American higher education now seems to be recovering at last from the 2008 financial crisis. Some states are increasing their support for public universities and colleges. Backlash against the impact of budget cuts seems to have the idea of austerity down a peg, if not discredited it entirely, which might free up more budgetary room for governmental support of education. On the private side, institutional endowments are finally rising after years of stagnation and decline. Domestically, American college graduates still enjoy higher lifetime earnings than those with only high school experience. Internationally, the number of students traveling to study in the United States continues to grow.
But what if these cheerful data paint an inaccurate picture? What if a battery of other data points, driven by powerful forces, exerts pressure in the opposite direction, pushing American colleges and universities into contraction? Much like "peak car," the demand for higher education may have reached an upper point, and started to decline. Like peak oil or peak water, it’s becoming more expensive and problematic to meet demand. As a thought experiment, let us examine these forces and consider this possible scenario under the header: Peak Higher Education.
The very idea is retrograde, as American higher education has enjoyed a growth pattern stretching back more than a century. In the 19th century the Morrill Act established land grant institutions, massively increasing the number of students and expanding the breadth of social class in higher education. The adoption of German research university models built up scholarly capacity and graduate programs. The World War II-era G.I. Bill sent an extra generation or two to college and helped lead to the creation of many community colleges while the Cold War’s Sputnik spurred a renaissance in university-based scientific research. Starting in the 1960s enrollment grew even further under the impact of two coincidental drivers: outreach to previously underserved or excluded populations, especially women, racial minorities, and the poor, and a boom in creating new campuses. Managing these changes expanded and professionalized administrations and support staff. The post-Cold War drive to get even more high school graduates into college to take advantage of the “college premium” on lifetime earnings added yet another layer to the enrollment cake, with adult learners constituting an ever-growing slice.
So if the big picture is of persistent growth over the long haul, of increasing numbers of campuses, instructors, researchers, administrators, support staff, undergraduates, and graduate students, how can we speak today of an apparently sudden reversal into decline?
To start with, the number of students enrolled in colleges and universities has been in broad decline over the past two years, despite the growth in America’s total population. Last fall the majority of admissions officers reported challenges in making their baseline targets. Census data back up these professional assessments, identifying an especially pronounced decline in the for-profit sector, but also clearly visible in both two-year and four-year public institutions. Even private four-year baccalaureates barely show a plateau. This decline hit both undergraduate and graduate student populations.
Perhaps the labor market’s gradual recovery is partially responsible for this decline. After years of high unemployment drove some workers back to school, a portion of them have left campus for work. Maybe some older nontraditional students have chosen neither schooling nor work, but retirement. Alternatively, still others have simply chosen to stay at home, refusing both formal work and study. Whichever reason or reasons lie behind this aggregate shift, colleges and universities now deal with the results.
While fewer Americans are now attending higher education, we also spend less on tuition and other costs. The recent recession and slow recovery obviously play a role here, as do the longer trends of stagnant family median income. Possibly some students have downshifted their institutional expectations in order to save costs, preferring a community college to more expensive state university, or online degrees to those from brick-and-mortar institutions. Staying close to home can save residence hall/apartment costs. For whichever reasons, tuition-dependent colleges and universities are suffering a decline in their main income stream. The majority of campus chief financial officers see serious sustainability issues unfolding.
Looming over all of these developments is the double whammy of debt and un(der)employment. Ever since 2008’s financial crash, traditional-age college graduates in their 20s have entered a very challenging labor market, all too often facing underemployment or unemployment. “Boomerang children,” graduates who return to their parents’ homes in order to survive or save money, are now features of our cultural landscape. The majority of those graduates also carry a growing debt burden. While media accounts can overstate the student debt specter (about one-third of students graduate without borrowing at all), the total amount of debt continues to grow to unprecedented levels. Individual debt approaches $30,000 per loan carrier, while total American student debt blew past one trillion dollars. Also daunting is the policy by which student loans are, unlike most other forms of borrowing, undischargeable by bankruptcy.
Taken together, the challenge of carrying that debt into a still-difficult job market may well drive a good number of Americans to new behaviors. Many are likely to delay major life decisions, such as getting married, having children, or buying a house, with cultural and economic impacts just starting to be felt. Some may see their lifetime earnings depressed by having a slow start. In a telling response, several major banks have ceased growing their student loan operations, while one publicly states that new loans will no longer be profitable. Perhaps the financial industry is signaling that higher education’s debt-fueled finances have reached an upper limit.
Behind these economic and enrollment decisions lies an even greater force, the demographic decline of American children and teens. The number of minors, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, has been decreasing for several years. This has already impacted K-12 student populations, a fact well known to parents, school boards, and state planners. In turn such a shrinkage threatens to tighten the traditional-age undergraduate pipeline, which is already being squeezed by enrollment and financial support problems.
