At a 1979 meeting of The University of Texas Arts and Sciences Foundation in San Antonio, Peter Flawn, then-president of UT-Austin, railed against what he dubbed the “widget theory” of education. The notion, he said, is “that a college or university is a manufacturing enterprise that produces products called academic degrees in basically the same way as a company such as Universal Widgets Inc. produces widgets.” He went on to forecast “that the struggle for excellence in higher education over the next decades will be a struggle against the widget theory in higher education and against those who knowingly or unknowingly espouse it.”
As Flawn’s remarks illustrate, some of the themes in today’s battles over reforming higher education echo decades-old debates. But a number of factors have recently brought the topic to the forefront both nationally and in statehouses around the country. This section of Story Starters examines efforts to improve higher education’s success at guiding students to graduation while ensuring academic quality, as well as the tensions those efforts have created within a sector that tends to prize tradition.
From Gordon Gee at Ohio State University, who calls himself “perhaps the greatest advocate and fan of the American university that exists,” to Michael Crow at Arizona State University, who has reinvented that institution’s structure, prominent university presidents are lending their voices to calls for change to the traditional ways in which higher education operates.
Dollars and Data
Foremost among the pressures propelling efforts to reform higher education is the difficult economy. With state budgets shrinking, higher education is often viewed as ripe for cutting and retooling. But funding cuts have occurred at precisely the same moment that employers and policymakers – seeking to spur the nation’s competitiveness as the world becomes more technically sophisticated – are expecting postsecondary institutions to produce more degree-holders. Advocates say that in order to do more with less, colleges will need to alter how they educate and operate.
Another key component in the reform push has been the accumulating data on college students and their performance, as well as greater capacity to analyze that data. And much of the data gathered about universities paint a picture of a system that, at the very least, appears to be in need of significant change. Among the most notable – and controversial – recent examples of higher education data analysis has been Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In that 2011 book, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used student scores on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical-thinking skills, to conclude that despite all the time and money being spent, very little learning was occurring on college campuses.
Data also reveal that time to degree has extended and graduation rates are lower than many would like to see, especially because the surest way to stave off an excessive debt burden is to graduate on time, if not early. Looking at the numbers, many institutions and outside groups are calling for fundamental reforms to the way higher education has traditionally operated. In doing so, they are also raising fundamental questions regarding the value and purpose of colleges and universities.
Ties to the Job Market
Subscribers to the school of thought that a college degree is primarily a means to employment have begun ratcheting up their calls for a system that is more responsive to workforce needs. Michael Bettersworth, an associate vice chancellor at the Texas State Technical College System, recently said, “Houston, we have a problem, and it’s not that too few people are going to college. It’s that too many people are getting degrees with limited value in the job market.”
As noted in a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, majors that are linked to specific occupations have better employment prospects than those focused on general skills. Some institutions, with the help of organizations like Boston-based Jobs for the Future, thus have begun retooling their programs to make them more responsive to those labor market considerations.
New Students, New Models
Shifts in the demographic make-up of higher education’s customer base are also fueling reform efforts. The full-time student fresh out of high school who is still financially dependent on his or her parents – the profile around which traditional higher education models have been built – no longer dominates the population of people enrolling in higher education. Among the implications: Traditional, rigid lecture classes might not work as well for students who must work their way through college or adult learners, who comprise more than 40 percent of U.S. postsecondary students.
To accommodate the expanding variety of students, there have been increasing demands for new pathways to degrees. Many people begin their higher education career at the community college level, due to those schools’ relatively low costs and flexible scheduling. What’s often referred to as the “2+2” approach – two years at a junior college followed by two years at a university – is becoming increasingly common as the lines between the different levels of education begin to blur.
The need for more flexible learning options also has led to the proliferation of online courses, a model that represents a radical departure from the traditional lecture-style classroom. Some research has indicated that the most effective classroom is a blended classroom that incorporates technological innovations and face-to-face interaction.
Another long-held tradition that is being challenged is advancement and credit accumulation based on seat time. There are strong pushes toward advancing students based on competency, allowing them to move on once they have proved their proficiency in a given subject. Western Governors University, an online university entirely based around the notion of competency-based advancement, is one of the leaders in this field.
