This year should be the one when higher education at last comes to our collective senses about celebrity commencement speakers. The bread-and-circuses spectacle that commencement has become on too many campuses demeans the true purpose of the ceremony.
From former Princeton University President William G. Bowen chastising the Haverford protesters who objected to Robert J. Birgeneau’s invitation (declined), to Chef Jose Andres being the foil for a celebrity video clip at George Washington University, mocking the whole idea of celebrity speakers, commencement speeches have become all about the speakers (or the withdrawn or disinvited speakers) with hardly a word about the graduates.
Indeed, the silence of the invited speakers who have withdrawn, rather than face the discomfort of protest and disagreement, says more about the banal state of commencements today than all of the thousands of platitudes uttered by those who actually did speak this year.
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Celebrity commencement speaker controversies are hardly new. Decades before P. Diddy sported doctoral stripes on Howard University’s graduation stage, Dick Cavett was the speaker of choice, topping lists made by seniors in the 1970s who feared boredom, or worse, a serious lecture on the day that supposedly marked their highest intellectual achievement. Colleges indulged the popular speaker lists to appease students and gain publicity. Cavett, a genial talk show host in the mid-20th century, was in high demand for about a decade, addressing graduates at Yale University, Vassar College and Johns Hopkins University, among others.
But his 1984 speech at Yale provoked an angry response about the “Graduation from Hell” from Yale ’84 feminist writer Naomi Wolf for Cavett’s comments about Vassar women. Wolf’s comments came in her own commencement speech at Scripps College in 1992. Cavett replied in a New York Times letter that Wolf missed the obvious humor in his remarks, incurring a reply from a male letter writer, also Yale ’84, who condemned the whole thing as “boorish alumnus blather.”
At least the Cavett controversy included an actual speech and some spirited, even extenuated, public debate. Today’s “controversies” hardly amount to more than boorish behavior on both sides, with speakers withdrawing in fits of pique after learning of protests by campus constituents wielding the ire of entitlement to have only people with whom they agree speak to them on the big day. Muffling speech is the antithesis of what all that learning should have been about.
Some critics this year blame leftist politics for the protests against former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde at Smith. Such critics seem to have forgotten the truly hyperbolic right-wing frenzy over President Obama’s 2011 commencement appearance at the University of Notre Dame, and Secretary of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebelius’s 2012 appearance at a diploma ceremony at Georgetown. Many people who denounce a Michael Bloomberg or Chris Christie on the graduation dais express umbrage over threats to academic freedom when a bishop stomps his crozier on a speaker choice.
Let’s stop the madness. Colleges and universities have 364 other days each year to invite celebrity speakers and gain the notoriety that comes with controversial speakers. The best result of this year’s speaker controversies might be a serious re-examination of the whole idea of commencement as a venue for commercial entertainment and institutional bragging rights, rather than a modestly festive-but-stately ceremony concluding a period of collegiate study.
What’s the point of a commencement speech?
The address should be a "last class" summation of learning, an exhortation to use that learning for social good, a beautifully crafted piece of short rhetoric that is, at once, celebratory and sobering for the graduates. The speech may be humorous, but not tawdry; serious, but not depressing. Respecting the occasion, the speech must respect intellectual achievement and not dumb down the moment. Shorter speeches are memorable for their message; longer speeches are mostly remembered for being long.
Who is the best person to deliver such a speech?
The commencement speaker should know the graduating class, know the college and be able to embed the institution’s values and shared experiences of the students in the remarks -- ideally a faculty member or a local community leader.
One of the greatest problems with celebrity speakers is that they tend to walk onto the stage cold, knowing little about the students they are speaking to, delivering an address that might even have been given at another university in the previous week.
As the ongoing speaker controversies reveal, the whole point of the commencement speech has become subrogated to the identity of the speaker. Speech controversies arise because both institutions and students put more emphasis on who the speaker is --- preferably a very famous celebrity --- than on what the speaker is supposed to say. Consequently, the very identity of the speaker becomes the flashpoint before the person has uttered a single word.
