Higher Education at Risk?

History warns that focusing on economics and top-down educational reform are ill-advised strategies, David C. Paris writes.

October 24, 2006

We’ve heard this before. Our schools are failing. International competitors are gaining on us. Our economic future is in jeopardy. This time, however, the educational institutions examined and found wanting are our colleges and universities.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence and Education declared that we were "A Nation at Risk." The report asserted that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 education was putting America at an economic disadvantage in global competition. Now the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the Spellings Commission) has delivered a similar message.

While acknowledging that “higher education in the United States is one of our greatest success stories,” the commission claims that “a lot of other countries have followed our lead and are “passing us by at a time when education is more important to our prosperity than ever.”  The report warns that “[h]istory is littered with industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to -- or even to notice -- changes in the world around them ... institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap.”  Apparently, we are at risk again.

What have we learned from our experience in K-12 education reform that would help us in evaluating the Spellings Commission report? That history warns against putting too much emphasis on the economic context of higher education. It also shows that quick, “top-down” fixes for reforming education at any level are unlikely to work.

The dire prediction in "A Nation at Risk" of economic decline without educational transformation was simply wrong. Despite the fact that the public schools have improved minimally, if at all, since 1983, the American economy has outstripped its international competitors. The performance of our schools has not been a primary factor in either our economic woes or our successes. There are many more important and proximate causes for our economic performance such as technology, management, and government regulatory and monetary policy. Emphasizing the economic role of colleges and universities and asking, as the Spellings Commission does, that higher education “serve the educational needs of a knowledge economy,” overstates the economic impact of education and misstates the role of colleges and universities.

"A Nation at Risk did point to serious educational problems of standards and performance, and equity and achievement gaps. Nevertheless, the results of many initiatives -- changes in state curriculums, teacher requirements, choice plans -- have been uneven at best, and some -- the setting of national educational goals -- were outright failures. The passage in 2001 of the No Child Left Behind Act, which set national testing requirements, was the culmination of nearly two decades of discussion and experimentation in school reform. The jury is still out on the success or failure of that watershed legislation. But state-level reforms involving high stakes testing have not typically produced the changes -- in teaching, student effort, or curricula--needed for significant improvement. The call to educational arms (“at risk”) might have sought immediate and effective action, but K-12 education reform remains a difficult, long-term endeavor.

Similarly, the Spellings Commission rightly points to issues of assessment and accountability, access and affordability, and retention. Many of its suggested policies, for example simplifying the process and increasing the amount of financial aid, would address important problems.  So would greater attention to issues of retention and measures of learning outcomes.  But, just as in K-12 reform, there are no quick fixes.  Improving college preparation and K-16 alignment, increasing access, and assessing outcomes are all daunting tasks, especially given the immense variety of postsecondary institutions and programs.

It is gratifying that the Commission resisted proposing a No Child Left Behind regulatory solution for adopting, among other things, specific kinds of testing.  As suggested by the Commission, the federal government can do many worthwhile things in its traditional role of expanding access, encouraging transparency, and assisting with innovation and assessment.  It is unlikely to be able to help by creating some ambitious testing or regulatory scheme covering everything from the liberal arts to engineering and nursing.

Nonetheless, the recent announcement of quickly scheduled “rule-making sessions” to follow up the report suggests that ill-considered regulations might be forthcoming.  It is also dismaying that the report suggests that the “academic establishment” has been inattentive to these issues -- calling colleges “increasingly risk-averse, frequently self-satisfied, and unduly expensive” with a “lack of coherence and lax standards” -- thus implying the need for more regulation. Contrary to these criticisms, many of the initiatives cited favorably by the report, particularly with respect to assessment, came from the academy itself and its accrediting agencies.

There already exist many initiatives that are directly addressing some of the problems cited in the report.  For example, the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) program is working with many colleges and universities as well as some states to define learning outcomes and ways of assessing them. LEAP also has identified a list of curricular and pedagogical innovations—from redesign of the first-year experience through required capstone or culminating projects—that already are proving their worth in better educational outcomes for students who take part in them. Overall, we know a good deal about campus practices that address the concerns expressed in the commission report and encourage student engagement and learning; an in-depth look at these is provided by the National Survey of Student Engagement’s “DEEP” project).

The Spellings Commission largely overlooked these and similarly tested innovations that contradict its “self-satisfied” thesis. More important, these innovations are more likely to produce the results the Commission seeks than its own proposals.For example, if the Commission wants better information for “consumers,” students and families, is this accomplished more effectively by highlighting best educational practices or through the Commission’s proposed and highly controversial student database? Ultimately, it has been past reforms similar to those just mentioned, designed by faculty and staff, that have resulted in higher levels of achievement for our increasingly diverse students. Expanded support for these kinds of programs would ensure the successes the Commission desires.  

The main problem is that only a fraction of today’s students are benefiting from these effective practices.  It will take time and energy -- and probably money as well -- to make these the norm in higher education.  Real reform, as we have discovered (and probably will discover again) in K-12 education, involves more than finding the right testing regime or database.

Higher education would have been better served by the Commission disseminating information about what really works and emphasizing the broader purposes of education. Certainly higher education is becoming a necessity for access to many jobs, and the economic premium attached to having a degree is well documented.

But the best education -- for the academy, the economy, and society -- aims at more than creating productive workers. It also should produce good citizens and individuals capable of living full and meaningful lives. The best education for the economy is a broad education, one that emphasizes the full range of skills and knowledge. Liberal education outcomes such as critical thinking, quantitative literacy, communication skills, ethical reasoning, and civic engagement translate into workplace competencies in the broadest sense -- an ability to understand and work with people and problems. These are the skills that business leaders most want.

The great achievement and ongoing project of higher education in the United States is giving all our citizens an opportunity for a full life in all its dimensions. That should be the aim of real, long-term reform in higher education.


David C. Paris is the Leonard C. Ferguson Professor of Government at Hamilton College and Senior Fellow at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. He is the author of Ideology and Education Reform: Themes and Theories in Public Education (Westview Press, 1995), and "Standards and Charters: Horace Mann Meets Tinkerbell" in Educational Policy (1998) and is the former vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Hamilton College.


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