Between a presidential proposal rating colleges based in part on what graduates earn, studies linking specific majors to earning potential, and seemingly endless reports analyzing the return on investment of higher education, never have the economic implications of a college education been more important.
Faculty members in the liberal arts are, not surprisingly, resistant to the notion that an education can be reduced to a starting salary. Education, we insist, should prepare one for life — for work, for play, for relationships, for responsible citizenry. And when our students do ask questions about their job prospects, we are encouraging, if not precise. We remind students vaguely that critical thinking skills are highly sought-after by employers and then we refer students to our campus’s career centers to work with trained career professionals, whom we largely do not know.
Is this enough?
For years I thought it was enough, but with tuition and student debt loads continuing to rise and a public that seems increasingly impatient with the liberal arts, I’m no longer so inclined.
For the last ten years or so, I’ve been piecing together, often clumsily, a different answer with and for my students that has developed into a three-credit course on career exploration. Based on the premise that students can apply the writing and research skills they’ve developed in the liberal arts to launch their job searches, this course defends the choice of a liberal arts major, while at the same time confronting the challenging job market these students face.
It is an approach that has required me to become much more involved in my students’ job searches. It is not enough, I now realize, to refer students to career centers or to write glowing reference letters. It is not enough offer platitudes about problem-solving skills.
The course almost always begins by having students identify as precisely as possible the skills they have developed in their majors. When talking with English majors, for example, students almost always start with obvious skills such as research, writing, and critical thinking. But quickly they start unpacking these general categories, and we talk about using databases efficiently, the difficulties of synthesis, and the unappreciated skill of paraphrase.
We talk about interpretation, understanding historical context, writing for particular audiences, and explaining complex theoretical perspectives. Someone inevitably acknowledges that he has learned to discuss difficult subjects like racism and sexism. Someone else confesses that she used to be “bad” at peer review, but now knows how to give -- and receive -- constructive criticism. Someone else talks about developing an aesthetic sense, of appreciating a line of poetry for its sheer beauty.
The different directions this conversation can take have been instructive. The English majors almost always say something about how they have learned to disagree with others, without insisting that one person’s interpretation is right, another wrong, and they appreciate their ability to do so without resorting to the shouting matches they see on cable television.
But students in other disciplines, I’ve learned, are not so quick to claim the English major’s love of ambiguity. During one discussion, two political science majors bristled at the notion that there are no right answers. We, the political scientists proudly declared, learn to win debates. We learn to find the weaknesses in other people’s arguments, and we learn to defend our own positions. Not a bad skill, we all realized, for future policy makers, many of whom will work in a political context in which there are, unquestionably, winners and losers.
I always end this class activity the same way: by asking students to erase those skills we’ve written on the board that are not transferable to a professional setting. There is almost always a long pause, but someone inevitably offers up something: “Peer review. No one here is ever going to get a job peer reviewing poems.”
Before I even have a chance to use the eraser in my hand, however, someone else chimes in with some version of this story: “I’m probably not going to peer review a poem again, but I will have to give constructive criticism. I had a boss once who didn’t know how to give feedback, and it was awful. I know I can give criticism better than he did.”
In all the times I’ve done this exercise, we’ve never erased a single thing.
This activity is no magic bullet. Students still need to identify skills specific to their individual experiences and affinities, and they need lots of practice articulating these strengths to potential employers. But it can be start, a way of helping students link their majors with career options. Because it challenges students’ own perceptions of themselves as having chosen a “useless” major, it also serves as a particularly helpful launch to an entire course devoted to preparing for a job search.
But it is a path that works only if we, the faculty in the disciplines, willingly assume a role in career counseling. As fabulous as the career professionals I’ve worked with over the years are — and they are incredibly knowledgeable and talented — they cannot nor should be solely responsible for helping students recognize the discipline-specific skills they have developed.
Rather than refer students to career professionals, we need to partner with these counselors, in our classrooms and in their career centers. Only if we work collaboratively can we give our students in the liberal arts the career guidance they need and deserve.
