The Real Challenge for Higher Education

Policy makers offer many theories about what's wrong and many potential solutions, sound and faddish, writes Garrison Walters. But creating a pervasive education culture alone will make us successful.

July 15, 2010

America, once the world’s most educated nation, is fast losing ground. Although we are still second in overall education levels, we are much weaker -- 11th -- in the proportion of younger people with a college degree. In a world where knowledge increasingly drives economic competitiveness, this is a very serious problem. The issue is more than abstract economics, it’s also a moral concern: Since 1970, the benefits of higher education have been very unequally apportioned, with the top income quartile profiting hugely and the bottom hardly moving at all (despite starting from a very low level).

America’s education problem has been apparent for 30 years or so, and there have been a lot of suggestions for making us competitive again. Ideas on the K-12 side include: better trained and motivated teachers, more and better early childhood programs, better prepared school leaders, improved curriculums, higher standards, financial incentives, better data systems, and more rigorous and frequent assessments. On the higher education side, proposals include: motivating professors and administrators with formulas that reward success rather than enrollment, more use of technology, more data, improved administration, and (at least for general education) more testing. And, of course, better funding is relentlessly advocated for the entire educational spectrum.

All of these approaches have at least some potential to foster improvement. Some have already demonstrated benefits while some are being seriously oversold (more on that in a separate essay).

My fundamental belief, though, is that even if one takes a very optimistic view of the achievable potential of each of these strategies and adds them together, the net result will be significant but insufficient improvement to allow us to catch up in educational levels. If our scope of action is limited to the ideas advanced so far, we will actually continue to fall behind.

What makes it so difficult for us to catch up in education? Our lack of a pervasive education culture.

A large part of American society understands and appreciates the importance of education. But a large part doesn’t really see the value proposition. I can illustrate this lack of a pervasive education culture with personal experience. I taught undergraduates for 17 years at Ohio State, mostly at the introductory level. The university at the time was open admissions. My practice was to interview students individually at the beginning of each quarter, using 15-20 minutes to learn about their preparation; my goal was to gauge their experience with essay examinations and, if they had little or none, to help them prepare. But I also inquired about their interests.

One question I always asked was, “Why are you at the university?” The most frequent answer was, “Because my parents wanted me to go,” followed closely by statements like, “Because my girlfriend is here.” Most of these unmotivated students were first generation, although I recall that similar expressions of indifference came from a significant percentage of those with parents who had gone to college. Over all, at best a very small proportion of the young people I talked to in my various roles at the university were convinced from their own beliefs that graduation was really important. My experiment would yield different results today at Ohio State, which has become selective, but I believe you would find the same pervasively weak indicators of motivation at most public access universities.

You might think that young people are typically uncertain about goals and that these examples aren’t shocking. But if that’s what you think you are almost certainly an American. If we consider the nations that rank ahead of the U.S. in science and math test scores and in graduation rates -- e.g., Korea, Japan, Norway, Finland -- you’ll find very different attitudes about graduation in both young and old. I’ve lived and worked abroad, and I’m confident that, if you went into a classroom equivalent to our sixth grade in any of these countries and asked the students if they thought a higher education credential was essential to economic success, you would get a consistent "yes" answer of around 100 percent. By contrast, the percent answering "yes" in American schools would vary considerably, with many ranging much lower that our Asian and European competitors.

An alert reader will note that so far I’ve cited only anecdotal information laced with speculation, and point out that in the U.S. today the percentages even of low-SES and historically disadvantaged minority Americans telling pollsters that college is important are quite high and rising. They are right; students (and parents) do reply positively when asked about college. But do they believe it? Agreeing that you want to go to college or want your child to attend has become the socially correct answer (a good thing, of course).