At the same time recent changes in student demographics have added to institutional costs. An increasing number of undergraduates are first-generation students, sometimes requiring extensive support or remedial help. The growing number of learning disability diagnoses, partially driven by poverty and/or poor health, has similarly boosted campus support expenditures. Student life programs and campus amenities have grown at many institutions, in part to compete for that slipping number undergraduates. Looked at in this light, American higher education as a whole may be teaching fewer students than before, and they might be more costly to instruct. And the same is true for public institutions that may have few luxuries but haven’t been given the funds to keep up with past demand for instructors, space and student services.
Naturally this places upward pressures on tuition and other fees. If we press on the peak model, these students are well-suited for the downward slope, being more difficult to work with than those on the upside.
If this description of peak higher education is correct, then many recent decisions by colleges and universities make new sense. Campus mergers are logical strategies if those institutions deem they have grown class capacity in excess of what is and will be needed for a dwindling number of students. Similarly, some institutions have announced the closure of entire departments, even in core curricular areas like math and literature. Elsewhere I’ve dubbed this “the queen sacrifice,” using the desperate chess metaphor to catch the importance of cutting at the heart of a college’s academic mission. With such sacrifices come concomitant reduction of support staff, and laying off of faculty, both tenured and adjunct.
These campuses simply see themselves as cutting back in response to a shrinking market. The same goes for administrations deciding to shift resources to high-enrolling majors and programs: aiming to catch increasing numbers from a dwindling group. These strategic choices may signify institutions coping with finding themselves on the downward slope of a recently-passed peak.
If this peak higher education model offers an accurate assessment of the current situation, what does the future hold? Unfortunately, we may expect more of the same: mergers, layoffs, closures, further adjunctification of the professoriate. Curriculums might change, shifting towards programs winning larger numbers (STEM, health services, business, hospitality, criminal justice), and moving away from their opposites (the arts and humanities, all too often). The human costs of these institutional strategies will grow, as instructors lose jobs and current students see programs disappear. The number of graduate students could drop in those de-emphasized fields. Alumni and other stakeholders may resent seeing a beloved campus change from its pre-peak character. Beyond the campus popular dissatisfaction with higher education could grow. That could take the form of more potential students opting out of college, or a return to vocational training in K-12 and adult learning.
Moreover, competition for a smaller student pool will increase. Admissions offices will deploy data analytics and social media analysis to fight for scarce American teenagers. Some institutions may increase student support and amenities, while others reduce them to offer a cut-price education. We can imagine more universities opening up recruitment and branch campuses abroad, especially in regions combining large populations with economic growth. As one economist put it, some campuses may well become “(Partially) a Finishing School for the Superrich of Asia,” using international populations to make up for a national shortfall. The American campus to come may well be more global than it currently is.
To sum up: higher education has overbuilt capacity for a student demand which has started to wane. America has overshot its carrying capacity for college and university population, and our institutions are scrambling for strategic responses.
Where and when do these post-peak strategies end? Demographic and economic rebounds seem necessary. The youngest generations may increase their child-bearing numbers, although that will take 20 years and more to be felt in higher education. Closer to the present, immigration growth may supplement the national teen shortfall. The American economy may return to significant growth at or better than pre-2008 levels, encouraging families and government to invest more in colleges and universities. In other words at some point institutions may have the opportunity to reduce these cutting and competitive strategies. Corrections may slow down and cease, leaving us with a smaller higher education sector as compared to its 2011 peak. There will be fewer students and faculty, but the decline will have ceased.
All of this is a thought experiment, not a prediction of a likely or desired future. The peak model may founder on emerging developments, such as a popular resurgence in support for higher education, or the appearance of hitherto unused cost cutting measures or a major growth in nontraditional age enrollments. Instead of a major peak, the data touched on in this article could represent only a blip or hiccup in a continuing story of American higher education’s growth. But until such developments emerge, we should consider the peak higher education explanation of real data and present trendlines. It is, at least, a provocation to get us thinking about campus strategy in new, if darker ways.
Bryan Alexander is senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. He thanks those who comment on his blog for having contributed to the development of the ideas in this essay.
I’ve taught both theoretical and applied university classes in my academic career, and the opening lecture always has one thing in common: an invitation to my students to demand something of me. I tell them to insist they walk away from my course writing better, speaking better, thinking more analytically and a little more comfortable with numbers. Indeed, I urge them to insist the same of their university education writ large.
My efforts to frame courses like Sociology of Education and Social Science Research Methods around a set of broadly applicable skills aligns me with an “outcomes” orientation increasingly promoted by academic, business and political leaders. Yet whether my students achieved the four capacities I encourage or not, their college academic transcript will never tell.
If the answer to those who doubt the value of higher education is to trumpet the full educative impact of a postsecondary education, students deserve a credential that describes their full set of educative experiences. The time has come to extend the traditional academic transcript and begin issuing Postsecondary Achievement Reports (PARs), a verified summative document issued by colleges and universities that aligns and reflects each institution’s deeper educative goals.