Patricia Okker is professor of English and interim deputy provost at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association rarely admits to the need to revisit an infractions case, and particularly one that strikes at the core of academic integrity issues. So when the NCAA announced an unusual and embarrassing return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to reopen an academic fraud investigation that first came to light in 2011 and resulted in narrowly constructed sanctions in 2012 that affected the eligibility of a single athlete, it marked another confidence crisis in whether the NCAA can control the powerful forces of big-time college sports.
The reopening of the case also served as a measure of vindication for those on the UNC campus and in the media who bravely withstood public ridicule and even death threats.
It is undeniable that academic cheating scandals have spiked in the past decade. A 2011 review by Inside Higher Ed found a significant rise in serious academic violations during the past decade. Some critics attribute the spike in cheating to the weakened initial eligibility standards of the NCAA’s academic reform initiatives, while others point to the inherent incentives garnered from winning.
Recent media stories document a trend of selective universities admitting athletes with woefully unprepared reading skills. They are handed to academic support advisers who manage them in predetermined class schedules and place them in academic majors that neither educate them nor prepare them for a career. The university’s traditional deal with the athlete is a bona fide college education in exchange for athletic talent. Too often the promise of an education is unfulfilled. The spikes in these fraud cases are but a fraction of the daily fraud perpetrated against athletes, and the second-class education given to them.
Several highly publicized academic scandals in major athletic programs have gone largely unaddressed by the NCAA. The University of North Carolina fraud case exposes numerous serious allegations of fraud and cover-up by athletic staff, coaches, faculty and administration, with an emphasis on shooting the messengers. The scandal has been a painful and costly journey for this great public university characterized by a steady leeching of damning indictments from former athletes and a former staff whistleblower in national media.
The focus of the scandal is on a former professor at UNC facing a felony charge (now dropped in exchange for cooperation with UNC) of receiving a $12,000 payment for a class he didn’t teach. In the interim, several investigations conducted at the request of the university administration have consistently concluded that this was not an athletic scandal.
In May 2014, the university contracted with Kenneth Wainstein, at $990 per hour, to conduct an independent investigation of the scandal. Advantaged by the cooperation of the professor and his former administrative assistant, Wainstein appears to be sharing his findings with the NCAA. Wainstein’s investigation has prompted a reexamination of the claims from Mary Willingham and others of a widespread and long-term academic fraud scheme designed to keep unprepared athletes competing.
The shared findings may expose the method used to protect the eligibility of underprepared basketball and football athletes through classes that were designed to secure high grades, demanded little time or work in the form of an often-plagiarized paper, and denied them the opportunity for the education the NCAA proudly advertises as its primary mission.
Although UNC offers the most recent example of fraudulent eligibility schemes to maintain prized athletes, recent history has demonstrated similar instances at other major athletic programs and a disturbing trend. In 2006, a scandal at Auburn University revealed unusually large numbers of directed readings courses from a “jock doc” to football players to enhance their likelihood of remaining on the field in exchange for no attendance and little work. In what is commonly known as major clustering, one sociology professor called his department a dumping ground for athletes. The NCAA did nothing.
In 2008, the University of Michigan discovered a similar scheme perpetrated by an athletics-friendly professor there who provided at least 251 independent studies courses to varsity athletes from 2004-2007 on the subject of study skills. The NCAA failed to act.
These three similar instances of obvious breaches of academic integrity to secure athletes’ eligibility shared the same reluctance of the NCAA to investigate further. It should not be surprising that NCAA rule changes in minimum initial eligibility standards and punishment for those institutions failing to meet progress toward degree standards in 2003, enacted under the banner of “academic reform,” brought increased pressure on schools to protect their investments in athletic talent.
Instead of acting on these lapses of academic integrity and educational abuses of athletes, the NCAA Academic Cabinet and Management Council spent months in an effort to study the definition of academic misconduct and when schools are obligated to report instances of fraud. After months of deliberation, not much has changed. Its new interpretation, issued in April 2014, looks very similar to the NCAA definition of academic fraud issued in 2000.
