Saturday, April 21, 2012

Frivolous (or at least misguided) Suggestions to “Improve” Higher Education

OK, in my most recent post I argued that it is time to be really serious about the problems confronting American higher education, especially public colleges and universities.  I implied that some of the “problems” and some “solutions” were, well, less than serious. That raises the obvious question: So what specifically do you regard as less than serious or even frivolous contributions to the discussion?  Here’s my answer.  I apologize in advance for its length, but, even so, there is a lot more that could be said on these complex issues.
First, let’s end the foolishness of talking endlessly about access and affordability while saying nothing about quality.  Yes, the student loan situation is a looming crisis that we absolutely must address. But there is one thing worse than graduating from college with a lot of debt.  That is graduating from college unprepared to succeed in the intensely competitive global economy.  In fact, that’s much, much worse.
Second, let’s acknowledge that not everyone needs a college education.  There are good jobs out there that do not yet require one.  But a lot of the best jobs and careers do, and will continue to, require some amount of post-secondary education, if not a college degree or even a graduate degree.  And the percentage of the jobs that do will likely increase.  A college degree is still the greatest driver of upward mobility in America. That said, we should pay no attention to those who argue that a college education is no longer needed based on the success of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. That is just silly.  These individuals are extremely rare. Moreover, this argument completely ignores the fundamental fact that the success of Apple and Microsoft is built on the innumerable, essential contributions of thousands of engineers, programmers, designers, managers, business professionals, and more – the vast majority of whom have college degrees.  While the odds of any particular 20-year-old being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are very low, the opportunities to build a successful, productive, rewarding career – or a new company  – in the technology sectors of the global economy are still high, but only if you go to college.
Next, let’s dispense with the tripe that distance education is some kind of panacea for the issues surrounding access, quality, and affordability. That’s not to say that distance education and web-based learning are unimportant. To the contrary, they are essential tools to improving learning and access. We in higher education should be “all in” with regard to adopting, implementing, and developing technologies to improve access and student success.  The lecture is far past its expiration date for many of our classes.  However, teaching in laboratories, in the field, seminars, supervised internships, studios, and tutorials is more important than ever, and cannot be satisfactorily replicated on line, if at all.  Nor should we underestimate the value of students and faculty interacting face to face in a learning and social community, developing relationships and interpersonal skills not readily created through distance learning. One of the most important advantages of teaching-learning technology is to free up faculty time for engaging students directly in hands-on learning, research, and creative work.  Especially in science and engineering (which continue to be among our nation’s critical needs) laboratory or fieldwork, or both, is simply a necessity.  A virtual laboratory does not adequately replicate being in a laboratory, actually conducting experiments, and making your own mistakes. A video of a stream is not the same as standing in it, sampling the water or the organisms, or just closely observing an ever-changing microenvironment. Designing and building a robot is completely different than watching one.  There’s a lot more that could be said in this context, but I hope you get the idea. 
While we’re at it, let’s develop a realistic attitude towards “for-profit” education. It certainly has its place among America’s higher education options. It serves a lot of students very well.  It has, and can continue to, teach public and private colleges and universities a lot, particularly with regard to high-quality distance and web-based teaching strategies.  But it must also be remembered that the primary constituency of a for-profit institution is its owners or shareholders. The primary motivation is, well, profit.  It seems to me that students tend to be regarded as customers.  I think that attitude is fundamentally flawed.  Students are not our customers, they are, or should be, our partners.  A college education is not a commodity to be selected from a display like cornflakes or oatmeal.  I believe that a college education is a creative endeavor involving close collaboration between the student and the faculty.  Each must contribute to the creative process; without that partnership some type of credential may be awarded, but the kind of education that would most benefit the student has not been created.  Also, we should not lose sight of the fact that net revenue is a leading driver of academic offerings at for-profit institutions. It is one reason, I suspect, that programs in science, engineering, clinical practice, and anywhere where small student/faculty ratios are required, tend to be underrepresented in that sector.
Of course, net revenue considerations are also a part of the planning and resource allocation strategies of public colleges and universities.  In the current fiscal climate the need for such considerations is frequently acute. A net revenue approach can be valuable in multiple contexts, such as setting priorities and insuring that resources follow students.  It can also all to easily get out of hand.  Expensive programs in the sciences, engineering, nursing, pharmacy, and allied health, are unarguably critical to our future. So are philosophy, literature, foreign languages, history, the social sciences, the arts, and yes, even, anthropology.  Even in the midst of financial affliction, we must constantly keep the fundamental purposes of higher education foremost in our planning and decisions – one of those purposes is to prepare our students for success as thoughtful, knowledgeable, informed, and engaged citizens. 
Finally, can we dispense with the specious argument that faculty productivity and salaries are a major cause of rising costs? Faculty salaries, even for those on the tenure-track, have been nearly stagnant for several years, especially at public colleges and universities.  Moreover, practically everyone knows that adjunct faculty are increasingly teaching our students and that the percentage of tenure track faculty has been declining. Why? Because adjuncts are substantially cheaper, particularly if part-time. The trend towards more adjuncts and part-time faculty needs to be reversed, not exacerbated. Are there slackers out there? Of course.  Would increased accountability be useful? You bet. Those are problems we have the tools to fix.  In fixing those problems let’s not lose sight of the fact that our faculty generally work hard, accomplish a lot, care about students, and are passionate about teaching, scholarship, and service.  For many colleges and universities I think the data indicate that our faculty deserve more, not less, in terms of salary. 
Whew! I’m glad to get all that off my chest. I feel better, although you probably don’t. Thanks for reading anyway.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Let's Be Serious

