Sunday, October 26, 2014

US Post-Secondary Education: Higher or Space Cadets?

So begins a journey to try to understand how America’s very diverse institutions of higher education are positioned to bridge the chasm between what issues from US public high schools, and our nation’s demand for knowledge evolution and educational prowess for the next decades.  The attempt is footed by a quarter century in its classrooms and councils, another dozen years hiring its products, but still reflects the humility of always being a student of those complex learning communities that have evolved over a millennium (the first university attributed to the University of Bologna, 1088).

Worth contrast in this blog’s transition from public K-12, consider that our US public schools, even stretching their formation to seeds in the late 1800s, are less than 120-130 years old. 

In a prior post, copied to some of you, educator Dr. Grant Wiggins rather aggressively took to task our high school teachers for what he termed “dereliction of duty” in preparing their students for the college academic experience.  While his facts from an ACT survey may well be broadly representative of too much of present public 9-12 curricula, and provisionally much pedagogy employed, Wiggins’ arguments fatally ignored that there are two sides to the argument.  Personally experienced and noted in the writer’s early faculty years, our colleges and universities are as fully culpable in those periodic failures as our public high schools, perhaps more so.  It probably isn’t too strong an assertion, that our college and university denizens are contemptuous of, or simply ignore both public K-12 and even 9-12 processes, as well as our prospective K-12 educators launching from frequently demeaned collegiate schools of education.

Whether this chasm between higher education and public schools is rooted in differential history, or a function of the knowledge and pedagogy differentials, the social gap is disconnect that has damaged the mission of creating an educated citizenry.  There is another theory that what is taught at the 9-12 level is inherently incomplete or insufficient hence wrong as learning, because that environment and student maturation preclude necessary depth and complexity of explanation; the argument proceeds that is expected, to be modified in subsequent learning.   Irrespective, this failed bridge between secondary and post-secondary is just one of the issues to be pursued in future posts.

How to get a handle on any reasonable assessment of American colleges and universities is, of course, a bit of a bear; a procession of presidential commissions on higher education, dating from their inauguration by former President Harry Truman, post WWII, plus numerous other commissions and national study groups, have tried with limited success to encompass the genre.  In turn, the post WWII influx of new numbers of college matriculants from the GI Bill changed the game, as has the evolution of community colleges and regional campuses that frequently lack the quality assurance processes built into traditional academic faculties. 

Since that same time period some major shifts in policy, and especially funding of higher education have profoundly effected all public institutions.  More to be said on that issue, but a broad effect over a half century has been the eroded link between funding and oversight of those institutions:  Federal funding, especially of research has been a game changer; declines in state funding of originally state institutions have allowed evasion of much state governmental oversight; and increasingly both private sector endowments, and cooperative corporate research and private sector education programs have created a new and potent stake holder that impacts institutional policies.  All are possible future topics.

Seeking that “handle,” one approach is to go back to basics.  At the most elemental level, our higher education institutions can be viewed as a black box, receiving inputs of students, running a gamut of processes, and hopefully ejecting a modified human resource equipped better to perform as a productive citizen.  That model is a bit primitive, a bit like building a modern vehicle out of Legos; or for a controversial contemporary education example, using VAM (value added measurement) of student scores on standardized tests to assess K-12 teacher performance in creating learning experiences.

The problems with the model:  The inputs are diverse, ranging from every cultural and socioeconomic variant through the preparedness for post-secondary work; the black box is a very complex organizational form, that doesn’t conform to any simplistic management model, and contains sub-organizations, within sub-organizations, all varying with disciplinary contents and mission, e.g., education versus research versus public service; all with variance in sub-group governance and values; the processes for creating learning are equally diverse, differing materially from K-12 because there are few unifying controls on curricula, or preparation for the classroom, or in management of professorial resources, or even in values across disciplines; collegiate organization is typically by discipline, those divisions becoming cultural islands; hence, the processes that originate in the classroom can be as divergent as the individual faculty member.  The criteria for burping out a graduate vary with students’ occupational or further education destinations.  There is no common learning or graduation test.

How have these overall models panned out?  Criticism is obviously not hard to come by:  UNC, recently reported, created fake courses for 18 years to support sports teams; in a 2011 book, Academically Adrift, sociologists Arum and Roksa reported tracking over 1,600 students during college, and over 1,000 for a subsequent two years – their overall conclusion was that in four years students’ acquired knowledge changed little. 

The reader can judge.  Tuition at US four-year institutions overall, for the last dozen years, has increased +69 percent in current dollars compared to an overall CPI change of +27 percent in the same period.  Only 56 percent of US college/university students currently graduate within six years.  From the aforementioned 1946 Truman Presidential Commission on Higher Education, roughly two-thirds of its recommendations have never been adopted by our institutions in almost 70 years, fewer from subsequent commissions.  The presidential commission of former President H. W. George Bush, produced a 1990 draft report that was subsequently quashed, never to be seen again.  Its concluding paragraph may have been the reason; from a learned group that included multiple Nobel Laureates, that paragraph stated, “American colleges and universities are riddled with dry rot.”  Add from the work by Arum and Roksa, cited above:  “…dismaying: Of the students who didn't go immediately into graduate school, slightly more than a quarter earned above $40,000 a year in a full-time job two years after graduation. Nearly three-quarters relied on their parents for at least some financial assistance.”

But simultaneously our colleges and universities have graduated millions of graduates who have been equipped to professionally succeed, despite the exceptional glitches to be expected among 4,140 institutions currently annually graduating 1.8MM with four-year degrees, and another 1MM with two-year associate degrees.  Add, American higher education institutions are responsible for 14 percent of total US R&D expenditures, arguably equivalent invention, and far greater levels of if not most of contemporary knowledge development. 

Reform our system of higher education; a question up for grabs?  Our top universities still score eight places in the world’s top ten list, and represent a fifth of the top 100 in the world.  The key implications then for reform appear to focus on:  The equitable accessibility of our collegiate schools to all qualified; performance in holding and graduating those who enter; the productivity of those institutions’ deployment of assets; finding mechanisms to reflect the interdependencies between higher education and institutions both feeding it and employing its graduates; given the growth in size and complexity of our institutions, whether traditional academic organizational structure needs updating; whether present board/trustee oversight is now intellectually adequate for oversight, and whether other infrastructures are needed; and the wisdom of present academic leadership scenarios for future demands on higher learning.

One assertion that appears defensible, reforming our colleges and universities if necessary does not appear to be the stuff of public K-12 reform; indeed, the prospect of the crudity of present reform tactics being employed in that venue, including the proposed but ill-conceived Obama/Duncan ranking schemes, is venal.

There appears grist for future Edunationredux blogs, and room for debate.

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