Academic fraud is not a complicated concept. For NCAA fraud to occur there must be two ingredients: an athletics nexus with the participation of athletics personnel or other institutional staff, and a fraudulent advantage affecting the eligibility of the athlete. Members of the NCAA cabinet described a reticence to interfere with institutional academic misconduct policies
Perhaps the new NCAA official interpretation defining what constitutes NCAA academic fraud spurred the reopening of the case at UNC, but the constant public outrage and allegations from athletes on CNN, HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," Bloomberg News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Raleigh News and Observer and others were more likely the catalyst.
Media have exposed athletes who are admitted to selective institutions with severe deficiencies in basic reading skills and systematically channeled through a series of fraudulent classes, friendly faculty and non-rigorous academic majors tailored to maintain eligibility. The fraud begins when admissions directors of selective institutions, at the directive of their their campus presidents, admit unprepared but NCAA-qualified athletes. The eligibility of these marginal athletes is cleverly managed with the assistance of some faculty.
The NCAA’s lax admission standards for student athletes incentivize schools to sacrifice integrity and the education of the athletes who will never “go pro.” Why do we continue to ignore the truth that each new recruiting class brings athletes who simply cannot do college-level academic work? It seems ludicrous to expect highly marginal athletes to maintain their coursework while they also work a full-time physical job with the risk of serious injury. The athletes deserve better.
To make good on the NCAA’s promise of a meaningful “world class education,” we should reconsider initial eligibility standards to ensure that athletes admitted to our institutions have obtained the necessary learning skills to be competitive in the classroom. Athletes admitted to our institutions should fall within one standard deviation of the academic profiles of their entering classes. This range of preparedness provides a reasonable skill level to compete with non-athlete classmates. At the very least, institutions must develop intensive, measurable literacy programs to support the educational needs of our underprepared athletes. The current academic culture appears to be a step removed from the instruction necessary for many of these students to be successful. Let’s be realistic about the priorities of students and work together with coaches to ensure that college readiness and academics are priorities.
It is critical that academic support programs are not physically or organizationally housed in athletics. All academic programming for athletes such as tutoring, supplemental instruction, and reading and writing support should be directed and monitored by educators hired by the university who work closely with the student body.
A higher education is a potential way out of poverty, but if we do not make certain that our gifted revenue sport athletes have mastered basic academic skills before they embark on serious college study, then we have not only failed these students, but we have exploited them too.
The NCAA has avoided its shared responsibility with member institutions to curb the widespread academic fraud and eligibility schemes so prevalent throughout our institutions engaging in big time sports. It is wishful thinking to believe the NCAA will reform itself in the radical means necessary to restore public confidence.
We believe that this is moment for faculty to express their outrage and join the battle. Tenured faculty members on the department, college and faculty senate levels must assume responsibility for the academic rigor and integrity of their institutions by insisting on transparency in grading trends. Rather than deliberate institutional castigation of whistleblowers for bringing allegations of serious fraud to light, faculty outraged about academic integrity at their institutions must act.
Gerald Gurney is an assistant professor of adult and higher ed at the University of Oklahoma and president of the Drake Group. Mary Willingham is a former learning specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Forty years ago, I was assigned to teach “Open Enrollment English” at the City College of the City University of New York. The course was classified as remedial, and credits were non-additive.
Walking sprightly and empty-headed into the class, I found one-third of them were off the boat from Hong Kong, one-third off the boat from San Juan, and most of the other third off boats from Palermo, Porto and Gdansk (remember: this was 1970). The first writing assignment produced three different versions of English, and I had no idea where they came from -- or how.
The Chinese guys in the back row were always heads down, thumbing through dictionaries. What I now know to be their lexical transitions were pretty good, but there wasn’t a preposition to be found in their papers. No kidding!
The girls from Gdansk showed hard silent faces, splattered their pages with diacritics, but left no trace of articles. No kidding! I half-understood the guys from San Juan jabbering in Spanglish and felt good about it, but they wrote that way, too. Most of what I learned about all this happened much later. I walked into that class as a thorough naif.
