It is my view that most of us engaged in education at our nation’s leading research universities focus our attention upon the wrong issues. These universities are wondrously complex institutions that defy easy analysis or understanding. We therefore tend to concentrate upon their most visible components, such as scientific research, star professors, state-of-the-art facilities and technology, economic development, international impact, and football and basketball teams.
It has become a cliché that American universities are the best in the world. This claim, while valid in important dimensions, can lead to complacency and neglect of serious problems.
Much of our international reputation is based upon two outstanding features of American universities: unrelenting commitment to an atmosphere of free and open inquiry, and excellence in scientific research. These twin advantages attract the best talent from around the world to American universities, not only to our graduate programs but increasingly to our undergraduate colleges as well.
In other aspects of our enterprise, however, we find ourselves hard-pressed. Our funding model, first of all, is under severe duress. States have repeatedly reduced their support of public universities, most severely in the past five years, a disinvestment that now threatens to erode their quality and competitiveness.
Some public universities have understandably attempted to make up the deficit in state support by raising undergraduate tuition aggressively and increasing the proportion of out-of-state students. But this strategy undermines the public mission of providing access, creates anger in the state, meets resistance in the legislature, and has now attracted the attention of the White House. As states have shifted the burden of paying for college from their general funds to students and their families, the perception has grown that higher education, once seen as a public good, has become a private interest. And these coping mechanisms, if continued, will lead to general deterioration in the quality of undergraduate education, the very part of our universities that depends most upon state support.
At private universities, tuition and fees plus room and board have, in some cases, reached $55,000 per year. Although most students do not pay that full cost, and though generous financial aid policies and endowment spending have actually brought down the real costs for the average student over the past five years, a degree carrying a price tag of well over $200,000 creates automatic sticker shock in the public. It also raises real questions about whether we have been paying enough attention to holding down expenses.
The airwaves are rife with predictions of disruptive change coming to the economic model of higher education. It is no wonder that parents paying and borrowing for a college education steer their children toward practical majors that seem to promise instant employment, and discourage them from studying the liberal arts and sciences in pursuit of a well-balanced education. A private interest in education today means a purely economic one.
From this inversion of values flows our second problem: a redefinition of the purpose of undergraduate education. Fifty years ago, when I started college, there was a widely shared view in America that the purpose of a college education was to prepare students to become educated citizens capable of contributing to society. College was in the public interest because it gave graduates an understanding of the world and developed their critical faculties.
Today, many Americans believe that the sole purpose of going to college is to get a job -- any job. The governors of Texas and Florida are quite clear on this point, and draw the corollaries that college should be cheap and vocational, even when delivered at major research universities like the Universities of Texas and Florida. A university education is more than ever seen as strictly utilitarian. The reasons are clear: a) as more students and families pay a large share of the costs, they naturally want a ready return on their investment; b) the most desirable jobs in this highly competitive job market require a college degree; and c) the gap in lifetime earnings between college and high school degree holders is huge.
Today, as many Americans hold a purely instrumentalist view of undergraduate education, they want a detailed accounting of its value. Hence our third problem: close public scrutiny and political accountability. Parents want to know, what did my daughter learn, and how does it contribute to her career? State legislatures want to know: what is the graduation rate at our university? How many undergraduate students do faculty members teach? And much more.
These questions put us in an uncomfortable position, because in some cases we do not know the answers, and in others we know them but do not like them. Many of us have eschewed the use of instruments assessing the value of general education, particularly at our major universities. We have, often for good reason, lacked confidence that such instruments are reliable measures of the value of a research university education, particularly if they are based on a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, given the level of scrutiny and skepticism in the public and in state houses, research universities need to take this issue seriously.
The professionalization of the professoriate has been crucially beneficial for research and graduate training at many institutions, but at most large universities, it has been problematic for undergraduate education. Several recent studies, some flawed but still indicative, have revealed that a significant percentage of students do not improve their critical thinking and writing much at all in the first two years of college. This should come as no surprise, given the dearth of small classes requiring active participation and intellectual interaction.
