President Obama has put forth a comprehensive plan to increase higher education value, holding colleges and universities accountable via a rating system based on the “outcomes” of access, graduation rates, graduate earnings and affordability.
It is hard to argue with the President’s intentions, nor the shove-rather-than-nudge strategy he employs, given the decades of higher education’s failure to rein in its costs or improve the success rate of students. The plan affirms higher education’s crucial role in fostering economic and social progress, puts colleges and universities on notice that the time for systemic change is now, not tomorrow, and creates rewards and punishments for institutions and students alike.
The president’s plan largely fails, however, to appropriately tackle the more fundamental value issue – far too little student learning. Myriad studies over the past several decades document that too little “higher” learning is taking place; college students do not make significant gains in critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, written communication skills, and ethical and moral development.
These are among the outcomes most observers claim to be the bedrock of higher learning necessary for work and careers in a 21st-century world economy. Indeed, a January 2013 Hart Research Associates survey  of employers conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of corporate and business leaders believed “that a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Knowledge in specific fields, ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning ranked almost as high. Employers complain, however, that far too few college graduates exhibit such learning.
By mostly leaving incentives for this kind of higher learning out, the president’s plan guarantees that colleges and universities will focus on myopic metrics of success. I say “myopic” not because better graduation rates, decent post-graduation salaries, and lowered costs are unworthy goals but because they are not substitutes for higher education’s essential purpose.
Institutions follow rewards. The plan unwittingly will steer colleges and universities further away from higher learning to meet only easily measured goals, just as No Child Left Behind reduced school outcomes to narrow, short-answer test responses and the U.S. News and World Report rankings powerfully shaped academe’s cowardly obeisance to its learning-irrelevant criteria.
A college education that fails to ensure enduring higher learning is not worth the cost at any price. Only the cost, not the learning, is higher, thereby yielding low value. And lowering cost by installing a more technologically enabled educational assembly line simply makes low value more affordable.
The academy is responsible for so little learning because its normative model of teaching, learning and assessment is ineffective. It increasingly has left teaching to contingent or adjunct faculty, lowered expectations and standards, allowed minimum student effort to be rewarded with inflated grades, and constructed a laissez-faire smorgasbord curriculum feeding incoherent learning.
Using disconnected course credit compilation and degree attainment as surrogates for serious learning, higher education has ignored its own scholarly research showing that core outcomes (e.g., critical thinking, effective written and oral communication, applying knowledge to solve problems, ethical integrity) are by nature cumulative, not attainable in any one or two required courses or random out-of-classroom learning experiences.
One or two freshman writing seminars are not sufficient to produce competent writers. A required general education course in critical thinking does not by itself teach someone how to evaluate the credibility of information and solve problems. A course in ethics does not make a moral person. The national average of 10-13 hours of homework per week is not adequate for deep and abiding learning.
Learning becomes cumulative when the faculty (a collective noun) acts collectively to ensure that all coursework and majors share, reinforce and appropriately assess higher learning, a process that intentionally progresses each year in complexity, adequacy, and sophistication.
Only a small minority of colleges and universities perform at this level currently because academic cultural barriers like allegiance to department and discipline rather than institution, privileging research over teaching, and abhorrence of the additional faculty effort required to teach for and assess deep and complex learning effectively inhibit necessary collective action. In this sense, higher education is its own worst enemy, and lowering costs, for example, while necessary, will not fix the problem.
The president has opened up an important national debate about higher education value and he has asked for responses. But the value he demands is too little. What is most needed is institutional culture change and neither federal nor state mandates will get us there.
Colleges and universities have the knowledge and talent to drive the needed changes. The president, and the nation, would be well-served if we heard a credible, collective and sustained response from higher education offering solutions to the issues of cost, access and graduation rates and, more crucially, systemic ways to improve higher learning.
Such a response would be supported enthusiastically by the philanthropic and corporate sector. Anything less than such a response will create a vacuum of educational leadership inexorably filled quickly by federal and state political leaders -- all our college graduates. Need I say more?
Richard Hersh is a senior consultant with Keeling & Associates and co-author of We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 ).