While every institution could issue a PAR according to its own academic policies, what defines a PAR is a set of generally accepted conventions for the structure and technical formatting of academic transcripts that include co-curricular and competency-based information, along with traditional information such as courses, grades and credits. But before describing the PAR in greater detail, let’s first set some context for why colleges and universities have begun to think differently about how they document learning outcomes.
Defenders of academe are inclined to agree that transcripts and diplomas are insufficient credentials, though for very different reasons. As the scholar Andrew DelBanco argues in “College: What is, what was and should be,” the traditional four-year college experience can be an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers. If a degree is really about developing a whole person, and preparing them with humanistic education that will serve them in a very dynamic career landscape, surely a ledger of courses and grades alone is a poor reflection of that experience.
Indeed, institutions with a more vocational orientation face a similar challenge documenting the industry-skill certifications their graduates achieve on their way to conventional degrees.
It’s not surprising that, given these pressures, higher education has, in fact, put forth efforts to innovate the credential. Three distinct developments are already in process: co-curricular transcripts, competency-based transcripts and data-enabled eTranscripts. Together they lay the foundation for a new generation of academic credentialing. Co-curricular and competency-based transcripts innovate at the level of content and substance, extending the academic transcript. Electronic transcripts innovate the medium of credentials, enabling machine-readable data and analytics that can make student learning outcomes more easily understood and actionable.
Each initiative has successfully generated some momentum and adoption in the higher education community. For example, Northern Arizona University is doing innovative work documenting the student competencies that have been mastered via coursework, and State University of New York at Geneseo’s is continuing long-standing efforts to capture the student leadership, research, study abroad and other co-curricular experiences that define its vision of a postsecondary education.
While these institutions are already extending their transcripts, there are good reasons for concern that the grassroots nature of their innovations will conspire against its own success. Specifically, I fear a Tower of Babel if we do not find a way to converge around a lingua franca that describes the basic structure of such 21st century extended transcripts of the type being issued by pioneering universities across the country.
We take for granted the fact that transcripts make sense; we all expect to see a course title and number, a letter or number grade, in a sequence that is chronologically based. But transcripts are not actually standardized in any formal sense. My company, Parchment, exchanges millions of electronic transcripts each year. Our platform has been developed to help both sending and receiving institutions align and utilize the different information transcripts contain. For example, colleges may award different numbers of credits for essentially the same course. A-level work at one college may be B-level work elsewhere. Over time the academy gravitated toward a basic document structure, along with a strong professional code for issuing transcripts that remain a sacred trust of our university registrars. This standardization respects academic freedom while supporting learners in their pursuit of academic and professional opportunities, for example when transferring between institutions and seeking course credit for prior learning.
How does a university articulate a competency transcript from a peer institution? Where does Ernst & Young look for evidence of leadership, when each institution’s co-curricular information is reported in different sections, with no convention for describing the process by which activities were verified? How do various information systems import achievement data, when the field names and file formats lack any rhyme or reason? Before you know it, the best intentions and efforts give rise to documentation that isn’t widely understood, reliable or actionable.
We need to extend the transcript, but we need a method to do it within a well-worn convention that is backward compatible. By backward compatible I mean we need to preserve the role of the traditional academic transcript, and create a reasonable roadmap for extending it, when institutions so choose, in a way that serves students, educators, associations and employers.
This is why I am calling for a “PAR,” a Postsecondary Achievement Report. A PAR is a concise, electronic document that provides a standardized, machine-readable report of the full range of higher education experience. It can be verified by the academic registrar to confirm credibility, and it creates a common understanding of both course-based and campus-based achievements. A PAR does it sensibly, recognizing academic freedom. It is not a uniform way to grade; rather, it is a consistent document structure and data standard when institutions choose to extend their traditional academic transcripts. The PAR can be issued alongside a traditional transcript, or act as its next generation successor. It is a summative statement from the institution and a passport for the learner.
Perhaps the best model for a PAR is the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which has been evaluated for almost 10 years in Britain. The HEAR not only provides a standardized academic transcript; it also captures information relevant to employers. And the information is captured and transferred as electronic and verifiable data.
The HEAR is a maximum of six pages long and adheres to a standard template. It is verified by the academic registrar and regularly updated throughout a student’s enrollment. It is accessible by the student at any time, and is unique and personalized to them. There HEAR contains six sections:
Personal information about the student (name, date of birth, etc.)
Name and title of degree earned
Level of degree in the context of a defined, national framework
Detailed course information and results
Information about the degree and professional status (if applicable)
Additional awards and activities
In their final report, the HEAR’s creators summarize well the goal of their work: “The HEAR has been designed to encourage a sophisticated approach to recording achievement that better represents the full range of outcomes from learning and the student experience in higher education at the same time as encouraging personal development that is commensurate with a culture of lifelong learning.”
The HEAR is one example; there are various efforts internationally to create a more standardized way of reporting and documenting academic achievement. Australia has adopted something similar with the Australian Higher Education Graduation Statement (AHEGS). Our colleagues abroad also recognize the need to extend the transcript electronically, but do it in a way that is understood among all constituents nationally and internationally.
