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Time To Fix Higher Ed

Whenever there is a conversation in Washington about competitiveness you can almost guarantee that it will quickly default to “fixing K-12.” And usually along the way someone makes the statement, “We all know that K-12 is broken, but thank God the United States has the best higher education system in the world. But as I argued last year in a post “The Failure of American Higher Education,” we don’t. I argued that there was disturbing evidence that many colleges were failing to adequately educate their charges. I cited findings from national tests that showed that among recent graduates of four-year colleges, just 34, 38 and 40 percent were proficient in prose, document, and quantitative literacy, respectively.

Now a new book reinforces these findings. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Professors Richard Arum and Jospipa Roksa, argues that many students now get through college taking easy courses, doing little homework (50 percent less than students did in the 1960s), and failing to learn key skills. The book is based on a study by Arum that showed that in their first two years of college, 45 percent of students made no significant improvement in skills related to critical thinking, complex reasoning, and communication. After four years, 36 percent had made no substantial improvement. In other words, one-third of college graduates wasted their money – unless you define spending 4 years not doing much work and getting to go to football games for free as not a waste.

The reason is not really a mystery. Faculty are not rewarded for teaching; they are rewarded to publishing academic journal articles. If faculty actually do hold their students to high standards, they often pay the price in low student evaluations. So it’s much easier to have a mutual pact – students won’t be pressed to work hard and faculty won’t have to put in the time it takes to really teach young adults how to think, write, analyze and communicate. Students can party, faculty can write their articles.

When I wrote the blog last year, I received a large number of emails from university and college personnel. What was perhaps not striking was that the faculty responses were almost uniformly critical – I didn’t know what I was talking about, they actually were working hard, it was the students that were lazy. I especially enjoyed the email from one faculty member saying that he did mark up student term papers but almost none of them picked them up after the semester was over. It never seemed to occur to the faculty member that perhaps he should mark up papers earlier in the semester and demand that students rewrite poorly written papers if they wanted to pass. But that would require more work.

But what was striking was the fact that I received a considerable number of emails from provosts, college presidents, and even the chancellor of a system that largely agreed with me. Uniformly they agreed that education levels were not what they should be at college.

This is not to say that all colleges or all faculty do a poor job. There are many colleges where teaching is the main activity and where students and faculty are held to very rigorous standards. There are colleges that have taken new approaches. For example, at the University of Charleston in West Virginia, the focus is on student learning instead of faculty teaching. The curriculum requires students to be proficient in six areas deemed critical to a liberal arts education: citizenship, communication, creativity, critical thinking, ethical practice, and science. Their comprehensive set of assessment tools lets the college prove students’ return on their investment.

So what to do? I have a simple, no-cost solution that could be implemented by executive order of the President tomorrow and would go a long way to fixing the problem: require that as a condition of receiving any federal support that colleges and universities participate in and report their scores for the National Survey of Student Engagement. Each year the NSSE asks freshmen and seniors at participating schools to answer questions about their educational experiences – their classroom participation, interaction with faculty, and time spent on various enriching activities, for example. The survey helps universities know where they rank compared to other schools and where improvements are most needed. The survey could also provide valuable information to prospective students and parents. Yet currently most schools refuse to make public their scores because they are worried unfavorable scores will deter students from enrolling. Requiring this information to be available to parents, students and employers would start to make the “education” process in higher ed more transparent, and put pressure on higher education to pay attention to quality. It’s not a silver bullet but it is a bullet that would begin to move higher ed in the right direction.

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