Colleges Must Fix All of Society’s Ills – Or Else! (Part 1)

Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t raise a new expectation of American universities

It’s an interesting time to be a university president. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t raise a new expectation of what universities can or should be doing. Often, this expectation comes in the form of criticism. Sometimes, it arrives as a recommendation about improving a process.

Taken collectively, the various tasks and expectations now being dropped on higher education administrators are often highly unrealistic, frequently mutually exclusive, and ultimately are doomed to fail.

It’s time for a little straight talk. Let me start by acknowledging two things.

First, higher education in the United States has, at least for the last 150 years, been more responsible than any other component of our society for the American success story – both as a country and as the ladder to individual prosperity and accomplishment. We should therefore be wary of radical changes to a proven track record.

Second, and despite what I have just said, higher education is overdue for some serious reform. Higher education has become complacent over the past 40 years. We have allowed our focus to wander, from the standpoint of our core mission, and we have been painfully slow to integrate both technology and new knowledge about the learning process into our instructional protocols. We have worried too little about the cost of higher education for our students and their families, and too little about how most of our students plan to use their education: to get a well-paying job. At least some of the criticisms that have been directed at higher education are well deserved, and at least some colleges and universities are now addressing them in meaningful ways.

But these positive responses by universities have been overwhelmed by the blizzard of expectations and criticisms in the media and on blogs that continue unabated, and now seem to be growing in both number and volume.

What is the primary problem with higher education? Let me list the contenders:

  1. More low-income students need to be admitted at top private schools. (“College recruiters give low-income public campuses fewer visits,” LA Times, 27 December 2013; “Obama counts on power of convening people for change,” The New York Times, 10 January 2014)
  2. The pipeline to college must be widened. (“Getting high school dropouts to college,” Inside Higher Ed, 9 January 2014)
  3. Higher education is hidebound. (“U.S. seeks experiments on new models of higher ed,” Insider Higher Ed, 5 December 2013; “Lumina-funded group seeks to lead conversation on competency-based education,” Insider Higher Ed, 12 December 2013)
  4. Higher education is going broke. (“Ivy League budget deficits prompt Harvard, Yale to seek cuts,” Bloomberg, 12 December 2013; “Survey suggests colleges aren’t ready for new higher-education landscape,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 December 2013)
  5. Too much student debt – and it’s rising. (“Student debt and the class of 2012,” The Institute for College Access & Success, 4 December 2013; “Students blame colleges for debt woes,” Inside Higher Ed, 4 December 2013)
  6. Large numbers of colleges will go out of business – unless… (“A path forward,” Center for American Progress, December 2013; “Colleges can still save themselves. Here’s how,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 December 2013)
  7. It’s all about college completion rates. (“Completing College,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, December 2013; “How to help college students graduate,” The New York Times, 8 January 2014)
  8. Too many students learn too little in college. (“Academically Adrift,” University of Chicago Press, January 2011; “White people are skeptical about the value of a college degree,” The Atlantic, November 2013; “More data show students unprepared for work, but what to do about it?Inside Higher Ed, 29 October 2013)
  9. We need more technical education. (“Obama administration embraces career education,” Huffington Post, 13 November 2013; “Tech students get support from Ga. Governor,” Diverse Education, 10 January 2014)
  10. Higher education needs a scorecard on affordability, access and outcomes (including salary). (“Higher education leaders respond to Obama’s ambitious ratings system plan,” Inside Higher Ed, 23 August 2013; “Obama’s aid proposals could use a reality check,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 September 2013)

Well, now that I look at the list, I guess it’s not so bad after all. College and university presidents just need to recruit many more low-income students while significantly lowering the price of tuition, and then ensure that a much larger percentage of this expanded pool of students not only graduates but does so with the skills necessary to get good jobs, thereby reducing income inequality and social stratification, even as the presidents incorporate technology and place their institutions on a stronger financial base. Higher education once again rescues the American economy! (Pardon me while I find my cape, and that stretchy outfit with the big letter “S.”)

So sarcasm aside, what reasonably can (and should) higher education actually do? See Part 2, coming next week.