A memorable line from the movie The American President is: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” It is a line for our time in higher education. Each day seems to bring a new problem to the fore. The list of problems appears endless: student loan debt, institutional debt, rapidly increasing tuition, achievement gaps, corporatization, the erosion of tenure, the future of the humanities, athletics scandals and spending, deferred maintenance, growing restrictions on student access, escalating demand to attend college, reductions in research funding, international competition, too few opportunities for new (or not so new) PhDs, the “graying” of the faculty, the lack of diversity among senior leaders – and we can add a lot more to that list. It can be depressing if one dwells on it.

There also appears to be no shortage of proposed solutions to at least some of these problems: let’s privatize, abolish tenure, foster “destructive” innovation, outsource, consolidate, partner, grow, shrink, provide credentials not degrees, increase oversight – and we can add a lot more to that list, too. Some of the proposals that have been made are worthwhile, some are misguided, some are frivolous, and some are really threats.

In order to solve a problem you must be able to identify it – but in the current context for higher education that is less obvious that you might first think. If you set out to design the next generation airliner, say the Boeing 787, everyone understands that if you elegantly solve all the design problems, but leave off the engines, you are unlikely to sell many aircraft, and even less likely to get passengers from Boston to Shanghai. Yet many of the solutions to the multiple problems facing higher education are just like that – useful, even necessary (like landing gear), but ultimately irrelevant without the engines. Unless we address the fundamental problems of funding, for both public institutions and for students, the rest of our efforts will not matter very much.

A recent report, a new addition to a substantial group that reach the same conclusion, cogently documents the engine problem for public higher education. The paper is aptly titled, “The Great Cost Shift. How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Middle Class.” The author is John Quinterno, writing for Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization in NY, The numbers for Rhode Island are especially sobering. In 1990-91 Rhode Island provided $205 per capita or $6.71 per $1000 of personal income to public higher education. By 2010-2011 those values had declined to $150 per capita and $3.55 per $1000 of personal income. Now that is a serious problem.

Moreover, it is a fundamental problem, and until this problem is solved we will have a difficult time really solving any of our myriad other problems. For example, the tension between maintaining and improving quality on one hand (which requires us to develop, recruit, and retain the best faculty and staff we can), and minimizing tuition increases on the other, is increasingly problematic in the context of systematic declines in state support.

The public disinvestment in higher education is a national problem, which makes it even more difficult to solve. But solve it we must, for the benefit of our state and our nation. Finding a solution requires a serious examination of the problem by serious people committed to the search. Currently, here in Rhode Island, the Board of Governors for Higher Education, the General Assembly, and the Governor’s Office have all engaged the issue of access and affordability, which is encouraging. But we must directly face the reality that the “cost” crisis is in fact a funding crisis. We have a long way to go to solve that problem, and no time to waste.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Learning by Doing

This past Thursday, the University of Rhode Island celebrated the creation of the Office of Experiential Learning and Community Engagement. It was a special moment for URI because it highlighted the vision, dedication, and work of many talented individuals among the faculty, staff, and administration of the university. Further, the day represented the interests and accomplishments of generations of URI students, who have consistently understood the enormous value of participating in research, scholarship, internships, and community service. An admirable cross-section of the URI community turned out, and we were joined by Governor Lincoln Chafee and Senator Dawson Tucker Hodgson.

Each of our speakers – Governor Chafee, Dean Jayne Richmond, Provost Don DeHayes, Jay Petrella (Vice President for Human Resources, Citizens Bank), Dr. Roger LeBrun (Professor, College of the Environment and Life Sciences), Jason Allard (a URI student majoring in psychology) and Kim Washor (Director of the Office of Experiential Learning and Community Engagement) – addressed the substantial advantages of “hands-on” learning.

Importantly, these advantages do not accrue solely to the students, but also to the companies, non-profit organizations, or communities that provides the opportunities for students to be engaged. Indeed, one of the most important contributions provided by research universities to the well being and economic development of the nation is the talent and energy of our students. Students from the University of Rhode Island long have been, and continue to be, involved throughout the state. Our faculty are frequently involved as well.

The Office of Experiential Learning and Community Engagement will serve as the central portal for students, faculty, businesses, and community organizations. The Office will help catalyze the continued growth of experiential learning at the University of Rhode Island. It will facilitate the increasing engagement of the university with the people, businesses, and communities of the state, and even beyond Rhode Island’s borders.

The engagement of undergraduates in research, scholarship, creative work, experiential learning and service learning are integral parts of the University of Rhode Island’s Academic Strategic Plan. And that is as it should be. Why? Because the learning opportunities created by such engagement cannot be replicated in our classrooms and web-based learning environments. Our role is to prepare students to help solve the global challenges of the 21st century and to prepare them for jobs and careers that do not even yet exist. The skills, expertise, and adaptability required for success can best be gained by confronting problems that have not been solved, by attempting to do, or create, things that are new, and by pursuing fresh solutions to society’s problems. Together with the faculty and our partners, this is what the Office of Experiential Learning and Community Engagement seeks to accomplish.