The U.S is the world leader and innovator in postsecondary education; we can take extended transcripting to the next level.
To succeed, we need to start with a core set of institutions, particularly those that are already doing competency-based and/or co-curricular transcripting, and have adopted eTranscripts. Those institutions can share their experience to establish a set of conventions that creates a common language for all. Institutions can create a roadmap for implementation, by adopting sections when ready. The beauty of a PAR is that it represents incremental change. At least some sections of PAR would be immediately actionable by any institution using eTranscripts. If a limited form PAR is as far as an institution is comfortable going at first, so be it. The pace of the roadmap will be driven, in part, by the validation PAR receivers give to more robust PAR issuers. In other words, if employers or grad school admissions committees start paying more attention to parts of the PAR, more institutions will add them. The more valuable a “complete” PAR is found to be, the more it will be demanded, and the broader and faster adoption will be.
Such an effort will require the collaboration of a number of campus leaders beyond registrars and admission officers. Chief academic officers, deans of continuing education and online programs, directors of student affairs and career services, as well as other campus leaders, will need to be engaged in the conversation both on their campuses and through their national organizations. And core organizational stakeholders like the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the P20W Education Standards Council (PESC) are central actors in helping to make the PAR a reality.
We are all ready for a new era of credentials communication, one that is aligned with our more mobile and digital culture. The PAR will be universally understood and actionable. It will be easily portable and stackable in an individual’s personal, online credential profile. Lifelong learners will start with a PAR, then continue to add digital academic or professional credentials from an ever-growing diversity of resources — from degrees to certificates to badges — to their profile, and present a verifiable, complete picture of education and skills.
In addition to knowledge and specific skills, a college experience imparts the ability to communicate a compelling story, to synthesize information into a bigger picture and to use data and numbers to understand a problem. Those are some of the characteristics that Google is looking for and that LinkedIn wants to help employers identify. In our knowledge economy, where opportunities are defined by what you know and how well you know it, a PAR will provide the foundation for learners, educators and employers to make more insightful and successful decisions.
Returning to the skills I encourage my students to demand in my opening lecture, for me the PAR is personal. I know from both my academic and professional experience how much they matter. In my last lecture — to the great surprise of my students — I reveal that before becoming an academic I was a technology entrepreneur. The skills I said they should demand are the reason my co-founders and I could create and build Blackboard..
We must ensure that the significant value gained during one’s postsecondary journey is captured and validated. A PAR would be a major step to empower learners, and help them turn credentials into opportunities.
Matthew Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment and co-founder and former CEO of Blackboard. He is on the faculty of Arizona State University, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
When institutions and organizations begin to identify with processes instead of intended outcomes, they become vulnerable. They lose sight of their real missions and, when faced with challenges or disruptive innovation, often struggle to survive.
Eastman Kodak, once the dominant brand in photography, identified too closely with the chemical processes it used and failed to recognize that its overarching mission was photography rather than film and film processing. Swiss watch manufacturers likewise identified too closely with the mechanical workings of their watches and lost market share to companies that understood that the real mission was the production of reliable and wearable instruments to tell time. If railroads had viewed their mission as transportation of people and goods rather than moving trains on tracks, we might have some different brand names on airplanes and vehicles today.
In retrospect, it seems that the decisions made by these industries defied common sense. Although the leaders were experienced and capable, they were blinded by tradition, and they confused established processes with the real mission of their enterprises.
Higher education today identifies closely with its processes. In open-access public institutions, we recruit, admit and enroll students; assess them for college readiness; place or advise those who are not adequately prepared into remedial classes; give others access to a bewildering variety of course options, often without adequate orientation and advising; provide instruction, often in a passive lecture format; offer services to those who seek and find their way to them; grade students on how well they can navigate our systems and how well they perform on assignments and tests; and issue degrees and certificates based upon the number of credits the students accumulate in required and elective courses.
We need to fund our institutions, so we concentrate on enrollment targets and make sure classroom seats are filled in accordance with regulations that specify when we count our students for revenue purposes.
At the same time that American higher education is so focused on and protective of its processes, it is also facing both significant challenges and potentially disruptive innovation. Challenges include responding to calls from federal and state policy makers for higher education to increase completion rates and to keep costs down, finding ways that are more effective to help students who are unprepared for college to become successful students, making college information more accessible and processes more transparent for prospective students and their parents, explaining new college rating systems and public score cards, coordinating across institutional boundaries to help an increasingly mobile student population to transfer more seamlessly and successfully from one institution to another and to graduate, dealing with the threat to shift from peer-based institutional accreditation to a federal system of quality assurance, and responding to new funding systems that are based upon institutional performance.
Potentially disruptive innovations include the increasing use of social media such as YouTube and other open education resources (OER) for learning, the advent of massive online open courses (MOOCs), the quick access to information made possible by advances in technology, and the potential for a shift from the Carnegie unit to documented competencies as the primary way to measure student progression.