A scan of the usual panic headlines of the past decade will easily turn up “perfect storms,” “tsunamis,” and other dire weather patterns lying in the future of higher education. Some of these are covers for race/ethnicity mix change, others for the deleterious effects of app addictions, and still others for the rise of economic inequalities. I have a shelf for the publications and reports bearing such Jeremiadic news and threats. It’s labeled, “the usual,” and includes more sophisticated but even darker analyses of “separation,” “undereducation,” “stopped progress,” and “crises” strewn about like dead flower petals.
However well-intentioned, these analyses have the effect of telling large groups of higher education students and potential students that they are lacking something, or that “our future would be brighter if only we addressed something you are lacking.”
Really? One numbs at such absence of self-reflection: the writers simply don’t listen carefully to what they are saying between the words. Had they configured the population in a different way, they might have toned down the damning that seeps through their lines.
I am not offering another “usual” today. I am not a siren of ominous effects. Rather, I want to detail a different set of populations that were with us in that 1970 classroom, are with us more now (and even increasing in the future), and that require analyses and guidance in a key other than that offered by the storm literature.
We are going to use languages, not race or family income, as a template. And we’re not assuming that U.S. resident students from non-English-dominant backgrounds are de facto remedial and bound for failure. In fact, quite the reverse.
But that depends on a variety of factors, most of which the research, policy and pundit establishment in higher education has not bothered to map. We will know better what to do if we know more about the experiences and conditions through which these distinct populations cross the line between fluency in conversational English and the literacy constitutive to the reading and writing of English.
“Ways” and “extent,” in turn, depend on the language at issue, and the intensity of language conditioning, environment and maintenance. The Chinese guys at CCNY in 1970 didn’t know from diacritics; the Polish girls were loaded with prepositions. Such belated knowledge is a metaphor that opens a key door to assist advisers and faculty naifs such as I once was. If I had known better and more about my students’ language crossings, I could have done better by them.
This nation of immigrants enfolds roughly 350 languages spoken by 60.5 million people. Among those whose dominant language is other than English, we know native speakers of Spanish are the largest group (37.5 million), with recent Spanish-speaking immigrants more likely to be monolingual Spanish than those long-established in the U.S., e.g., from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, in the Southwest, descendants of the conquistadores who have been here since the 16th century.
But in addition to Spanish, over 1 million U.S. residents speak each of the following languages (in order of frequency): Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French (not Creole, but including immigrants from Francophone West Africa, who may also speak a native African language, e.g. from Senegal, Waloof), Korean, and German. Nearly 1 million speak either Arabic or Russian. In addition, we have between 500,000 and 900,000 speaking (in order) Creole French, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Polish, and notable (though smaller) recent immigrant groups coming initially as refugees, speaking Hmong, Serbo-Croatian, Laotian, Cambodian, Farsi, and Somali. Hardly “immigrant,” but notable, are the 169,000 speakers of Navajo, the largest home language group by far among Native Americans.
More important for our purposes than the number of speakers is the proportion of each language group that the American Community Survey (ACS) has determined as not speaking English at all or not speaking English well. For the record, the top 10 ratios, by native language, are:
Seven of these are Asian languages, and, with the exception of Vietnamese and Spanish, all use scripts other than the Roman alphabet of English (I am including Hmong among these, even though some contend that, historically, there was no written language that could be called “Hmong”). Putting these together with 2010 Census data, that means there are 9.7 million native speakers of Spanish and 2.1 million native speakers of the other 9 languages all living in the United States and not speaking English. The ACS does not provide data on reading or writing English, but one can reasonably assume that the list of 20-plus-percent proportion of limited-English-language populations, by native language, would be a lot longer and more diverse if ACS included orthographic considerations in reading and writing. Literacy, to repeat, is distinct from audio/lingual fluency. We are thinking of the children in these groups and of these groups, and of the magnitude and linguistic elements of generational literacy shift in each language group.