Colleges and universities reap what they sow when the celebrity of the speaker becomes more important than the purpose of commencement. The time has come to restore the idea of the celebration of academic achievement to center stage on graduation day. Turning commencement into a sideshow of anger and recrimination is no way to end a student’s academic experience.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.
A ritual of the spring commencement season in the United States is for colleges and universities to invite the most prominent speaker possible to their graduation ceremonies. These luminaries typically offer anodyne platitudes for the graduates and their parents, and, if they are sufficiently famous, the local media as well. This year, an unusual number of speakers have withdrawn from participation because campus groups have complained about their views or actions.
Recent casualties include Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who withdrew from Smith College’s ceremony when 477 students and faculty signed an online petition complaining about the IMF, and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley who canceled at Haverford College, where 50 students and faculty members complained about his handling of student protests at Berkeley and demanded he agree to nine conditions, including apologizing and supporting reparations for the protesters. Several invited speakers have gotten into trouble because of their support of the Iraq war a decade ago, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University and (a year ago) Robert Zoellick, former World Bank head, at Swarthmore College.
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There are some counterexamples. Last year Jesuit-run Boston College did not pull the plug on Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, despite pressure from some Roman Catholic leaders and a boycott of commencement by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Some were peeved that Kenny’s government supported a bill legalizing abortion in Ireland. This year University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco stood by University of California President and former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, who was criticized by some students for her agency’s immigration deportations.
What’s the Problem?
Why should very small numbers of students and faculty cause commencement speakers to cancel and university administrators to fail to stand up for the speakers? Typically, the speaker says that he or she does not want to bring controversy to a festive occasion, and the administration responds: “We respect the speaker’s wish and, by the way, this does not reflect on our commitment to academic freedom.” A very small number of people, sometimes with rather bizarre complaints, cause an entire institution to change plans, generally for no good reason.
Speaker Fortitude Needed
While a few picketers and perhaps a bit of heckling may be unpleasant, especially on graduation day, most prominent speakers have experienced much worse. Unless there threatens to be a serious public safety problem, the speakers should honor their invitations, perhaps even reflecting on whatever controversy might occur in the talk. There is simply no reason to walk away from a bit of controversy. Indeed, the lesson for the graduates may be salutary.
Administrative Courage Desired
Administrators should try as hard as possible to convince the speaker to participate, ensure appropriate public safety support, and stand up for the principles of campus dialogue, free speech, and academic freedom. The fact is that permitting a small minority to dictate who can speak on campus is a violation of academic freedom and the important commitment of any university — to permit a range of views to be presented on campus.
Top administrators and the academic community in general have become so risk-averse that even a minor possibility of disruption can lead to giving up any battle for principle. Basic academic values need to be protected — campus speakers, including and perhaps especially commencement speakers must be assured that they can express their views. No doubt most of the speakers who decided to pull out commencement exercises this year were motivated by a desire not to make things difficult for the university or for themselves.
The campus community itself, including students and professors, must respect the right of the university to invite commencement speakers to campus and permit free speech on campus. The protesters often claim that commencement speakers are official representatives of the college. The speaker, they claim, has no right to address the commencement even if the topic of the talk has nothing to do with, for example, a war that ended a half-dozen years ago, or if the speaker is affiliated with an organization, such as the International Monetary Fund, that may be unpopular among a small campus group. If students or faculty want to make their views about an individual, an event, idea, or organization made known, they can issue statements or even protest at the commencement, but it does not seem appropriate to demand that the university withdraw an invitation. This is especially the case for many commencement speakers, who are at least sometimes chosen with considerable campus input in the first place.
What Is To Be Done?
The current situation shows weakness by both the speakers and, especially, university leaders. It shows a remarkable lack of judgment and perspective by the “critics,” who try to blackball distinguished people for some past flaw or opinion. It is time for the higher education community to get some perspective and some backbone.
Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
Although to my knowledge no one has tracked in a given year much less over time the number of faculty votes of no confidence in their presidents, readers of Inside Higher Ed will observe that such votes appear to be taking place all the time. The reporting of these votes reveals that faculty members generally are protesting what they judge to be their presidents' failure to honor shared governance, particularly when it comes to academic matters. Such votes often also condemn what the faculty see as a campus culture that is top-down and corporate rather than collaborative in nature, particularly when budgets are being cut.