But there are many reasons to suspect that the percentages are artificially high. First, there are the hard numbers, especially the poor rates of high school completion and the low proportion of those going on to college. Nationally, only about 42 percent of 9th graders enter college by age 19. Although the stated goals are slightly different, this is a significant mismatch with the 91 percent saying they expect to get some post-high school credential. Second, a single question on a topic such as this isn’t likely statistically valid, a point reinforced by a study that showed the percentage of African-Americans who thought people needed to go to college to prosper in the workforce was the same as whites, but in a follow-up question the proportion that thought it actually feasible was dramatically lower, with only 16 percent of black parents saying the opportunity was there vs. 43 percent of white parents.

I’ve not been able to find good comparative data on the U.S. vs. other nations on attitudes toward the value of education. But what I’ve been able to find for the U.S. reinforces the point made by the study just cited: when asked if higher education is important, the answers are very positive. But follow-up questions reveal significant worries (or lack of conviction).

American Perceptions of Educated People

To better understand America’s lack of a pervasive education culture, consider the fact that as a nation we generally don’t greatly value educated people and don’t seem to believe that being educated contributes to quality of life beyond that offered by greater economic success. If you asked the 6th grade students described above a second question, something like, “Do you think it’s important to be an educated person in order to have a satisfying life?” I think the "yes" answers in Europe and Asia would be very high, and in the U.S. very low.

Our view of education is different from most of the rest of the world and certainly from those nations that rank ahead of us in education levels. A Nobel laureate in science visiting a school in Korea or Japan would occasion a high level of genuine student excitement. But in the U.S., even at our better schools, you’d have to invite an athlete or entertainer to get the kids turned on.

There are many examples of Americans rating education poorly. One is certainly the low status of teachers here by contrast with the rest of the world. Another is popular culture.

By far the longest-running television show in America, “The Simpsons,” features a boy who is a dreadful student and hostile to education but highly popular with his classmates, together with a girl who is smart and interested in learning but very unpopular. A fascinating episode is one where the father, the doltish Homer, has an operation that makes him smart -- and the result is a disaster for the family and even the community. Yes, I know that the Simpsons is satire. But the fact is Americans are very comfortable with these stereotypes. And, if you look across the entertainment landscape, you’ll see smart, educated people consistently played as seriously flawed, while those with “emotional intelligence” are the heroes.

Why is America Different?

Why is America so different in attitudes toward education? It’s an issue that deserves more thorough research than I’ve been able to give it at this point, but my study of history suggests several reasons.

One issue is that America was a leader in making education free and widely available. The objective was to support our revolutionary experiment in democracy. The experiment was a success and the diffusion of education obviously had an important role. But, apart from the civic aspect, schooling appeared to many as sort of a frill, since there was a very small market for educated people in the first century and a half or so of U.S. history (an important exception is agriculture, where the role of higher education has transformed productivity).

Another difference between the U.S. and Europe (and I think also much of Asia) is that many countries in these regions conflated education and nationalism: Schooling meant learning the national language and literature, and being highly educated meant being a standard bearer for your people. The U.S. experience with nationalism has been very different from most other nations (too complicated to discuss here), with the result that we’ve not made the education/nationalism connection in the same way (the U.S. response to Sputnik would be an exception, though a short-lived one).

But the most important factor in my view is that, unlike Europe and Asia, much of the U.S. long had plenty of reasonably stable and well-paying jobs in industry (and before that in agriculture). With good jobs to be had for all (with the notable exception of slaves and many of their descendants), most Americans believed that the key to success in life was simply a willingness to work hard, and that’s what our culture valued. The American situation was in sharp contrast to that in most European and Asian countries. Compensation in those nations’ labor-intensive jobs was comparatively much lower, as was the status of these occupations. People in other parts of the world worked as hard as Americans, but their effort was at best sufficient to keep them out of poverty rather than move them into a new kind of middle class, as happened in the U.S.