The overall data necessary to estimate what higher education is seeing and will see are fragmented and difficult. The oldest rigorous data on the proportion of non-English dominant speakers in the 12th grade and teetering on entrance to higher education are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort longitudinal study: 5 percent. But a body of 12th-graders does not capture what higher education will eventually count, so we need some further and more contemporary guidance. The children of current non-English dominant households entered the U.S. at different stages of life (including being born in the U.S.), entered school at different times, and had to learn English as a fulcrum of their schooling. When they arrive in higher education, then, they are not wholly bereft of the world’s default second language. The basic figures from the NCES Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 2003-2009, which covers entering students of all ages, excluding foreign students in the U.S. on visas, are as follows:
Children of Immigrants
English Not Primary Language
All entering students
Dividing these groups by age at entrance to higher education (the most significant demographic variable in the standard universe of such variables) does not change these proportions much at all. The dividing age year used was 20. And since the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition tells us that the number of English language learners enrolled in ELL courses in pre-collegiate education was 5.3 million in 2005-6 (and 5.3 million does not account for all second language students), the challenge to higher education to mark the extent of their participation and state of their English language use eight years later is even greater than what these data -- reflecting a considerable increase of the proportion of non-English dominant students since the 5 percent of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort as seniors in 1982 -- say of 2003.
These are not small proportions of the entering postsecondary population, and their progress and degree completion rates (lower than those of native speakers of English by roughly 6 percent) may well be influenced by their language status and various aspects of their language histories. Languages obviously differ, and differ in terms of their similarities to English, in terms of morphology, orthography, and phonology. Non-English-speaking environments also differ in terms of saturation of second language media, Internet use by immigrants, and concentrations of commerce serving local populations. Too, language maintenance traditions vary for each of these immigrant groups. We have a history of language maintenance dating to German-speaking immigrants in the Midwest in the mid-19th century. Unless countries are officially bilingual or trilingual (Canada, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Switzerland, for noted examples in the West), you don’t see much formal language maintenance elsewhere. How much we still practice, and in what forms, is something our current second language students in higher education will tell us if and when we get to interview them with a consortium of teams advised by second language acquisition experts (see below).
Most importantly, some immigrant cultures and their languages are concentrated in very specific regions of the United States. Institutions of higher education that serve these geographic areas are thus more likely than others to witness enrollments of specific language background groups. For example, the greater San Francisco area is more likely to provide for students from Tagalog-speaking backgrounds; greater Minneapolis-St. Paul for Somali and Hmong speakers; San Jose and Houston for Vietnamese; greater Miami for Luzo-Portuguese (Brazilian); the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles and Flushing in Queens for two very different socioeconomic groups of Chinese; Russians in Brooklyn; Wayne County in Michigan for Arabic speakers; and while they are located everywhere, particularly concentrated populations of Spanish speakers in South Texas and the Central Valley of California.
Why is this geo-demography important? Because when you get in your car to gather information that just might help folks get further down the education thruway, it helps to know precisely where you’re going.
In this case, I propose, we can find captured populations among students from specific second language backgrounds who are recent enrollees in colleges and community colleges in the geo-demographic target areas, and ask them a series of questions on family language background and use, and on their own experiences moving through the chain from language 1 to language 2. One needs college partners in those areas, of course, both to identify the students of interest and to urge them to take an online survey consuming no more than 30 minutes. Do we know whether sufficient numbers of students can be found to answer our questions and begin to provide guidance? No, but our chances are better with geo-demographic targeting.
I’ve got a survey for first- and second-year college students ready to roll to a second language acquisition review panel. It seeks to document features and dominances of language use in the student’s household, peer groups, and work environments, the student’s language transition experiences in high school and early college months, first language maintenance, and focuses on areas of linguistic friction between first language and English.
What we have learned from the self-assessment forms of Europass (designed to enhance cross-border mobility in the labor market) is that voluntary respondents (and there have been about 600,000 in Europe to date who have completed “language passports”) are very honest and forthcoming about what they can do and how well in languages other than that from which they emerged, in what environments they learned second and third languages, and how.