This complaint that colleges have embraced business values and practices at the expense of academic values and practices is not a new one. Robert Margesson in A Rhetorical History of Academic Freedom From 1900 to 2006 noted that the American professoriate has been claiming at least as far back as 1908 that colleges and universities had become too corporate and that presidents had too much power.
This history notwithstanding, as I argue in my new book, Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Seniors Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Institutions Thrive (Jossey-Bass), many presidents (and their boards) are in fact now minimizing and even ignoring the notions of shared governance in unprecedented ways. For example, increasing numbers of presidents whose institutions are facing significant financial pressures have — without the involvement of the faculty — eliminated, added or reorganized academic programs and altered how funds for departmental budgets and faculty lines are allocated.
Others have sought to create greater efficiencies and increase faculty “productivity” as defined by the number of students and/or class hours taught and, in the view of the faculty, moved too quickly, thereby violating the faculty’s wish for extended deliberations. Moreover, nearly 75 percent of faculty currently teaching at our colleges and universities today are “contingent,” (i.e., not on the tenure track and often part-time) compared to roughly 22 percent in 1969. Since contingent faculty generally have no role in governance, the reality today is that the majority of those teaching at the college level have no opportunity whatsoever to contribute to institutional decision-making.
Believing themselves under siege, many tenured and tenure-track faculty are assuming a more adversarial stance toward their administrations and sometimes their boards than I believe was previously the case. Even more specifically, because many faculty members believe that their traditional prerogatives in terms of academic matters and their established processes for faculty deliberation (which many see as their protection) are being ignored, the traditional tensions between faculty and administration are being aggravated.
Although these trends may be understandable, they are also having the very damaging consequence that a number of presidents whom I would judge effective and who do in fact embrace academic values and seek to foster shared governance, are questioning the very viability of the college presidency. I have been startled in my recent informal conversations with presidents at higher education meetings and/or in phone calls that so many presidents, already troubled by the many external challenges facing higher education, have contemplated leaving their position because of their contentious relationships with some members of their faculty. Typically, these presidents were considering either returning to teaching, retiring early or moving out of academe altogether.
Despite the fact that these presidents are located across the country and in institutions of various sizes with an array of different missions, their refrain has been consistent. In addition to citing the unrelenting demands of the job and the extraordinary financial challenges facing their institutions, both of which require an inordinate amount of presidential time and energy, most were more discouraged by what they characterized as persistent and often public criticism from a very vocal minority of faculty members on their campuses. To a person, all were dismayed that most members of their faculty, including those who privately expressed their support for them, were intimidated into silence by a small number of vocal and often vitriolic opponents who dominated the discourse in faculty meetings, in hallways and in lots of dark corners.
Most of these presidents have multiyear contracts. Only one of those with whom I have spoken recently has experienced anything approaching a formal protest from faculty colleagues, after which his board gave him a new five-year contract. Thus, none were worried about job security. Rather, their legitimate worries about the external environment were compounded by their worries about the climate on their own campuses. In addition, in a few instances, their concerns were magnified because they were uncertain that their board would be united in its support of any unpopular actions on their part, even in cases when the board had approved those actions. Several noted that their most vocal critics argued that all administrators were untrustworthy and/or incompetent. Sometimes, faculty members shared these views with their students, inspiring student dissent and distrust. Some faculty involved alumni.
Several presidents talked about how their colleagues always viewed the present through the lens of their memories of the past. On a number of campuses, presidents told me, when they looked into ongoing complaints about “the administration’s actions,” they learned the actions being criticized came from prior administrations. (I confess that sometimes when I am visiting campuses as part of consulting projects and hear such stories, I am reminded of Faulkner’s line in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)
The presidents with whom I talked were all also aware that any conflict on campus today could readily attract a great deal of negative public attention that might harm their institution and garner support for their critics, both in social media — often through Facebook pages — and also in the local and sometimes national press as well. Although these presidents recognized that such media campaigns were often mounted because faculty and students had legitimate concerns, they were nevertheless nervous that such campaigns might be successfully mounted against them for what they believed to be less compelling reasons. (See the following Inside Higher Ed pieces for examples of media campaigns and related controversies that led to presidential resignations at places as diverse as Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Louis University and Florida Atlantic University.)