American workers’ good fortune in securing a high standard of living -- especially evident in the manufacturing areas -- seems to have resulted in education having a very different role in our national culture. The advent of compulsory schooling around the world was closely associated with the effort to end child labor. In most of Europe and Asia the newly added years of school were principally devoted to vocational study; only a small minority of students moved through the highly competitive system that prepared them for the kind of jobs where high levels of knowledge and associated intellectual skills were needed.

In the U.S., by contrast, study in the additional years was usually “general” in the sense that the traditional subjects of mathematics, science, literature, composition, and history were required. This curriculum wasn’t intended to prepare students for factory or similar work (mostly because no preparation was needed). It could prepare young people for college, but in many areas that was the goal of only a handful of students -- a group small enough to be ignored and often derided. The result? In many communities school became primarily a social place, a holding tank for the years before work. Students went through the motions of education -- doing enough to get to the next grade -- but the expectations for real learning were minimal. In many parts of the U.S., we effectively separated the concepts of school and learning.

The U.S. approach in curriculum did have benefits in the sense that it allowed more students to move on to college. But we shouldn’t give ourselves too much credit for this. Our success in sending students to college appears to have been more of an unintended consequence than a deliberate objective. For example, consider the surging college participation rates of the baby boom generation: As the children of factory workers started to join others in going to college, the U.S. was entering a period of sustained surplus of unskilled labor. Many of the young people I talked to at Ohio State in the 1970s were there not because they thought education was important but because neither they nor their parents could think of anything else for them to do (Vietnam was a factor also). Equally damning, one of our greatest achievements, the G.I. Bill, had as a clearly stated purpose keeping returning veterans out of the work force, while improving education levels was secondary.

Manufacturing and the Two Cultures Problem

The United States doesn’t have social classes in the same way as many other nations, but we are of two cultures when it comes to education. Our first culture, smaller but growing swiftly since the end of World War II, understands the importance of education and imparts at least some level of learning-related values to its young. The second culture, shrinking but still very large, has begun to hear the message of education but is slow to assimilate it, not surprising because economic change has occurred in fits and starts. There was no single, unambiguous day in history when everyone should have realized that good-paying jobs at mills and factories for unskilled labor weren’t coming back. Here and there, a few good jobs did resurface, so it’s hardly surprising that many communities are still waiting for some company, nowadays probably foreign, to take over one of their excellent vacant sites and flood the region with jobs.

The problem for the second culture is greater because it requires two new ways of thinking. The first is understanding the economy’s shift to knowledge. The second, viewing school in a new way, is perhaps a more difficult change. It is extremely hard for parents who thought of high school in social terms to act on a radically different set of expectations for their children. Unfortunately, Americans’ high level of mobility has exacerbated the cultural schism because parents who recognize the value of education can physically move and put their children in different schools; those who remain are in an homogenous culture, never to hear the leavers’ voices pushing for change.

As it became important to have a more educated workforce, other countries gradually opened the control gates and allowed more students to move forward in higher education. Since school had always had a purpose in these countries, and since educational success had always held high cultural value, the speedup has been faster than in the U.S. This, I believe, is why others are catching up and even moving ahead in overall education levels, not to mention in mathematics and science learning.

Recent studies have pointed out a growing spread in salary among those in the U.S. with college degrees. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that some college graduates are earning a lot more than others: it’s a consequence of our separation of school and learning. Once, you came in with a business degree and the company re-educated you. Now, they expect you to be an effective analyst and critical thinker from day one. The folks who sleepwalked through college in the same way they did high school are suddenly experiencing turbulence; the fact is, the value of a simple credential is slipping in comparison to the actual knowledge it is supposed to represent.

Are There Solutions to the Education Culture Problem?

The answer in my view is an unqualified “yes.” We know that culture can change because we’ve seen it happen in perceptions of education for a large part of our society; there’s no basis for saying progress is impossible and walking away from the problem. Certainly, though, making this change pervasive is a difficult task and won’t be accomplished quickly (which is perhaps why so many prefer to focus on things like formulas, longitudinal tracking systems, and attacking college and university management). That’s the bad news.

