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The chorus of critics is growing in size and volume.  “College is too expensive.”  “Students graduate with crushing debt and can’t get jobs anyway.”  “We don’t really need more college graduates—especially those with liberal arts degrees.”  “Liberal education is a luxury we can’t afford.” “What the economy really needs is more technical training.”

We’ve all heard commentators and read stories making these assertions.  The criticism is bipartisan,  from President Obama suggesting that art history degrees are less valuable than training certificates to Senator Marco Rubio blaming higher education (and too much public funding for it) for producing an overeducated and underemployed citizenry and using Bureau of Labor Statistics to bolster his arguments. Read the rest of this entry »

The relentless push to increase “efficiency” in both higher education and government continues apace.  Unfortunately, as is often the case these days, the focus on efficiency is also leading to an abundance of misinformation and short-term thinking.  Many have probably already heard about various governors calling for redirecting funds away from “useless” fields like Anthropology or Gender Studies.   Representative Eric Cantor called this week for a halt to all government spending on “the social sciences.”  AAC&U’s President Carol Geary Schneider makes clear the dangers posed to our economy and our democracy by these “posturings” by politicians in a recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed.

Readers of this blog will, of course, likely know that AAC&U has worked hard through our LEAP initiative for a long time to help higher education do a better job of educating students, parents, and others outside of our institutions about the continuing value of the learning outcomes developed through liberal education—and through well-designed majors in a variety of fields, including the humanities and social sciences. We obviously still have much work to do! The new innovation-driven, global, and knowledge-intensive economy clearly demands the cognitive powers and ethical responsibilities developed in and through study in the liberal arts and sciences. Read the rest of this entry »

The attempted ouster of UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan has sparked a firestorm of attention to issues of change in higher education, which has been followed by a rush of commentary on how much higher education needs to change, how resistant to change it is, how models for change in business should be applied, etc. For me, it’s been instructive to talk with reporters who are struggling to understand the clash of visions on display at UVA and to see how little they understand about how much higher education is changing. Many reporters and commentators also seem to lack any understanding of shared governance and the academy’s traditional reliance on faculty judgment to guide change.

As I’ve been fielding call after call about UVA, I’ve also seen one press release after another announcing new initiatives to develop more efficient pathways to college degrees and credentials (e.g., flexible online degree programs for returning students, online general education courses that are fully transferable across systems, and new ways to get degrees by earning credit for prior learning or for just passing tests). All these new “disruptive innovations” are motivated in some way or another by the need to increase the numbers of successful college graduates and increase our “productivity.”  Surely, some of these “disruptive innovations,” many of which make use of the latest information technologies, might indeed prove useful in serving some portion of the college-going population. But I can’t help but wonder: where is the discussion about what quality learning really means in today’s world, and where is the evidence that these newly proposed innovations will actually provide students with the learning they need to be college-educated people?  Where is the evidence that they improve productivity and reduce costs? Read the rest of this entry »

It is highly unusual for a U.S. president to call a small group of higher education leaders to the White House.  But, these are clearly unusual times.  Building on national economic concerns being expressed so powerfully through the various “occupy” demonstrations, many reporters have begun more intense coverage of the issues of college costs and student debt—the topics of today’s White House meeting.   The meeting today follows on a high-profile speech delivered in late November by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in which he called on higher education officials to “think more creatively—and with much greater urgency” about how to reduce the cost of going to college and how to reduce students’ debt loads.  I am hoping that the conversation at the White House today also addresses creatively questions of educational quality in addition to questions about college costs.

The renewed and intensified attention to college costs isn’t unwelcome.  We should be having a “national conversation” about college costs—about the importance of investing in higher education in order to fuel economic growth, and about who should bear the financial burdens of educating our citizens for success in the 21st century.  But we also need to have a national conversation about quality, and about who has access to high-quality college education.

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You may have seen the dismal news about completion rates contained in the newest report from Complete College America (CCA). Higher education leaders and practitioners have complained for years that the data collected by the federal government about college students’ progress toward degrees and certificates doesn’t include part-time students, who account for nearly 40 percent of all college students. Unfortunately, according to new data collected by CCA, these students’ completion rates are even worse than those of their full-time counterparts.

As Washington Post columnist Dan de Vise noted in his recent blog posting, “the completion rate for part-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree is 24 percent…even when students are given eight full years to finish.” This record is clearly not acceptable. But as I have noted before, completion of a college degree in a reasonable amount of time isn’t all that matters. We need to pay at least as much attention to whether these students are actually learning what they need for success in the twenty-first century as we do to getting them across the finish line in less time.