We are less interested in language 1 to language 2 issues such as transfer, semantic judgments, code switching, and speech registers since we would not be asking questions on these well-trod paths of second language acquisition research.
At a time when immigration policy is on the front desks of legislators, we are more interested in story lines, promising and limiting, and commonalities as well as differences by language group. The end product would be a portrait that every institution serving similar students can use, for the benefit of future students, and not merely in “Open Enrollment English” classes, either. Those students, as I learned in 1970, are not remedial.
Clifford Adelman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
While there is heated debate over how best to fix America’s higher education system, everyone agrees on the need for meaningful reform. It’s difficult to argue against reform in the face of college attainment rates that are stalled at just under 40 percent and the growing number of graduates left wondering whether they will ever find careers that allow them to pay off their mounting debts.
Any policy debate should start with a clear picture of how the dollars are being spent and whether that money is achieving the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to answer many of the most basic questions for students, families and policy makers who are investing significant time and money in higher education.
During the recent State of the Union address, President Obama talked about shaking up the system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value. Though he provided little detail, this most certainly referred to the broad vision for higher education reform he outlined over the summer centered around a new a rating system for colleges and universities that would eventually be used to influence spending decisions on federal student financial aid.
However, the President’s proposal rests on a data system that is imperfect, at best. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said of the President’s plan, “we need to start with a rich and credible data system before we leap into some sort of artificial ranking system that, frankly, would have all kinds of unintended consequences.”
The American Council on Education, which represents the presidents of more than 1,800 accredited, degree-granting institutions, including two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities, agrees on the need for better data as well.
A senior staff member at ACE has been quoted to say that “if the federal government develops a high-stakes ratings system, they have an obligation to have very accurate data,” and that he was “surprised that anyone would think it controversial that having such data is a prerequisite.”
In order to bridge the data gap, we introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which would make the complete range of comparative data on colleges and universities easily accessible to the public online and free of charge by linking student-level academic data with employment and earnings data.
For the first time, students, and policy makers, would be able to accurately compare -- down to the institution and specific program of study -- graduation and transfer rates, frequency with which graduates go on to pursue higher levels of education, student debt and post-graduation earnings and employment outcomes. Such a linkage is the best feasible way to create this data-rich environment.
None of these metrics is currently available to those seeking to evaluate a school or program, though plenty of misleading data are out there.
For example, Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts school in Oregon, was assessed with a 0 percent graduation rate by the U.S. Department of Education. This is because the department's current metrics account only for first-time, full-time students, and Marylhurst serves nontraditional students who are part time or have returned to school later in life. Schools like this that serve nontraditional students -- who now make up the majority of all students -- don’t get credit for their success, at least not according to current federal evaluations.
With so many in the higher education community bemoaning the lack of quality data, and clear solutions forward on how to attain better data, why hasn’t it happened?
A major part of the answer: institutional self-interest. Every school in the country has widely disparate performance outcomes depending on the category, and many college presidents are in no hurry to make their less-than-appealing outcome data available for public scrutiny.
There’s a fear that students and families will vote with their pocketbooks and choose different schools that better meet their needs. The abundance of inaccurate and incomplete data provides institutional leaders with a line of defense: so long as such data are the norm upon which they are ranked and rated, they can defend themselves on the basis of flawed methodology.
Not all schools fear the implications of better quality data; in fact, many schools crave these data and want them made public. They know they’ll stack up well against their competition.
Moreover, many schools realize that getting better data is critical to helping identify what’s working and what’s not for their students in order to build stronger programs. Nevertheless, some of the “Big Six” higher education associations still cling to the status quo and represent a key challenge to realizing these commonsense reforms.
It is long past time for these important actors to look away from their self-interest and toward what’s in America’s collective interest -- a future where higher education produces better outcomes for students and the economy -- by supporting the Know Before You Go Act.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is an Oregon Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Florida Republican.
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.