The good news is that much significant change can be accomplished with modest increases in funding. I’m a strenuous advocate of stronger support for both K-12 and higher education, but I don’t think money alone will get us where we need to be.

Here are seven ideas for changing culture.

First, we need to improve the aspirational focus of our schools. One good way to do this is to help students understand that education really matters, that it’s needed for jobs that are there and that they will want to have. South Carolina’s Personal Pathways to Success is an excellent new effort in this area. Beginning in the eighth grade, students create Individual Graduation Plans that focus on their chosen career cluster (for example, “Information Technology”). Some of their curriculum is then geared toward the cluster area and they have the opportunity of work experiences and the like.

Second, we must modify the biggest barrier to student success in K-12: mathematics. We teach math as an abstract exercise that excites only a few, and, especially in schools lacking an education culture, math forces a disastrously large proportion to drop out or fall behind. Pairing math with science, or better yet replacing it as a separate subject with computational science, could change kids’ perception of its value and make them far more interested in learning. Widespread anguish over mathematics is a major problem in building a positive education culture.

Third, we should support locally-led college access programs that emphasize total community educational change -- not just implementing a few programs or raising spending -- creating total community educational change. The reality is that, even if an economically disadvantaged community were to have well-prepared teachers, perfect curriculums, and state-of-the-art facilities, it wouldn’t get much return on investment if the kids went home to an environment of parents and other adults who believed that education doesn’t really matter.

The best example of community change I’ve seen is Kingsport, Tennessee. In 2001 leaders there created “Educate and Grow,” which offered financial assistance to help ensure that all students in local schools could complete at least two years of college. The public investment was modest but the impact was profound. I’m most struck by the 23% increase in high school graduation rates -- something that was accomplished with no new funding. What mattered, from my understanding of the process, was that business leaders got involved, persistently going into the schools and other locales to tell students, parents, and others that education was really important and that it couldn’t end with high school. As a result, in homes throughout the community, conversations about the future began to have a different goal, one that had an immediate effect on the schools. To follow an earlier analogy, changing culture is like decreasing a vehicle’s weight; it makes the existing engine more powerful.

A key point about community change is that it can’t be imposed. Outsiders can help with advice and some funding, but local people have to be convinced and then take the initiative on their own if real progress is to be made -- it’s the difference between what you believe and what someone else tells you to believe. The good news here is that, as more communities embrace education and demonstrate success, others will perceive the competitive disadvantage and have even greater incentive to undertake their own structural improvement as well.

Fourth, higher education should shift its approach in some areas of instruction -- particularly developmental education -- away from competing against time and toward academic assistance. Instead of a high-stakes (to these students) “pass in a given amount of time or be labeled a failure” approach to developmental math and English, we should offer self-paced, competency-based, and (at least at the module level) no-fail options. Especially for returning adults, a more positive strategy can offset a pervasive lack of confidence in their ability to learn and thereby make them more optimistic about the value of education in their lives.

Fifth, consistent with the principles noted above with respect to developmental education, we need to design a “New Front Door” for adults to enter higher education. If we want them to have an opportunity to change their lives, higher education will have to change how it operates. Because so many of these adults are also parents, bringing them back into the educational stream with positive experiences will encourage them to set better goals for their children. This process of creating a “New Front Door” is well underway in South Carolina.

Sixth, and surprisingly, we can help create an education culture by improving general education. The goals of general education are superb, but the way we teach now doesn’t get us there. Serious change is needed. One idea is to use technology to thread instruction throughout all four years, allowing for a reinforcement of skills and abilities not possible now. For example, business majors would complete second, third, and fourth year online modules on environmental issues that draw on and reinforce knowledge and skills gained from their first year biology course.

