Monday, June 4, 2012


For a time SQUINTS is switching venues, from K-12 to U.S. higher education.  Not yet fully in the crosshairs of the same gang of alleged reformers assaulting public K-12, the early straws are in the wind; even the standardized testing tactics.  For the curious, and wary, those straws have been blowing in the breeze since 2006 and the Spelling Commission, the George W. Bush administration’s edition of the president’s commissions on higher education.

Challenge and Reality

Plunging into even some selective critique of American higher education is a trip likely to augur a good deal of humility and a long haul.

America’s colleges and universities are publicly lauded as the brightest stars of U.S. culture, best in the world, source of much of the nation’s creativity and driving innovation.  Except that has ceased to be universal, even the latter accomplishments except for selected disciplines in the sciences.  Most of the basic research dollars in the U.S. are by and placed in the private sector. 

The subsequent table of contents of any assessment of higher education is huge.  Since the turn of the century, well over 100 books and major journal articles have been authored about the U.S. version.  Most have been critical of the trajectory of these institutions; but few if any have catalyzed any material change in higher education that hasn’t been self-serving.  In that regard the initiative of self-reform in higher education has matched its elusiveness in public K-12.

Even with a quarter century of tenure and practice in our universities, trying a different perspective than available from a few Google search efforts is daunting.  So the critiques that follow will attempt to probe some of the least beaten paths, and some specific examples of 13 to 14 and 13 to 16 opportunities and pitfalls.

At the moment, subject to change, the following topics seem germane:  The history of assessments of the genre from on high; the chasm separating 9-12 and postsecondary work, and bridging it; the concept of universal 9-14 or technology-enabled alternatives; the largely un-chronicled, even untouched (untouchable?) issue of quality of postsecondary work as a function of its mass expansion via community and for-profit colleges; whether our major public universities are becoming or have become de facto private institutions and nearly impervious to oversight; our retro B-schools and their contribution to a growing and dystopian American corporatocracy; teaching quality and faculty productivity in our universities; and alternative visions and projections of how postsecondary learning might evolve.

Lastly, a further mission will be to provide bibliographic material enabling the reader to pursue their own probes of our higher education challenges.

Higher Education Scope

The “numbers” are hardly ever exciting fare; however, they are frequently ignored, as in the case of the impression from the media and groups with an agenda, that charters are about to fully displace public schools.  For perspective, here are present (circa 2010) counts for higher education in the U.S.:

Total of 4,495 HEA Title IV-eligible (Federal student financial assistance) degree institutions.

With 61.7 percent 4-year institutions, 38.3 percent 2-year.

Plus 2,223 non-degree granting Title IV institutions.

In 2010, 20.3MM students enrolled (about 14.6MM full-time), roughly 5.7 percent of the total population.

In 2006, 24.5 percent of the population had an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, while another 19.5 percent had attended college but had no degree; a composite long term 44 percent drop out rate.

In 2009, 70.1 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college; however, the percent graduating has been declining, as has the percent graduating in four or even six years.  In the bottom half of high school graduates, three-quarters will never enter or graduate collegiately.

Current rhetoric about universal postsecondary work, as in the case of the NCLB fantasy of 100 percent achievement of anything, ignores the asymptotic property of any human population; as behaviors approach any limit of 100 percent each increment becomes marginally harder to achieve.

Superficially, it would appear far easier to scope the performances of five to six thousand institutions than nearly 100,000 K-12 schools.  In fact, America’s colleges and universities are complex, representing public versus private ownership, diverse internal organization, different education-teaching-research philosophies, and different identities – national, regional, urban, community, denominational, for-profit, online, as well as diverse cultural reference group images.  They have also been successful in blocking most access to their more complex internal organization arrangements and diverse internalized missions, and what actually governs the operations of a university is virtually impossible to track from the outside and by the academic civilian; for that matter, also by either the USDOE, or an institution’s resident state, or even an institution’s board of trustees.

Over a period of several decades states’ public colleges and universities have been persuasive in pulling the teeth of state higher education commissions and chancellors.  In many cases the commissions or chancellors remain, opportunities for political appointments as reward for campaign support, but provide only pro forma oversight of programs or budgets.  Indiana’s IHEC represents a classic example of the effect.

An isolated vignette, and inside joke, in many states a legislature is disproportionately composed of attorneys, and those lawyers in turn are overwhelmingly the product of the state’s law school(s).  That can translate into loyalty to an alma mater and sports, producing less representative and rigorous institutional oversight even by legislatures.

Additionally, in contrast with public K-12 education, though defined by each state, having a form of universality by virtue of educational instruction, certification, and national teachers’ unions, higher education certification and standards are parceled out across a plethora of discipline-based national organizations and their standards, national organizations representing academic faculty participation, an institution’s reference group, and only occasionally by its state, with less scrutiny than most American institutions.  It is indicative, that in spite of highly vocal calls by the 2006 President's (Spelling) Commission, for some common criteria for information assisting students to assess and choose a college or university, our institutions refused even that minimal recommended cooperation.

Not publicized, nor tracked well, most higher education leaderships are quietly represented in national organizations that promote sharing of views, and can fashion tacit agreements on strategies and general policies.  In another day, in our private sector, and before our anti-trust laws were disemboweled, collusion was the term generally employed.

Those Presidential Commissions (and Their Pretenders)

The history of these commissions is another story, for another day, but observations that will kick start this series begin with a look at the first President’s Commission, created in 1946 by a prescient former President Harry Truman.  It may well have been the best of the irregular (not every president pursued the assessment) series to date; a material fraction (can’t hazard a better guess yet) of the recommendations of the Truman Commission could be presented today, and appear contemporary, as well as remaining unfulfilled.  One later President’s Commission, featuring multiple Nobel Laureates, drafted a report – critical of America’s colleges and universities – but it never made it to publication, buried by that administration and an institution that we have assumed to be above reproach.

The current SQUINTS’ series has behind it roughly two decades of rapt attention to higher education’s trajectories even after departing those cloistered ranks; however, a restart of research yielded an unexpected observation.  A rational beginning seemed to be post WWII, 1946, and Mr. Truman’s President’s Commission on Higher Education and a constituency of intellectual stars.  But tracking through subsequent federally enabled commissions and their references – each Federal commission in turn adopting usually an additional theme for both emphasis and titling – turned up an unexpected finding.  Almost immediately after the promulgation of each true President’s Commission’s findings, across our states a plethora of copy-cat titled reports hit the press and streets, sowing confusion, in many cases drowning out in sheer numbers of words the original commission’s report and thrust.  Those so-called “president’s commission” reports might reflect origination with anything from a university president to the president of a chamber of commerce.

Coupled with stubborn resistance by higher education in general to the real President’s Commission’s recommendations for over 65 years, the hypothesized patterns of disruption mirror the present extreme partisan warfare about the role of the Federal government versus the states.  Looking at the report processions in perspective, it was as if the Civil War had never ended, and that the phrase we all righteously intone in “The Pledge, “…one nation indivisible…,” ceased being descriptive?

The Series Cometh

Thus starts the poking and probing of America’s allegedly brightest intellectual and academic stars, not so bright as once hyped, overall increasingly less intellectual, and in this century universally more costly and arguably less productive and effective in creating learning, as alleged by recent research reports on contemporary higher education.  Our nation's professionals seemingly can’t prosper without their “degree certificates,” but simultaneously, student higher education debt owed in the U.S. currently exceeds $1 trillion.

An initial impression is that in spite of the deluge of higher education rhetoric, there are still some higher education issues worth engaging in this upcoming SQUINTS’ series.

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