Of course, such tensions are occasioned today by the fact that so many colleges and universities, sometimes for the first time in their history, are facing declining or unpredictable enrollments, rising financial aid discounts and structural deficits that have led to higher than standard endowment payouts, which threaten the sustainability of the institution over time. Because these problems seem to defy easy answers, many campuses are extremely anxious about their future. As one faculty member told me this fall, he understood that he and his colleague were unlikely to find other positions in higher education, if their institution closed.
Even so, he observed, most of his colleagues were in denial about the seriousness of the problem and instead were focused on what he called “the blame game.” He expressed regret that few on the faculty were willing to work with the administration to try to find solutions. On another campus suffering declining enrollments and where the faculty had not had a pay raise for years, faculty members refused to meet with prospective students and their families unless they were paid stipends to do so. The institution responded that it would only have the funds for such activities if enrollments increased. When last I checked, they were at an impasse.
Presidents and faculty members both should be nervous about the future. Perhaps most importantly, because the majority of American private college and universities are overwhelmingly tuition-dependent and because the funding of so many public institutions is based on enrollment, the financial impact of reduced enrollments can be devastating. Some recent statistics illustrate the volatility of enrollments:
Total undergraduate enrollment was down at 45.6 percent of all institutions in 2011-12 from the previous year and down at 41 percent of private institutions.
In 2012-13, the enrollment declines continued with declines of nearly a half million students, compared to the previous year, with approximately 90 percent of this decline coming from those who were over 25 years old.
Graduate enrollment too has softened. For example, in 2012, first-time graduate student enrollment declined 1.7 percent and more strikingly, enrollment of U.S. citizens at American graduate programs declined 2.3 percent.
A few specific examples will illustrate the serious consequences of declining enrollments.
Iowa Wesleyan College, despite its 117-year history, plans to close 16 of 32 academic programs (including studio art, sociology, history, philosophy of religion, communication and forensic science), to shrink its faculty from 52 to 22 and to reduce its staff from 78 to 55. Its new focus will be exclusively on business, education and nursing. The college will also seek to enroll greater numbers of adult students.
University of Maryland University College, serving nontraditional students, such as members of the military, the federal government and working adults recently announced that it would lay off 70 employees. Its enrollment was 43,000 in 2011. For 2013, UMUC anticipates 37,000 students.
The University of Maine System announced plans to lay off approximately 165 faculty and staff members. This follows the elimination of 520 positions (one-tenth of the faculty, one-fourth of administrators and one-sixth of hourly employees since 2007).
Today’s financial pressures are so serious that Moody’s in 2014 issued a negative outlook for all of higher education, essentially exempting only the most affluent and selective colleges and universities. In reaching this judgment, Moody’s was influenced by the stressed business conditions in higher education, especially that revenue growth was anticipated to by much lower than had previously been the case at a time when “pent-up institutional needs” were requiring expenditures greater than revenue. Moody’s also cited uncertain funding from the public and private sectors and the current regulatory environment.
But despite the fact that these pressures are affecting the entire higher education sector, most of the presidents with whom I talked believed that they had failed to persuade their faculty colleagues that their institution was being challenged by external forces that generally were beyond their control. Rather, most of these presidents told me, when they shared information about the higher education landscape with their colleagues (and sometimes their boards), what they hear in return is that their own institution is immune from such circumstances because they are better than those being affected, that their institution has survived in the past and so will continue to survive in the future and/or that the problem really is not external but internal, i.e., that if the administration simply functioned more effectively, everything would be fine.
If in fact our colleges are to thrive in these difficult times, members of the faculty and the administration must overcome this growing divide and intentionally become partners in thinking about their institution’s future so that their institution can benefit from the best thinking of all of its members. They need to abandon the position that they are natural adversaries.
