Reforming Higher Education: To What End?

Lee Skallerup

August 21, 2011

Lee Skallerup

I’ve questioned whether or not real change in higher education is possible. Now I’m beginning to question whether or not I want higher education to change. At least, change in the direction currently being pushed as the “solution” to all of our higher education ills.

The catalyst for this post is the recent comments made by Lumina Foundation CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about improving higher education. He was addressing governors and encouraging them to get more heavily involved in reforming public higher education in their respective states. So what advice does he offer governors?

(This advice very closely resembles the advice currently being tossed around in Texas, by the way, so my responses to them do, too)

To begin with, nowhere is it mentioned that funding levels to public education be restored, to either the K-12 or post-secondary systems. While he suggests that those in higher education work together with the K-12 system to ensure “college readiness,” I wonder how the university is supposed to replace laid-off librarians, learning specialists or reduce class sizes. We can debate (and many have) how universities prepare educators and train administrators, but nowhere in his remarks does Merisotis connect these two dots. How does Merisotis suggest we pay for these partnerships and improvements?

Incentive pay, of course. I’m sorry, “performance funding” or “outcomes based funding.” We’ve seen in Atlanta and D.C. how well dangling money in front of school systems goes towards superficially improving outcomes. Why do we think it would be any different in higher education? Because we are so noble? Then why do we need “performance funding” to coerce, I’m sorry, encourage us to do our jobs? How are we to ensure standards when the funding is tied to things like completion and retention rates?

Not only are institutions going to be bribed with cash for completion, so too will the students. The plan is to base their financial aid awards on their academic performances. This is a controversial idea, to say the least. Particularly with at-risk or non-traditional students where money is often the biggest worry. It isn’t just about paying for their studies; it’s about supporting families back home. If they don’t have to worry about money, then they can focus on grades, not the other way around.

Of course, how do we meet these goals without the extra money up front? We innovate, of course. And, we find as much efficiency as possible. Not to mention actually start providing “useful” degrees. To me, despite all of best intentions that I am sure lay behind these sentiments, those ideas screams: “we need more adjuncts!” More people with “real world” experience. More people who cost less. More people we can easily replace if they are unwilling or unable to comply. More people to deliver a standard curriculum online. Even though more and more information is showing that having full-time faculty improves retention rates and online education doesnt work for those most at-risk.

What bothers me the most about these recommendations is that it ensures that non-traditional students get a fundamentally different education than their “traditional” (read, white, wealthy) counterparts. Is it any surprise that the children of professors are more likely to attend small, liberal arts colleges than their socio-economic peers? I’m not saying that everyone needs or wants the liberal-arts college experience, but we seem to be sacrificing the rich variety of educational experiences available to students in the name of accessibility. Instead of innovating, we are conforming to a narrow definition and vision of what higher education should be.

I am writing this as an instructor at a regional state university that primarily serves non-traditional students. I have worked at two other public universities in two other states that also serve non-traditional students. I teach developmental students, those who are at the highest risk of dropping out. I don’t see my students as completion or failure statistics, but as individuals who have, despite their unique situations, a common set of challenges. I also don’t view my colleagues as the sum of their pass/fail rates or class average. I see them as individuals struggling to do the best they can in the face of increasing pressures, ballooning class sizes, and decreasing support. We want our students to succeed and to receive a rigorous education that will benefit them. I think governors should start listening to those on the ground a little more.

Morehead, Kentucky in the US

Lee Elaine Skallerup has a Ph.D. from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting). Lee is also a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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