genuine first-rate liberal education, otherwise we deprecate its notion both in terms of its function and in terms of quality. If it's not done well, it becomes a phony promise.

I'm not sure there has to be a trade off. Access has increased the choices people can make about when, where, and how they will get some form of higher education. But that doesn't deny that a bachelor's degree--whether one goes full time, straight from high school, part time later in life--should not, in some sense, make a claim that higher education is not about simply learning a few job skills, which would be eroded as those jobs come in and out of the marketplace, but that it's meant to be something larger and broader. The fact that people are coming in older and making demands that their education is to be more focused is clearly part of the consumer orientation. And just because the marketplace is prepared to give the consumer what he or she wants doesn't necessarily mean that we are doing a good job of what higher education should be. I'm not sure we can't do both. Why can't we require that a bachelor's degree have a liberal education as a necessary but sufficient condition for it? Why can't we guarantee that, whenever and wherever a person goes to school, there are some criteria and standards by which we can judge whether what is being offered is of high quality, so we can make some judgments as to what the value of a degree means?

Obviously that also has an impact on the nature of the people coming into college whether they come in straight after high school or later. If you're graduating people from K-12 who are under-prepared for what college ought to be now, then colleges have to deal with that issue or ignore it. And there is some evidence that people have simply been filling up classrooms and beds, beyond the select few, and people are going through college as if it was an extension of high school.

It's not healthy when corporate recruiters use SAT
scores to define quality because they no longer
accept GPAs as a legitimate standard for quality.

When business groups in every major study of the last seven or eight years, and every major academic study, raised serious questions about what people were coming out of college with, no matter what age, then clearly there is some sort of crisis brewing. Yet there hasn't been a lot of conversation about quality per se. Quality has been defined for some time by U.S. News & World Report, de facto, by suggesting that its rankings have something to do with quality, when in fact the large proportion of what they are finding is merely an artifact of endowment per student. It doesn't tell us what happens in the black box called higher education, it only tells us what selectivity does, and selectivity is in large measure a function of the richness of the school.

There are two things going on that are very important with the public. One is that the American dream about the meaning and purpose of higher education is still alive, if not more so. People now are increasingly concerned--and in some cases obsessed--with making sure that students get to college, and in particular, the right college. It becomes a branding effect and a prestige effect. So there is a tension out there that has been translated into issues of access to the best possible schools and the ability to afford them. And, given many more consumers, the tension has been less a question of what happens when they get into college, but more about what the symbol is when they get out, namely getting that degree from the right school. It is only now that people are beginning to realize that there really is a difference about what could happen in college, but that conversation in the public has been camouflaged in part by questions of cost and access. It has been camouflaged by the concern over the quality of K-12. It has been camouflaged by athletics and affirmative action and cultural wars.

The questions of higher education have not yet zeroed in on the issue of outcomes, but they are circling. And, while it is not yet showing up in the public opinion polls, it is showing up in public leader polls, namely corporations and a variety of groups that are studying this from outside the academy and from within. They've all come to the very same conclusion: higher education has to be far more accountable and far more transparent in providing evidence of the difference that education is making, independent of what it is promised. Deborah's article points out that the current public opinion may quickly turn around to a real concern. She is starting to see the same kind of questions being raised that are already being raised outside the public opinion polls.

Absolutely. The reason is that people are suddenly realizing that simply getting a college degree--or the right degree from the right place--is no guarantee for a good job or a good career or success in any part of life. There are other things that go into getting an education beyond high school, in terms of self-motivation, integrity, and actual skill and competence. It's not healthy when corporate recruiters start going back to using SAT scores to define quality from college graduates because they no longer accept GPAs as a legitimate standard for quality. We are starting to see questions being raised, and both our book and the documentary attempt to articulate some of the issues, so that higher education can begin to respond in ways that are much more useful than to have it be a political response.

It will come ultimately from the public in the form of state and federal mandates. It will come from parents and students who become wiser consumers. My argument is that the academy has a professional responsibility--not to mention an ethical one--to provide a much more robust and transparent level of assessment of outcomes, not simply for accountability, but because it's a way of helping institutions gather evidence of how well they are doing relative to the rhetoric in college catalogs.

We can make changes in our pedagogy and curriculum if we only had some data regarding what students are learning. We can increase retention by providing students with the help they need before they flunk out or get so exasperated that they drop out.

Look at where K-12 is right now. It has essentially become a victim of every state's arbitrary definition of what they think K-12 outcomes should look like. But those measures are incredibly reductionist--they begin at some very low common denominator. Clearly, higher education has never established criteria--beyond SAT scores--for what people have to be able to know and do for us to consider them ready for higher education. A large part of higher education takes people into higher ed by virtue of the fact that they graduated high school. Selectivity overall is not very high. And most states pay their state of higher education system by virtue of body count. What do you think the incentive is then for most state systems--and lots of private institutions--who have to fill beds and classrooms to survive? The selective schools don't worry about that, but that's not where most students go to school. It is nonetheless what our romantic vision of where those higher standards should be found. And when you don't find it there as often as you should, you can just imagine what goes on down the scale.

Unfortunately no. If there was a surprise, it was how candid and how willing people were to speak on camera about things that they see everyday, but that one does not hear from the academy itself. The book and the documentary are meant to be constructive. They are not simply an attempt to put down institutions. Rather, we're saying, we can show profound examples of the best of what higher education is, but are "pockets" of the best sufficient for us to feel confident that higher education is doing its job? It has to become modal as opposed to exceptional. I don't want to sound presumptuous--after all, what can one book and one documentary do? But we're trying to have a conversation. We're holding up a mirror to higher education and saying these things represent the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can imagine we're going to get people claiming that the essays and the documentary are not accurate. And the degree to which they have some evidence of that is going to be useful to the conversation.

The real concern is that the public will move increasingly against higher education, perhaps often for the wrong reasons--that is, issues of pure cost and access--but ultimately they'll begin to realize that simply getting a kid into college is just not enough, particularly at the price we're all paying.

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