One of today’s most significant challenges to higher education is the increased focus on student success. In response to calls and sometimes financial incentives from policy makers -- and with the assistance provided by major foundations -- colleges and universities are shifting their focus from student access and opportunity to student access and success. Higher education associations have committed themselves to helping institutions improve college completion rates. The terminology used is that we are shifting from an “access agenda” to a “success agenda” or a “completion agenda.”
This identification with outcomes is positive, but it raises concerns about both loss of access to higher education for those students who are less likely to succeed, and the potential for decreased academic rigor. The real mission of higher education is student learning; degrees and certificates must be the institution’s certification of identified student learning outcomes rather than just accumulated credits.
Faculty and academic administrators, perhaps working with appropriate representatives from business and industry, need to identify the learner competencies that should be developed by the curriculum. The curriculum should be designed or modified to ensure that those competencies are appropriately addressed. Students should be challenged to rise to the high expectations required to master the identified competencies and should be provided the support they need to become successful. Finally, learners should be assessed in order to ensure that a degree or certificate is a certification of acquired competencies.
What would we do differently if, rather than identifying with our processes, we identified with our overarching mission -- student learning? When viewed through the lens of student learning, many of the processes that we currently rely upon and the decisions we make (or fail to make) seem to defy common sense. The institution itself controls some of these policies and practices; others are policies (or the lack of policies) between and among educational institutions; and some are the result of state or federal legislation.
A prime example of a detrimental institutional process is late registration, the practice of allowing students to register after orientation activities -- and often after classes have begun. Can we really expect students to be successful if they enter a class after it is under way? Research consistently shows that students who register late are at a significant disadvantage and, most often, fail or drop out.
Yet, many institutions continue this practice, perhaps in the belief that they are providing opportunity -- but it is opportunity that most often leads to discouragement and failure. Some institutional leaders may worry about the potential negative impact on budgets of not having seats filled. However, the enrollment consequences to eliminating late registration have almost always been temporary or negligible.
Sometimes institutional policies are developed in isolation and create unintended roadblocks for students. When I assumed the presidency of Palomar College, the college had a policy that students could not repeat a course in which they received a passing grade (C or above). But another policy prohibited students who had not received a grade of B or higher in the highest-level developmental writing class from progressing to freshman composition. Students who passed the developmental class with a grade of C were out of luck and had to transfer to another institution if they were to proceed with their education. The English faculty likely wanted only the best-performing students from developmental writing in their freshman composition classes, but this same objective could be accomplished by raising the standards for a C grade in the developmental writing class.
Higher education institutions rely on their faculty and staff to accomplish their missions, so it is important for everyone to understand it in the same way. A faculty member I once met told me that he was proud of the high rate of failure in his classes. He believed that it demonstrated both the rigor of his classes and his excellence as a teacher. If we measured the excellence of medical doctors by the percentage of their patients who die, it would make as much sense. Everyone at the institution has a role in promoting student learning, and everyone needs to understand that the job is to inspire students and help them to be successful rather than sorting out those who have challenges.
"The mission of higher education is student learning, and all of or policies, procedures, and practices must be aligned with that mission if our institutions are to remain relevant."
It is important for faculty and staff to enjoy their work, to feel valued by trustees, administrators, peers, and students -- and for them to feel free to innovate and secure in their employment. As important as our people are to accomplishing our mission, their special interests are not the mission. Periodic discussions about revising general education requirements are often influenced by faculty biases about the importance of their disciplines or even by concerns about job security rather than what students need to learn as part of a degree or certificate program. Before these discussions begin, ground rules should be established so that the determinations are based upon desired skills and knowledge of graduates.
Too often, students leave high school unprepared for college, and they almost always face barriers when transferring from one higher education institution to another. The only solution to these problems is for educators to agree on expectations and learning outcome standards. However, institutional autonomy and sometimes prejudice act as barriers to faculty dialogue across institutional boundaries. It is rare for community college faculty and administrators to interact with their colleagues in high schools -- and interaction between university and community college faculty is just as rare.
Why should we be surprised when students leaving high school are often not ready to succeed in college or when the transition between community college and university is not as seamless as it should be for students? If we are serious about increasing the rates of success for students, educators will need to come together to begin important discussions about standards for curriculums and expectations for students.
Despite the best intentions of legislators, government policies often force the focus of institutions away from the mission of student learning. In California, legislation requires community colleges to spend at least 50 percent of their revenue on classroom faculty. Librarians, counselors, student advisers, and financial aid officers are “on the other side of the Fifty Percent Law.” The ratio of student advisers or counselors is most often greater than a thousand to one. Research clearly demonstrates that investments in student guidance pay off in increased student learning and success. Despite the fact that community college students are the most financially disadvantaged students in higher education, they are less likely to receive the financial aid they deserve. Yet, the Fifty Percent Law severely limits what local college faculty and academic administrators can do on their campuses to meet the needs of students in these areas. Clearly, this law is a barrier to increasing student learning and success. Perhaps state legislators and the faculty unions that lobby them do not trust local trustees and administrators to spend resources appropriately, but this law, in its current form, defies common sense if our mission is student learning.