What might such a new partnership look like? For their part, I believe that presidents and boards must commit to and act on the notions that education is the institution’s reason for being, that faculty members ultimately are the heart and soul of the institution and that faculty voices do need to be at the appropriate tables. Thus, I believe that when boards select nontraditional presidents who come from outside the academy, they be sure that their choice has had an experience of some sort — as a student, a faculty member, an administrator or a board member — at a comparable institution and that they value the academic enterprise.
I am equally persuaded (although many faculty members will not welcome this suggestion) that professors understand that if they wish to contribute both to the conversation and decision-making, they need to act in a much more timely fashion than has been previously the case, sometimes even immediately. They will also need to embrace new approaches to governance that focus on institutional health rather than solely on their individual or departmental interests. For example, despite the difficulty of doing so, faculty members need to be willing to partner with the administration to make often-painful decisions about the allocation of resources. Without such collaboration, many administrations will act unilaterally.
One such example occurred a few years ago at a university where several departments enrolled at the most only a handful of students, who were taught by an equivalent number of faculty members. The president established a program prioritization process in which a committee comprising faculty members and the vice president for academic affairs spent the academic year analyzing course offerings and enrollment patterns. The committee ultimately recommended that the university phase out several majors and one minor that they judged were not central to the institution’s mission and that in the committee’s judgment were not financially sustainable. Their recommendation called for the tenured faculty to be reassigned to teach in other departments if those departments so approved and/or to teach interdisciplinary courses in the freshman and senior seminar programs. The untenured faculty would be retained only for the duration of their current contracts. Thus, although the savings would not be immediate, eliminating these programs would free up resources over time. The president was pleased with the recommendations. However, the entire faculty spent the following year debating the matter, ultimately voting down the recommendations overwhelmingly because they did not want to set the precedent that any major or any minor at all should be abolished. Board members are considering instructing the president to make such decisions administratively going forward.
For colleges and universities to chart a successful future going forward, I believe that faculty members and administrators alike must move beyond constituency politics. They and their boards must also embrace their academic mission, see themselves as partners and act in the best interests of the institution as a whole. Short of such a partnership and such an institutional perspective, I fear that the best of those in leadership positions may step down, that contentiousness will lead institutions to an unhealthy and unsustainable paralysis and that prospective students and potential donors may make other choices.
Americans don’t like cheaters. When it comes to how we learn and what we’re able to do with our acquired knowledge, a game has been going on. And many will find themselves systematically locked out of opportunity.
This is not about students cheating on tests or principals downplaying ineffective teaching strategies. Nor is it about the latest argument concerning higher education — that college is too expensive and there’s no guarantee of gainful employment. It a national reckoning of how much we’re willing to tolerate regarding class, status and the suppression of economic mobility. This issue demands that we take responsibility for the way that our educational decisions play out in our lives and throughout our communities. Until we take ownership of these things, we will continue to play a fool’s game of winners and losers.
For the vast majority of Americans — myself included — a college education remains the key to an engaging, financially viable life. Nothing should be done to disrupt this trusted vehicle by zeroing in on the undergraduate degree solely as preparation for a first job whose “of-the-moment” skills and knowledge are likely be eclipsed in short order in a rapidly changing economy.
I am a first-generation college student. My father, while I was growing up ,was an assembly line worker making wooden boxes and a cook at a hospital. My mother did not work outside the home.
It was their conviction that I would receive an education that those who traditionally succeeded -- generation after generation -- in America already enjoyed.
And that was a liberal arts education. My parents didn’t really understand what a liberal arts education was, but they knew they wanted it for me. I was not about to be cheated out of an education that would not carry me through a lifetime of self-inquiry, engagement and changing job opportunities.
But today’s stormy economy, and with it, constant rhetoric from self-appointed critics dubbing the liberal arts “useless” as opposed to training for a first job, cause people to have doubts. The liberal arts — even as a complement to vocational education as in Germany where the technical economy is thriving — are glibly declared without value.
Is it not suspicious, however, that at the very time more and more aspiring students from challenging, non-middle-class backgrounds seek higher education, those who have already achieved, often on the basis of a liberal education, want to redefine the rules?