Too many students are adrift in a sea of courses having little to do with one another. Many courses, even at the upper division level, have no prerequisites, and many require no debate or public speaking or the writing of papers that receive close attention and correction. A student’s curriculum is a mélange of courses drawn almost haphazardly from dozens of discrete academic departments. And there is substantial evidence that students are fleeing demanding majors in favor of easier ones that have the added lure of appearing to promise immediate access to jobs.
The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country. To take one significant example, we now know that more than 50 percent of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating.
We can no longer blame this problem entirely on the nation’s high schools. A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. Students are consigned to large lecture courses that offer almost no engagement, no monitoring, and little support and personal attention. The combination of poor high school preparation and uninspiring freshman and sophomore pedagogy has produced a stunning dearth of science and engineering majors in the U.S. Our country now falls well behind countries like China and India in turning out graduates with strong quantitative skills.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. in 2009 ranked 27th among developed nations (ahead of only Brazil) in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering. As a result, American students are a dwindling proportion of our graduate enrollments in science and engineering. An administration report not only states that foreign students are earning more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics but also estimates that the United States, under current assumptions, will in the next decade under produce college graduates in STEM fields by one million.
I fear the practical as well as intellectual consequences of these trends. However, I am not a pessimist; I am a realist. In this, the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act, I think we can do something to reverse these trends, if we muster our collective will to do so. The anticipated report of the National Research Council on the state of our research universities will, I hope, focus national attention on the problems and opportunities confronting these vital institutions.
But over time, the renewed public investment in higher education that our country needs is unlikely if we do not acknowledge our own shortcomings and begin to address them. First, we need to say loudly and clearly that improving undergraduate education will receive our closest attention and best efforts. We need to alter faculty incentives by making undergraduate teaching at least equal to research and graduate teaching in prestige, evaluation, and reward. And we need to do research-based teaching that takes account and advantage of the latest findings of cognitive science, which are extensive, on how students learn. In brief, they learn by doing, not by just listening to someone else; they learn by solving problems, not by passively absorbing concepts; they learn best in groups of peers working things out together.
Fortunately, some of our best universities are leading the way. Initiatives at such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Stony Brook University, the University of Michigan,Stanford, Yale, and others offer great encouragement. The remarkable thing about them is the acknowledgment by faculty that we need to focus much more attention on undergraduate education, and that we need to deliver it more effectively than we have been doing. I find these examples exhilarating and promising.
At the Association of American Universities, we hope to disseminate the findings of such research across our universities, both public and private, and thus to stimulate more students to persist in their study of math and science and engineering. We have embarked on a five-year project led by top scientists and experts in science pedagogy designed to help science departments implement these new teaching methods. One of my hopes for the future of research universities is that student learning will be at the center of faculty concern, research will inform teaching, undergraduate classrooms will be places of engaged, participatory learning, and a university education will be not just a means to an entry-level job, but an invitation to a lifetime of learning.
I am well aware of the difficulty of changing those cultures. It will take a broad and deep effort to realize serious and sustainable gains. The stakes are high, not just for our universities but for the country. In the global knowledge economy, an educated public is essential not just to economic competitiveness but to national well-being.
Hunter Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on February 28, 2012, at the De Lange Conference at Rice University.
Higher education policy experts, philanthropists and private foundations have lately rallied around a public agenda for postsecondary institutions to do a better job of educating students. Even our fractious political parties can agree on this, at least, but they rarely agree on how to do it.
Still, it seems that important people are finally realizing that the laurels of America’s postsecondary past are withering on the vine and that second-order change will be necessary if we are to keep up with our industrialized peers. Between the drumbeat from Measuring Up and the chord struck by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, a theme of what ails higher education is emerging. Joining the chorus are those -- among others with the power or resources to do make a difference -- from Barack Obama to Rick Perry, from the Lumina and Gates Foundations to the governors bringing you Western Governors University.