At the federal level, systems of accountability that track only students who are first-time, full-time freshmen to an institution do not make sense in an era when college students are more mobile than ever and in an environment in which most community college students attend part-time. A few years ago, I met with a group of presidents of historically black universities and encouraged them to work with community colleges to increase the number of students who transfer to their institutions. The presidents told me that doing so could lower their measured student success rates because transfers are not first-time freshmen, and the presidents were not willing to take that risk. Fortunately, officials in the U.S. Department of Education are aware of this issue and are working to correct data systems.
There are many other examples of policies and procedures that seem senseless when viewed through the lens of student learning rather than cherished processes and tradition, just as it seems silly that Eastman Kodak did not recognize that its business was photography or that the Swiss watch manufacturers did not understand that their business was to manufacture accurate and affordable wristwatches.
American higher education today is increasingly criticized for increasing costs and low completion rates. Higher education costs have risen at an even faster rate than those of health care; student indebtedness has skyrocketed to nearly $1 trillion; and college completion rates in the United States have fallen to 16th in the world. In addition, new technologies and innovations may soon threaten established practices.
Challenging the status quo and confronting those with special interests that are not aligned with the mission of higher education can be risky for both elected officials and educational leaders. But given the challenges that we face today, “muddling through” brings even greater risks. Every decision that is made and every policy that is proposed must be data-informed, and policy makers and leaders need the courage to ask how the changes will affect student learning, student success, and college costs. Existing policies and practices should be examined with the same questions in mind. Faculty and staff need to be free of restraining practices so they can experiment with strategies to engage students and to help them to learn.
Colleges and universities are too important for educators to deny the challenges and demands of today and too important for policy makers to pass laws because of pressure from special interests or based on their recollection of what college used to be. Decisions cannot be based on past practices when the world is changing so rapidly. The mission of higher education is student learning, and all of our policies, procedures and practices must be aligned with that mission if our institutions are to remain relevant.
George R. Boggs is the president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. He is a clinical professor for the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University.
Justice Department halts investigation of discussions among private college leaders on ways to shift spending from non-need-based to need-based aid. Some say the review -- even now that it's over -- has made institutions too nervous to go forward.
The new president of the College Board, David Coleman, has written a letter to College Board members proposing to redesign the SAT. He wants to fix it so the test will "focus on the core knowledge and skills that … are most important to prepare students for the rigors of college." The shift may seem unremarkable but it represents a paradigm revolution in relation to the original test. The old SAT, introduced in 1926, was supposed to be an IQ test, measuring innate ability, not hard-earned subject-specific knowledge of anything. For eugenicists, the IQ argument was a winner; for private colleges, it gave them bragging rights for selecting students with a nationally normed device that coincidentally had a powerful linear relation with family income. Administrative complacency, faculty ignorance, and business office economics have kept the test in play. Why fiddle with a winner?
Between 1926 and today, the test was "redesigned" only once, in 2005. When the University of California threatened to dump the old SAT because it was statistically weak and socially biased, the College Board kept them hanging on by promising a better test – one that would be predictively more powerful and without the social disparities of the old test.
Instead, the 2005 SAT has been a failure on all counts. The new SAT dropped the dripping-with-social-bias verbal analogies and added an easily coached writing section. It took more time, was more expensive, predicted even less well than the old one, and managed to magnify social disparities. Racial, gender, and socioeconomic status test score gaps widened, instead of narrowing. Nonetheless, the College Board proclaimed the new SAT a success; everything was supposedly rocket-science perfect, until Coleman’s letter last week.
But why does the SAT need fixing if it is already, as Coleman says, “the best standardized measure of college and career readiness currently available”? The administrators of the ACT would dissent and slightly more of America’s high school seniors now agree with them. Clearly, part of the reason the SAT needs a remake is in response to a decline in market share. But, paradoxically, another source of pressure on the test comes from new developments inside its true archrival, America’s high schools.
The institution that has done the most to uphold academic standards for generations of America’s college-going youth has not been the College Board; it has been the American high school. Coleman’s formulation on the SAT being "the best standardized measure" is a misleading half-truth; the best statistical predictor of college performance is, and always has been, high school grades in college preparatory courses. It is a myth that America’s high schools are so unreliable (but, of course, not our colleges) that their grades are inflated and meaningless measures of academic achievement.
Even the College Board stipulates in its technical literature that high school grade-point average is the variable that holds the highest statistical correlation with first year grades and with cumulative grades. And high school G.P.A. is the best predictor of who will finish a college degree. High school G.P.A. alone performs better than test scores alone, whether one uses the SAT or the ACT; when combined with high school G.P.A., test scores increase our statistical power by one percentage point, as found at DePaul University, using the ACT, or at the University of Georgia, using the SAT. For me, a variable that raises one’s adjusted r-square in a statistical model by one point contributes diddly to our predictive powers. And what it contributes that isn’t diddly is the transmission of social inequality. There is no correlation between high school G.P.A. and family income; the same cannot be said for the SAT/ACT.