This is the game. It’s as close as America gets to hereditary power. And it is won in two relatively simple steps: redefine the very notion of student success on the basis of landing that first job; and keep those without privilege away from the liberal arts — a historical source of power and mobility in the middle-class culture that defines higher education. There is no doubt that those who are trying to tear down the traditional undergraduate degree would not permit their own children to be limited to a strictly vocational education.
So, while we are encouraged to fret over college costs, the marketability and uselessness of the philosophy major, or something else similarly distracting, we’re letting the great equalizer of the college degree and a trusted path to leadership get away from us.
Some institutions are not waiting for everyday Americans to catch on. At the University of Baltimore, for example, a state institution committed to open-access admissions at the undergraduate level, a rigorous examination of the challenges faced by and resources available to its students for success has been taking place for the past year. The goal is to provide students the academic and non-academic interventions that help them complete a career-oriented college-level course of study at a reasonably low cost and in a reasonable amount of time. These students didn’t grow up believing that they have all the time in the world to mature. They were not told every day that they are “great.” Many are first generation college students and come from nontraditional pathways to the university. There is a mix of ages. Urgency defines these students’ ambition. The university has no intercollegiate athletics and its residence facilities are minimal. The city often serves both its students’ residential and social life.
But in its effort to increase student success, the university is not forgoing its historic commitment to the applied liberal arts. It offers relatively modest number of majors that are preparatory to a range of careers — business, criminal justice, human sciences and management, digital communications, simulation and digital entertainment, psychology, jurisprudence, and integrated arts. All of these are taught within a liberal arts context. At its curricular core, the university has always been about a productive, at once imaginative, intersection of theory and practice defined by applied liberal arts in the service of employment.
For example, all publication design majors are required to complete Visual/Verbal Rhetoric and all digital communication majors are required to take Rhetoric of Digital Communications. Both courses are based in rhetorical theory from Aristotle and Burke to McLuhan, Toulmin and Barthes. Students analyze and apply aesthetic and rhetorical theory to visual products -- advertisements and other graphic-design materials, television shows and movies, public relations and marketing. The infusion of the liberal arts into the fundamentals of applied courses of study began with the introduction of programs often decades ago. The deliberate infusion of practical courses with the liberal arts is further strengthened by locating them within the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. Here is a university where open-access students are not about to be intellectually shortchanged even when facing the imperative to transition from study to work.
When our nation’s founding fathers made their original commitment to higher education, they envisioned a useful liberal arts education that would permit citizens to participate productively over a lifetime in the social, political and economic arenas of democracy. There was no dichotomy between the liberal arts and employment in the distinctively American college education.
Today, we risk this potential for a meritocracy. Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted centuries ago in his essay, "Self Reliance," that a distinction of the American people — a key to their inventiveness and advancement — is the ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory notions at once. Those who would drive a wedge between the liberal arts and jobs are destroying that distinction and limiting human potential. A culture of inherited privilege is still doggedly hanging on to supplant the individual’s talent and ambition. The walls are still up and being defended under the seductive guise of a narrow education for the first job. And a lot of folks are being cheated as college success is redefined. For when college success is redefined, so is life success.
William G. Durden is president emeritus of Dickinson College and a newly appointed research professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Education and operating partner at Sterling Partners. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at the University of Baltimore.
Over the years, we wanted to learn more about why young people who start college don’t earn degrees in greater numbers. We had reams of data on the issue, but we wanted to hear from college leaders — presidents, chancellors, and deans. From their campus-level perspective, what were the biggest barriers preventing students from completing their postsecondary educations?
Time and again higher education leaders answered that question by lamenting the poor academic preparation students received in high school. This complaint was most prevalent at community colleges, where nearly 9 out of 10 leaders said students arrived unprepared for college-level work, but poor high school preparation was also cited by more than a third of four-year college leaders.
So, is this view an attack on high school educators? Not at all. We see this as a reason for K-12 and higher education leaders to work together on behalf of students. It’s exactly why higher education leaders must engage with the Common Core State Standards — the biggest and boldest effort in a generation to ensure every student is prepared to succeed in college and the work force.
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For too long we have taught students to standards that don’t match the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after high school. The Common Core State Standards were designed to address that by providing rigorous learning goals in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for all students, no matter where they live, or what they plan to do after high school. The standards were adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, with districts and schools now using them. In too many places, though, districts and states are doing this without the help, guidance or political muscle of higher education leaders.