Their plan goes something like this: We need to produce more college graduates. To do this, we must find more efficient, effective ways of teaching a larger, poorer, more diverse population of students. Then, we need to measure whether what we are doing is actually preparing students for the world and the new economy. Given their capacity and broad access, community and state colleges (and, perhaps, some open and online correlates) will be the locus of reform.
Absent from this equation — and from much of the prescriptive dialogue, in fact — are two of the most important influences on the behavior of the academy: research and the faculty. Since World War II, the academy’s tools of reward and recognition have been pushing faculty individually and universities collectively toward ever more research-intensive activities.
And there lies the incongruity: foundations, policymakers, and executive officers are pushing down a reform agenda that requires faculty at the bottom to be more committed to better teaching, advising, counseling, and assessment. Yet all of the impulses in the academy’s DNA are driving faculty and the institutions they serve away from teaching and into ever more grant-seeking and research activities. Clayton Christensen describes this "up-market drive" as "intoxicating" to those behind the wheel.
Mission creep, as it has come to be known, presents problems for the public agenda. Most advocates agree that the nation’s degree productivity goals must include investment focused on student success, not research aims, with resources directed toward lower-division instruction and student services. After all, per-capita costs are substantially higher at research-active institutions than at their broad-access counterparts “down-market” who are the linchpin of meaningful improvements to degree attainment rates. Furthermore, when research enters the budgetary ring, objective, merit-driven formulae for state and federal appropriations get sucker-punched by campaigning legislators, influential boosters, and college lobbyists.
Attempts to decouple the teaching and research functions of the university — most recently and contentiously at the University of Texas System — are perceived by faculty and administrators as threats to academic freedom, autonomy, and institutions’ best efforts to find new sources of revenue in a period of divestment from public higher education. Some higher education coordinating boards have the teeth to prevent public colleges from drifting into research territory, but with these few (and arguable) exceptions, most top-down policy prescriptions compete with the foxhole realities facing broad access colleges. The rule of this fiscal jungle trumps white paper finger-wagging at these institutions over their pursuit of prestige and treasure.
Though some would blame (and tear down) tenure for the academy’s resistance to change, I see the lever, as Ernest Boyer did 20 years ago, not in tenure per se but in the body of evidence expected in the departmental tenure portfolio. Boyer’s alternative model, which rewards efforts to study and improve teaching models and practices toward better learning outcomes, has not changed the status quo much in the face of the massive funds promised by traditional research structures such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Another factor to consider is that so many of the people who teach in the comprehensive and regional colleges were trained in research universities, whose culture pervades all types of institutions. Without a plan that acknowledges the outsized influence of NIH and NSF and the research-driven culture of the academy, colleges and faculty who see such grant-stuffed carrots within their reach will simply ignore their masters' sticks.
What we need, in fact, are more carrots. By joining this research apparatus, a new organization dedicated to initiating and supporting scholarship in teaching and learning would act not against but on the familiar, basic instincts of colleges and, more importantly, the faculty. Trading on the coin of the realm, this analog to NIH and NSF could put the scientific research of pedagogy into favorable consideration in tenure dossiers. On the basis of a merit-based peer review process, a single “R01” grant from this public foundation — and the recognition that follows the faculty who wins it — will do more to encourage faculty behavior in support of the public agenda than all the exhortations, goals, and policies that those outside of the academy have mustered.
It would take an act of this contentious Congress to create such a "National Pedagogy Foundation," but its mission is politically sustainable. The now-defunct Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the NSF’s education directorate offer lawmakers some cover of precedent. Both science research and education have historically enjoyed bipartisan support and have largely weathered federal budget cuts during the recent economic downturn. Congress would empower this new agency to encourage and develop a national policy for the promotion of research in the pedagogical sciences and to evaluate the teaching programs undertaken by other agencies of the federal government. In a constitutional convention attended by experts in education, cognition, human development, technology, philanthropy and change, stakeholders would draft a plan for the organizational structure and activities necessary to take on higher education’s 21st -entury challenges.