America’s high schools, in reaction to No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s push for transparency and accountability, have given birth to a "common core" standards movement in math and English that has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Coleman is intimately familiar with the common core, as one of its architects, and my hat is off to him for that. But one of the consequences of getting a more nationally uniform curriculum is that high school grades will end up predicting even more powerfully than before how well one will do in college, and aptitude tests will be left further behind. America’s schools are where our youths learn the "knowledge and skills" needed for college level work; test-prep for a Saturday morning’s experience filling in the blanks cannot ever do that job. As America’s schools become more uniform and transparent, the fears of unreliability that the test industry preys upon will dissipate.
Another reason the SAT is on the drawing board again is the success of the test-optional movement in higher education. Pioneered by Bates College, and championed by many others, including my own Wake Forest University, more than one-third of America’s colleges do not require the SAT or ACT of an applicant. It is a myth that we need the SAT/ACT to select youths who are prepared to make the most of an opportunity to get a college degree — just as it is a myth that we have perfected a statistical science for doing college admissions. According to the College Board, our statistical models capture about 22 percent of the variance in college grades; the University of Georgia, where the SAT contributed one point, managed to get a model that explained 31 percent of the differences in undergraduates’ first year grades.
Most of what matters to undergraduate performance, 70 to 80 percent of what’s going on, isn’t captured by our best statistical modeling. Admissions remains more art than science, and colleges who look at the whole applicant in search of the best fit between individual and campus do a valuable service. Test-optional colleges have to look beyond the numbers. The ranks of test-optional colleges have grown in the last four years. A tipping point will come when everyone will rush to jump on board, and the admission by the College Board that its 2005 version of the test was a failure brings that day closer to us.
First generation college students (or FGS) comprise a student population that is routinely overlooked at American colleges and universities. These students, whose parents have attained neither a bachelor’s nor an associate degree, are more likely to encounter academic, financial, professional, cultural and emotional difficulties than are students whose parents attended college. However, at a time when budget space is at a premium, many colleges and universities do not have campus programs to help first generation students matriculate. This could be problematic for student recruitment and retention at the nation’s college and universities.
Years ago, one could learn a trade, make enough to support a family, and even comfortably retire. Not today. Even specific trades require additional education. Today’s graduates also report that a college degree does not necessarily guarantee an interview during the current economic recession, when well-qualified and older workers are unemployed and seeking entry-level positions.
However, a college degree is increasingly necessary for an initial interview. As a result of these circumstances, first generation students are increasing at the nation’s colleges and universities. Nearly one in six freshmen at American four-year institutions are first generation, according to a 2007 study by the University of California at Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute.
The topic of first generation college students is often linked to race, ethnicity and affirmative action on many campuses. Programs that assist such students are frequently housed in multicultural or diversity education offices because minority students are also commonly first generation. A 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 36 percent of minority students are also first generation. Certainly, research indicates that FGS usually have to traverse additional cultural boundaries such as race and ethnicity, as well as class, when they enter predominantly white institutions.
Some might argue that race and ethnicity matter in a way that economic status does not. Education researchers assert that race, ethnicity, and class are all important, but do not always impact students’ college experiences in the same ways. One recent study found that minority and first generation students have somewhat different challenges. FGS are less involved in fine arts activities, science/quantitative experiences, course learning, and engage less with students who are different from them, but they have greater academic learning gains than minority students.
Given these and other findings, educators must recognize what factors can be attributed to first generation status and/or race/ethnicity, and then target those students’ specific needs. FGS programs could address targeted areas in existing campus initiatives to save costs. For example, orientation workshops could teach first generation students how to effectively take notes and participate in class, just to name a few academic skills. Residential programs and even class assignments could encourage minority students’ learning and involvement with campus activities. I tried this latter possibility in my first-year seminar course at Hope College a few years ago, when I required students to attend campus events and discuss how such events could affect their overall college learning.
Regardless of whether first generation students are racial or ethnic minority students or not, studies show that FGS often lack reading, writing and oral communication skills at the levels of the children of college graduates, which frequently lead to poor retention rates. I was a strong high school student, and even was class valedictorian, but soon after I arrived at Oberlin College I realized that my preparation for college-level work lagged that of my classmates. I learned in high school to study for memorization rather than for analysis. I learned study and time management skills through Oberlin’s Student Support Services (now Student Academic Services). After a semester of hard work, I caught up and later progressed toward graduate studies.
First generation students struggle with more than just academics. With the burden of outside work hours and less parental involvement, such students take part in fewer extracurricular organizations, campus cultural programs, internships, and career networking activities than their peers from middle- and upper-class economic backgrounds. If FGS participate in extracurricular activities, they often delay their involvement until they feel they have their studies under control. Although the hurdles may seem insurmountable, FGS must use campus resources to build social and professional connections.