Challenging faculty -- instead of threatening them with budget penalties -- is the only way to make such a major revision happen. And how does improved general education foster an education culture? Simple. Students who have a better experience outside their major will have a stronger appreciation of education’s ability to expand the mind, something that should pay dividends in many ways and at many levels. Making general education more positive will also be of enormous value with opinion leaders -- after more than thirty years of talking with business and political leaders on a regular basis, I can tell you that a distressingly high proportion has a negative view of general education.

Seventh, and finally, we should build a serious R&D effort on education culture. One idea is to create carefully structured community-based pilots to find out what works best in changing attitudes about the value of being highly educated -- effectively R&D on the total community change idea described above. We’re implementing pilots of this kind in South Carolina and will very much welcome partners. We also hope to look hard at success: some students excel even in the worst schools in the most disadvantaged communities. Why? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the motivators are parents or relatives. But this begs the question of why and how those people are different. Through careful study, we hope to learn how to replicate their supportive and motivating behaviors. There are many other possible research topics of this kind that would be a great project for teams of educators and social scientists. And it needn’t be hugely expensive. We could ask that existing publicly-funded time (“departmental research”) as well as the topics of doctoral dissertations be directed to this task. Grant monies could then be used for coordination and summary analysis.

Concluding Thoughts

As we pursue the kinds of specific actions described above, I believe Americans need to remember three things.

First, we should avoid complacency about the competitiveness of our entire educational structure. Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat gave us a much-needed slap in the face for our overall educational competitiveness, and there’s been a great deal of angst about K-12 for some time now. But few among our political leaders appear to be thinking about education as a K to graduate system, and far too few appreciate the changing levels of knowledge needed to function effectively in today’s society. Once, Americans thought everyone should have around a fourth grade education, then the line gradually moved up to the eighth grade and finally to the end of high school. But the line of minimum necessity has long since crossed into higher education; now, if all you have is a high school diploma, you’re a knowledge economy dropout.

Second, if we want to think of our problems in management terms -- a very American thing to do -- we have to dispense with our enthusiasm for the hard, mechanical side of the concept and engage in the soft side. The U.S. automobile industry provides an excellent example of failure and success in the two dimensions of management.

Confronted by popular, higher quality vehicles from Japan, the Big Three responded with workforce quality campaigns that mixed threats and exhortation, then followed with a massive investment in technology (mainly robotics), all the while mixing in the inevitable reorganizations and incentives to executives. When all these failed to make a sufficient difference, the companies finally gave up and resorted to the complicated, messy, and slow business of creating positive relationships with their workers. After about thirty years, J.D. Power reports that Ford is on a par with its Japanese competitors and G.M. is closing in as well. That’s encouraging, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the gap could have been closed much faster if Detroit’s titans had been willing at the outset to think more holistically about the management challenge they faced.

In a recent essay on the origins of the Great Recession, the columnist David Brooks observes that economists’ practice has been to create elaborate mathematical models that make simple-minded assumptions about the manner in which people function in a complex economy. The utter failure of these formulas, he observes, is that they are “based on a stick figure view of humanity.” The lesson here is simple: the technical side of management is seductive (and has a role) but data and formula-focused approaches are at the periphery of the problem.

Finally, we -- especially those of us with a more positive view of higher education’s current effectiveness -- should be aware that significant additional investment in our public systems is unlikely. That isn’t to say that we should stop calling for appropriate funding levels -- as the economist Paul Romer points out, “Support for higher education is the lever by which the government can move the entire economy.” Rather it means we should acknowledge and accept the simple fact that there will never be sufficient resources to allow schools, colleges, and universities to take a great leap in effectiveness on their own. Instead, we’ll have to change the way an important proportion of our citizens think about the value of education. Having a much higher share of students fully understand and appreciate the importance of education will greatly enhance the productivity of our existing K-12 and higher education investment and help offset the size of future funding increases.

Culture change is the only real path to competitiveness for our nation, and time is short. I have some ideas; others will have better ones. Let’s get moving.


Garrison Walters is executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.


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