Among these activities would be, naturally, a merit-based peer review grant program to fund "basic science" research in education and evidence-based teaching and learning innovations with significant potential for extendable impact. One division might provide seed support for the design, construction, and study of new facilities that use active learning environments, integrate innovative teaching technologies, and accommodate individual differences among students. Perhaps a separate division would develop capacity and expertise in the assessment of student outcomes and the systemic adoption of pedagogical innovations and effective intervention strategies. Another branch would be useful for assisting institutions in the implementation process, lest good research on teaching and learning go ignored. The work of this foundation would be organized with due sensitivity to differences among disciplines, modes of learning, and instructional levels (e.g., remediation, introductory courses, advanced courses).
The benefits of a federal research agency to improve teaching and learning extend beyond incentives for faculty to teach and for colleges to reward teaching:
This public foundation would put research (and all of its prestige) within the mission of teaching colleges, minus the astronomical capital and maintenance costs associated with science facilities.
A deep and sustained commitment of federal financing would burnish the reputation not only of pedagogy as a science and a craft (and not just an all-access playground for dilettantes), but also of schools of education, the perennial second-class citizens of the academy.
In its capacity not just to catalyze but to organize the scholarship of teaching, learning, and assessment, this body will become the national clearinghouse of the best instruments, analyses, and dissemination methods, all toward serving evidence-based policy development at the federal, state, and institutional levels.
A National Pedagogy Foundation will spur the development of groundbreaking discoveries in educational technologies and cost-efficient processes along with opportunities to foster strategic collaborations with industry through licensing and new venture agreements.
Importantly, a new public foundation for teaching and learning will reclaim the higher education policy territory that state and local governments have ceded to private foundations and philanthropists. As recently described in The New York Times, America’s education policy is heavily influenced by the resources of "policy billionaires" like Bill Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and even Mark Zuckerberg. Their interests in transforming education, though well-meaning, are viewed as either "extraordinarily benevolent or extraordinarily undemocratic" in their co-opting of federal, state, or local agendas. In any event, the direction that teaching and learning will take in this country is increasingly set not by our elected officials, but by wealthy citizens and organizations.
Rather than leave these benefactors to their own aims, this agency can engage potential donors through private-public partnerships. After all, where might a gift of $40 million for teaching and learning make the most difference: dropped in Harvard’s bucket (as was recently done by the Hauser family), or matched by federal appropriations and distributed to merit-worthy experiments at 10, 40 or perhaps 400 institutions where students are in greater need of better teaching?
Finally, for inspiration on how to assemble the human and financial resources to begin this endeavor, we should look to the past. On November 17, 1944, Franklin Roosevelt framed what would be the challenge of the postwar era:
"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life."
These words introduce Vannevar Bush’s Science The Endless Frontier, which set the stage for what would soon become (with some changes to the original) the National Science Foundation, and over six decades of ballooning federal investment in research.
Roosevelt’s words and Bush’s vision provide a blueprint for an apparatus to explore learning, this century’s frontier of the mind. Drafting a new plan is the easy part, but it requires what John Kingdon describes as a "policy entrepreneur," a champion as savvy as Bush was in his time: someone with the ear of the president; with the authority, the influence, or the charisma to convene the right people for a sustained commitment; and with the skill to build support in Congress for a multibillion-dollar program ($7 billion, if we are to match NSF) whose returns might not be realized for years.
Who, then, will get teaching on America’s research agenda? It might be an elder statesman (or stateswoman), a "policy billionaire," or a college president with star power. Whoever it is will have harnessed the intellect and the energy of the people who, ultimately, must do the yeoman’s work of better educating America. By recognizing what really motivates these rational actors, he or she will have the faculty.
Kiernan Mathews is director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Administrators say Columbia College Chicago's restructuring plan will let it become more nimble. But students and instructors worry applying a business approach to cuts could erode a unique arts and culture orientation.