While these new models and organizations have opened interesting possibilities, universities have been notoriously change-averse institutions. And there are many experts who believe American postsecondary education, a system widely revered and emulated around the world, is functioning just fine as is. These critics argue that the problems in higher education are not due to shortcomings of the institutions but are the result of too many underprepared students attempting to earn degrees. Still, even as many proposals have been met with resistance from higher education leaders, there also has been a growing agreement that current structures — both on the institutional and classroom levels — could be more efficient at moving students through the postsecondary pipeline at an improved rate with satisfactory levels of learning. — Reeve Hamilton, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
As certificates grow in number and importance, many educators are calling attention to what they see as an overlooked problem in the nation’s efforts to upgrade workers’ skills and deal with soaring higher-education costs: Federal financial aid goes overwhelmingly to students in traditional degree programs, while little goes to the many students in noncredit certificate programs who may need it more. (The New York Times)Read More »
More than 10,000 students in nearly four dozen schools across Idaho will log into newly created Khan Academy accounts during the 2013-14 school year as part of an initiative that aims to infuse technology into instruction and supplement teachers' curricula. (Education Week)Read More »
The amount being spent per student by public colleges and universities has fallen to its lowest level in at least 25 years, a result of state budget cuts a new report warns are rapidly eroding the nation’s educational edge over its international competitors. (The Huffingtion Post/The Hechinger Report)Read More »
Berevan Omer graduated on a Friday in February with an associate’s degree from Nashville State Community College and started work the following Monday in his new job as a computer-networking engineer at a local television station, making about $50,000 a year. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
Education has long played a part in the annual deliberations at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But this time, many participants may have detected what Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, described as “a lot of attention.” (The New York Times)Read More »
But few traditional schools in Indiana have plans to adopt competency-based education in a way that allows students to progress toward degrees on their own time lines. Such schools as Indiana University, Indiana State University and even for-profit educators like Harrison College say they plan to stick closely to their models that require specific amounts of time in class to graduate. (Associated Press)Read More »
History professors at the University of Florida think their courses are plenty valuable, but they don't want them to be among the most expensive. And they are organizing to protest a gubernatorial task force's recommendation to charge more for majors without an immediate job payoff -- a recommendation that the historians fear could discourage enrollments. (Inside Higher Ed)
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/26/u-florida-history-professors-fight-differential-tuition#ixzz2DRgh5QqeRead More »
Now, several forces have aligned to revive the hope that the Internet (or rather, humans using the Internet from Lahore to Palo Alto, Calif.) may finally disrupt higher education — not by simply replacing the distribution method but by reinventing the actual product. New technology, from cloud computing to social media, has dramatically lowered the costs and increased the odds of creating a decent online education platform. In the past year alone, start-ups like Udacity, Coursera and edX — each with an elite-university imprimatur — have put 219 college-level courses online, free of charge. Many traditional colleges are offering classes and even entire degree programs online. Demand for new skills has reached an all-time high. People on every continent have realized that to thrive in the modern economy, they need to be able to think, reason, code and calculate at higher levels than before. (Time)
Grinnell's discussions follow closely on the heels of an announcement this summer by Wesleyan University that it was moving away from need-blind admissions, saying that if the college could not generate enough money to cover financial aid, it would consider students' financial need in some of its decisions (possibly 10 percent of the class). The move has generated backlash among students, alumni and others at the university. Grinnell administrators said a policy like Wesleyan’s is on the table.
Competency-based education could be a game-changer for adult students, probably more so than MOOCs. Yet despite the backing of powerful supporters, colleges have been reluctant to go all-in because they are unsure whether accreditors and the federal government will give the nod to degree programs that look nothing like the traditional college model.
The logjam may be breaking, however. Southern New Hampshire University is poised to launch a $5,000 online, competency-based associate degree that would be the first to blow up the credit hour -- the connection between college credit and the time students spend learning. A regional accreditor has signed off on Southern New Hampshire’s “direct assessment” method, and the university will soon apply for federal approval. (Inside Higher Ed)
The market for online higher education aimed at adults may be reaching maturity, according to a new report from Eduventures. And without a better-defined product, the report's author said online learning faces a risk of petering out and being little more than a back-up alternative to on-campus education for students. (Inside Higher Ed)
This is the first time a university in the United States has offered academic credit for a Udacity course, although several universities in Austria and Germany already do.
The course, "Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine," teaches basic computer-science skills by having students build a Web search engine similar to Google. Students enrolled in the free, online course also learn the basics of the programming language Python. (The Chronice of Higher Education)Read More »
Few people close to Romney's campaign or with experience dealing with him on higher education issues in the past were willing to speak about him publicly. Several Romney education advisers, past and present, did not respond to repeated interview requests from Inside Higher Ed, or declined to comment on the candidate's record and ideas on higher education. Nor did several people affiliated with private colleges in Massachusetts and the state's university system during his time as governor. So the education policies and attitudes of a potential Romney administration remain a mystery. (Inside Higher Ed)
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. College students spend a lot of time listening to lectures. But research shows there are better ways to learn. And experts say students need to learn better because the 21st century economy demands more well-educated workers. (American RadioWorks)
This column argues that “ the governance structure of colleges and universities makes it difficult, if not impossible, for presidents to lead. The most fundamental problem preventing significant reform in higher education is the structural conflict between the administration and the faculty.” (The Washington Post)Read More »
This essay from a college professor examines the purpose and role of postsecondary education and decides that “College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test.” The article offers and interesting perspective on both the financial value and educational quality aspect of higher education reform. (The New Yorker)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. Unscrupulous Chinese firms promise families and college- bound students from the mainland admission to prestigious American universities provided they pay large fees. What they get in return varies, with worst-case scenarios including living miles from the U.S. campus and thousands of dollars of unforeseen bills. Yet because of U.S. colleges’ appetite for the tuition foreign students pay, fixing the problem isn’t easy. (Bloomberg News)Read More »