The new standards move far beyond memorizing facts and figures. They challenge our students to develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, to think critically, and to apply what they are learning to the real world. The goal is to ensure that any student meeting these standards will be prepared to meet the challenges of first-year college courses. This will be a welcome change for higher education leaders, because it will free colleges to focus on, well, college.
Specifically, the full and faithful implementation of the Common Core could all but eliminate the need for colleges to provide academic remediation to students enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Also called “developmental education,” this remediation costs taxpayers $7 billion every year. It’s estimated that only 17 percent of students who take a developmental reading course go on to earn a four-year degree.
In Kentucky, after the state became the first to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2011, the percent of Kentucky high school graduates ready for college and career increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year, and a year later it hit 54 percent.
Instead of spending the first semester or two in college in developmental education classes, and paying for those non-credit bearing courses, students should be able to immediately start earning credits toward a degree. This is no small thing, as the typical student at a four-year college needs nearly five years to graduate and then leaves with an average of $29,000 in student loan debt.
Reducing the time it takes students to earn a college degree benefits everyone. It saves students money. It makes it more likely that they will graduate. It ensures a better investment for taxpayers, with a higher return on their investment of public funds. It means colleges can reduce the amount of money they spend on students who are now taking five or more years to graduate, and can focus those resources on improving the learning environment and ultimately the completion rates for all students.
Another significant benefit of the new standards is that they present a long-overdue and purposeful link between K-12 and higher education. The standards provide both systems with an opportunity for serious, ongoing collaboration. Right now, that collaboration isn’t happening nearly often enough. Last fall, Hart Research Associates and edBridge Partners surveyed 205 district superintendents and college university system leaders. Only one-third of those surveyed said they collaborate “extremely or very effectively” with each other.
This is a real missed opportunity. Through the work of our grantees and partners, we have seen how close collaboration can yield amazing results. According to Complete College America, the California State University (CSU) system helped add a series of college readiness questions to the state’s 11th-grade exam. After students take the test, they are told whether they are on track for college-level classes in the CSU system. CSU has also designed transitional readiness courses and professional development opportunities that help high school teachers work with unprepared students to get them ready for college. In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia have aligned their high school graduation requirements with their state university admission requirements.
Higher education leaders and faculty in several institutions are working to align college eligibility and admissions practices and many states are also working to align first-year college courses with the new high school course expectations. But there is a great and urgent need for higher education to do more because the standards are under attack from some quarters.
In many states, some groups are working to purposefully undermine them with misinformation that isn’t about quality. Of great importance to higher education, in particular, is the standards have been designed to ensure young people master the essential skills and knowledge they need in higher education and the workplace. The higher education community is in a unique position to reinforce what matters most, affirming the quality of the Common Core State Standards and attesting that the standards are aligned to better prepare students for credit-bearing courses.
On a more general level, some critics continue to claim that the Common Core State Standards are an improper federal intervention in education; that educators were not sufficiently involved in their development; and that the standards dictate curriculum. Here, too, the members of the higher education community can help to combat misinformation by citing their firsthand evidence to the contrary, or by helping to direct attention to the extensive public evidence and information about the standards’ actual origin, development and content. By engaging actively in the debate around the Common Core, higher education leaders can inform it with their expertise, participate in and ensure the full, faithful and effective implementation of the Common Core, and help supporters of improved education and educational pipelines stay the course.
The Common Core State Standards should be a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to improve the lives of young people. The new standards will be critical in determining how well our students succeed in K-12, and whether they are ready to succeed in college, the work force, and beyond.
We must ensure this essential work is not derailed. To be successful, we need higher education leaders to engage directly, to learn about the Common Core State Standards, and join the debate. Why? Because they are in the best position to help Americans understand that rigorous standards like these are needed for our students so they succeed in high school, through college, and into their careers.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vicki Phillips is director of education at the foundation.
A Brown professor says she's sorry for unintentional plagiarism in her book, but that the thoughts were hers. While some in her department have expressed dismay, others say it's a mistake all too easily made.