Campus involvement was not an issue for me because I enjoy helping to make decisions that impact my community. I quickly joined Oberlin’s campus newspaper staff and other organizations. Research has shown that social networks are crucial for academic success. Campus involvements helped me better acclimate to campus culture by giving me a sense of belonging and thus a stronger desire to succeed academically.
Although I quickly found a niche in campus organizations, internship searches and other aspects of professional development were foreign terrains. Non-FGS may be able to consult their parents for assistance with making professional contacts and preparing for interviews. First generation students often do not have an immediate role model for such activities and have to look outward for such support. Because my parents had factory or service jobs, I did not understand the process of applying for a white-collar position. Thankfully, Oberlin’s career office provided excellence assistance in job search strategies, résumé and cover letter writing, and interview preparation.
Adding to the academic, social, and professional challenges that FGS face, these students typically straddle home and school class cultures. The home culture is typically working-class, whereas the academic culture is traditionally middle and upper class. When I was at Oberlin and even long afterward in graduate school, visits home were very stressful because I had to abruptly leave my growing middle-class identity on campus and jump into a working-class one. I sometimes spent school breaks on campus because I did not wish to experience the anxiety of straddling two class cultures.
The stress of managing two class cultures was especially acute during my early college days. I compare my immersion into campus culture to being dropped into a foreign country without a map. To navigate unfamiliar territory, I required certain types of cultural capital that needed to be learned. It would be erroneous to argue that either the working- or middle-/upper-middle class milieu lacks cultural capital. Rather, each social class has its own cultural capital that someone must know in order to function well within that class. Difficulties occur when someone lacks the cultural capital necessary for successful self-management within an unfamiliar social class.
My college experiences were a lesson in acquisition of cultural capital. As a first generation college student in the early 1990s, I was not prepared for the culture shock that I would experience at Oberlin. I thrived in Oberlin’s academic environment, where I befriended other students who were curious about the world, politically- and social justice-minded, and enjoyed learning. However, the campus’ cultural class aspect was initially more challenging because many classmates came with previous assumed experiences that would have been unthinkable in my working-class upbringing. I learned a new cultural grammar for relating to others and just being: What conversational topics were appropriate for dinners with professors, how to make an airline reservation, what outfits were appropriate for professional interviews, and many other aspects of this new middle-class life. Most of these cultural rules were unspoken, making the puzzle of learning them even more maddening.
Many of my Oberlin classmates, professors, and staff were welcoming and eager to help, but I especially experienced class disparities while studying abroad. During the spring of 1993, I planned to study abroad through an Oberlin program in London. I worked five jobs during the summer of 1992 just to save for the travel. For many peers, this was not their first trip abroad. I was dumbfounded to discover that some of my friends’ families even swapped houses with people in other countries or rented cottages abroad. My classmates had an assumed cultural capital of fluency in European languages, travel experiences, and knowledge of art and theater. These would be unthinkable luxuries in my working class upbringing in which vacations, let alone plane trips, were rare. I bonded with several other working-class students enrolled in the London program, and together we stumbled through American and British middle-class culture.
The cultural challenges that first generation students face are real, but they can be the most difficult for institutions to identify because they typically result from unspoken cultural expectations. The baseline of knowledge between first-generation students and upper-middle class students is sometimes vastly different. FGS typically lack certain types of cultural capital, such as exposure to cultural arts that wealthier students might take for granted. And first generation students are often employed for more hours and commute rather than live on campus, which make it even more difficult for them to engage in the campus cultural activities that would acculturate them.
To compound these difficulties, the cultural straddling between school and home is often colored by shame and guilt.
I used to feel guilty about leaving my family behind and ashamed of my working-class origins as I worked and traveled all over the world. Other working-class academics speak about having this "survivor’s guilt" even though they logically know their family is proud of their accomplishments. It took me a few years to learn how to gratefully receive opportunities so that I could as a teacher help others realize their goals through education.
My former shame is now similarly replaced by thankfulness. I am grateful for the diverse class experiences that have given me the bilingual-type ability to fluently speak in different class languages. Cultural straddling helps me relate to people from highly varying class backgrounds and different ways of thinking. As I share my class experiences in the classroom, I find that my self-disclosures give my first-generation and/or working-class students the courage to also speak. I always tell these students that the same skills that enabled them to attend college will help them make their way in the world. After all, we are survivors.
Certainly, institutions can assist FGS by recognizing how contextual factors such as class impact academic performance and cultural transition into college. At a time when every student matters, retention of first-generation college students should be a top priority for colleges and universities. I urge colleges that have no programs to support first generation students to start small and dedicate resources toward specifically helping these students. This can be anything from helping these students navigate study abroad opportunities, extra help in explaining financial aid options and, of course, a bit of hand-holding when it comes to different cultural events.
Researchers have found that even existing programs such as first-year experience courses can be fine-tuned to benefit first generation students. A focus on helping such students graduate not only can strengthen a college or university’s bottom line, but also enables more FGS to create stories of success.