This article examines the efforts of Peter Thiel and other venture capitalists to convince talented students that college might not be their best career path. Such questions about “Is college worth it?” have been central to college reform efforts. (New York magazine)Read More »
This article summarizes the findings of the influential book Academically Adrift, which analyzed the scores of students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment and concluded most of them were not gaining much knowledge in postsecondary education. The book has become a centerpiece for debates on the need reform the quality of higher education. (Inside Higher Education)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. Some recruiters from for-profit colleges promised cars, jobs, and new lives to individuals living in shelters and missions. One college campus even gave students a $350 biweekly stipend to show up to class and maintain a C average. Five percent of its student base is homeless. (Bloomberg News)Read More »
Like most states, Maryland was looking at budget cuts for its public universities. But “Maryland was about to do something completely different. It was about to transform the culture of American public higher education, even if only at the margins. A savvy board of regents was embarking on the painstaking process of dragging the medieval model of a university, with its many vested interests, into the 21st century.” (Hechinger Report)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
We estimate that two-thirds (66%) of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average of $26,600 for those with loans. The five percent increase in average debt at the national level is similar to the average annual increase over the past few years. Also similar to previous years, about one-fifth of graduates’ debt is comprised of private loans. (The Institute for College Access & Success)Read More »
As online college courses have become increasingly prevalent, the general public and college presidents offer different assessments of their educational value. Just three-in-ten American adults (29%) say a course taken online provides an equal educational value to one taken in a classroom. By contrast, fully half of college presidents (51%) say online courses provide the same value. (PEW)Read More »
Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary EducationFebruary 2011
The report from noted business author and consultant Clayton Christensen examines how competition from newer alternatives such as online education might alter how traditional colleges and universities operate. It notes that “Using online learning in a new business model focused exclusively on teaching and learning, not research—and focused on highly structured programs targeted at preparation for careers—has meanwhile given several organizations a significant cost advantage and allowed them to grow rapidly.” (Center for American Progress and Innosight Institute)Read More »
This influential report examines the strategies “eight high-performing institutions to understand what makes them so productive” and found “a set of five practices that appear to raise degree productivity in these institutions without reducing quality or restricting access.” (McKinsey & Company)Read More »
This reports notes that “traditional higher education programs and policies—created in an era when the 18- to 22-year-old, dependent, full-time student coming right out of high school was seen as the core market for higher education—are not well designed for the needs of adult learners, most of whom are ‘employees who study’ rather than ‘students who work.’” (Jobs for the Future )Read More »
This report from the commission former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings assembled is arguably the starting point for the current higher education reform movement. “What we have learned over the last year makes clear that American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive,” the commission concludes. “It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy.” (U.S. Department of Education)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- One of the key questions in higher education reform is whether it is possible to make changes to the process of earning a college degree without sacrificing value? This question is one that is always worthwhile to ask a source and keep in mind when writing.
- That’s a nice anecdote, but what is the data telling you? Check whether the overall numbers support the examples a source has given you.
- How is that measured? It is always crucial to know exactly what the numbers experts/sources are using actually represent. Graduation rates, for example, are measured in different ways depending on who’s reporting them.
- How does/should an institution define success? Is it the number or percentage of students who graduate, the time it takes them to earn a degree, the total price they pay, the total cost to educate a student for the university, etc.?
- Why haven’t you been doing X already? Some changes lauded as revelatory seem self-evident. Getting answers to this question can offer insights to the administrative processes.
The American Association of Community Colleges is the leading organization for the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges. The AACC provides guidance and advocates and lobbies on behalf of community colleges. Most recently, the AACC has worked to revise the reporting standards for graduation rate data and has initiated a 21st Century commission centers on reforms that can address the changing roles of community colleges.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in December 2008 announced a $69 million multiyear grants initiative to “double the number of low-income students who earn a postsecondary degree or credential with genuine value in the workplace by age 26.” The effort makes them one of the leading philanthropies investing in higher education reform. While the foundation has done extensive, non-education-related work in developing nations, “In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.” The Gates Foundation has sponsored the Education Writers Association’s work regarding the coverage of higher education.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is the leading resource for information on how various postsecondary degrees are valued in the workforce. Their research can be central to the financial aspects of the “Is college worth it?” question, and it also shapes how reformers evaluate which disciplines deserve the most emphasis.
Jobs for the Future is a Boston-headquartered nonprofit that “develops policy solutions and new pathways leading from college readiness to career advancement for struggling and low-income populations in America.” Their reform efforts tend to focus on the community college level of higher education.
The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy is “a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation.” Their research efforts tend to emphasize various degrees of accountability, i.e. ensuring that investment in higher education at all levels, are producing efficient and desirable results.
The Lumina Foundation for Education is a philanthropic organization dedicated to improving college graduation rates in the United States. Much of their giving thus centers reform efforts that could advance their Goal 2025 initiative, which seeks to “increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials from the longstanding rate of 39 percent to 60 percent by the year 2025.” The Lumina Foundation has sponsored the Education Writers Association’s work regarding the coverage of higher education.
Year 2060: Education Predictions, a YouTube video by Sal Khan, the founder of the KhanAcademy.org educational site, offers his perspectives on how a college education might change in the next few generations.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.