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In the United States, in statehouse after statehouse, funding for higher education continues to be cut.  Debates in Washington continue—and include proposals to cut funding for Pell Grants and for subsidies of student loans while students are in college. (To his credit, President Obama seemed to draw a line in the sand on this latest proposal, saying he wasn’t “going to take money from old people and screw students.”)

Reflecting on this dismal state of affairs in light of my recent study tour of EU universities, I can’t help but note that European higher education faces similar challenging circumstances.  And the irony is that, both in Europe and in the United States, despite the storm clouds, amazing progress is also being made to “modernize” higher education systems, clarify what different degrees mean in terms of levels of learning and essential learning outcomes, and improve curricula and teaching methods to ensure that students graduate with the ability to innovate and continue learning over the course of their lives.  (More on these positive efforts in future blog posts).

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I have just completed a fascinating study tour of European higher education trends sponsored by the European Centre for Strategic Management of Universities (ESMU), an international think tank associated with the European Union. (It was somehow reassuring to learn that Europe is facing some similar challenges and is also just as awash in peculiar acronyms as is Washington, DC, where I live.) This will be the first of several blog postings reflecting on trends in European higher education and what US colleges and universities can learn from our European friends.

Many in the United States might have heard about the continuing Bologna Process—an effort to bring into better alignment higher education institutions and systems across Europe and, increasingly, in other parts of the world, including Latin America. I had understood this process, however, in far too narrow terms prior to this recent ESMU tour.  (The tour included stops in Brussels, Valencia, and Glasgow, and presentations from educational leaders in these three location and from Hungary, England, Norway, Portugal, Holland, and Germany.)

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Humanities fields have certainly taken a beating in the press in recent months. This isn’t particularly surprising given the current economic downturn and how little the public or the media understand about how interdisciplinary and integrated college curricula are becoming. But, alas, we must continue to educate the media and the public about the most promising changes in undergraduate curricula and the continuing importance of the humanities as part of those changes.

The economic downturn is, of course, driving much national dialogue about higher education—and about the worth of the humanities and the liberal arts. I’m sure that many of you saw the recent coverage of Tony Carnevale’s new report, What’s It Worth. Nearly all the stories about this report covered its findings using the familiar trope of humanities majors ending up driving cabs or flipping burgers. Those of you who only read the coverage should definitely look more closely at the report’s actual findings (pdf) and also other reports, including AAC&U’s surveys of employers. Beyond what a student chooses as her major, lots of research suggests that achieving a broader set of learning outcomes is essential for success in today’s economy—no matter what post-graduation professional journey one takes. Everyone who cares about the state of humanities departments—both because of their contributions to all students’ learning and for their education of “majors”—should note in Carnevale’s report the high numbers of humanities majors who go on to graduate school and the bump in earnings they get as a result.

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We’ve seen over the past few years an explosion of high-profile national conversations about higher education. At the federal and state levels, in regulatory bodies and legislatures, as well as in many foundations and think tanks, policy makers and their many advisers are pursuing ways to increase “student success” by fixing what is wrong with higher education.

I have written before about the problems with how these national conversations are framed. There are, of course, many problems that require urgent action – and, indeed, national dialogue is needed. Read the rest of this entry »

I recently read yet two more calls for more liberal education outcomes for today’s college students—this time, the calls focused on what is needed to effectively educate future doctors and business leaders.  A committee of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recently published fourteen preliminary recommendations for the content and format of the new MCAT exam—required for those applying to medical schools.  One of four test sections will now cover “critical analysis and reasoning skills.”  The committee also recommends that the future MCAT examine a student’s “ability to analyze and reason through passages in ethics and philosophy, cross-cultural studies, population health, and a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines to ensure that students possess the necessary critical thinking skills to be successful in medical school.”  These are, of course, recommendations that are highly consistent with the outcomes recommended as essential for all college students by AAC&U’s LEAP National Leadership Council in their report, College Learning for the New Global Century (pdf).

I was particularly pleased to also see that the AAMC committee urged further research to allow for refinements to the MCAT that would “help medical schools consider data on integrity, service orientation, and other personal characteristics early in student selection.”  This is also highly consistent with the efforts AAC&U has pursued through its LEAP VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative.  Through VALUE, AAC&U has worked with faculty from all across the country to develop rubrics for such important learning outcomes as: ethical reasoning and intercultural knowledge and competence.

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