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After eighteen months of thinking about the problems facing American Higher Education almost full time, I’m struck by how difficult it is to reach definitive conclusions. The difficulty stems not because the problems are inherently hard to solve but rather from fundamental disagreements over the values that underlie the solutions. Consider the higher education issues currently dominating the news cycle.
Admissions. Until recently, there was a general belief that admissions decisions were objective based upon grades and test scores but that myth has been blown apart by the recent college admissions scandals and high profile litigation challenging affirmative action. With the illusion of objectivity tossed away, it is clear that admissions decisions are driven by a set of value judgments made by a combination of administrators, board members, and politicians. Is it fair to use standardized tests with their strong correlation to income as a factor in admissions decisions? Should the children of alumni, athletes, or others with special skills be given preference? What about economically disadvantaged students or those from historically underrepresented groups? What complicates matters is the value judgments raised by these difficult questions matter deeply to a wide variety of citizens many of whom will feel they have been treated unfairly no matter how the judgments are made. Value-based decisions that are guaranteed to profoundly disappoint a significant number of people are truly a no-win situation. This is the reason there will be no easy answers when it comes to the college admissions process.
Student Success. There are many valid answers to the question all universities must answer: How do you measure success? Ask an entering first-year or her parents and they will likely tell you success is graduating on time with a good job. Ask a faculty member and you will hear talk about preparing students for good citizenship and a useful and productive life as well as discovering new knowledge that makes a difference in the world. An administrator concerned about diversity and access will point to completion rate as the most important success measure because admitting a diverse student body only works if admitted students finish and faculty members stay. The increased cost of college and the fact that most students incur debt makes the answer to this value-laden problem an important one not only for students but for institutions who must make the case that college is worth it in the face of increased public skepticism about the value of a college education.
Governance. No subject is more value-laden than university governance. The firing of Presidents by angry Trustees, removal of Confederate memorials, free speech and classroom indoctrination have all become front-page news and political lightning rods for the right and the left. None of these controversies are strategic or require complex analytics in order to resolve them. Rather they require agreement on the basic values that define the very idea of a university. Is higher education worthy of public support and if so, what is expected in return? What constraints, if any, should be placed on free speech both inside and outside the classroom? Should the university be run like a business or is it something different requiring adherence to long-standing principals of shared governance and academic freedom? Should a public university be a vehicle to achieve social mobility or a strict meritocracy where admission and advancement are based on standardized test scores and rigid grading structures? Different institutions will resolve these difficult issues in different ways. What is critical is these value-based issues be acknowledged and, to the extent possible, resolved. The biggest disasters in university governance result when they are not.
Free College. Higher education will appear most prominently in the upcoming election cycle in the form of what is being called Free College. Like the other big issues, a set of values underlie the proposal. Are all Americans entitled to attend any college they are admitted to free of charge? Are they entitled to attend any publicly supported school at no cost? Alternatively, should aid for higher aid be based on need and if so should aid only to the economically disadvantaged or to the middle and upper-middle class as well? What impact will a vast government subsidy have on university governance? The answers to these questions can be developed at an institutional level, resulting in a diverse set of educational models or at a societal level where higher education becomes an absolute right. The debate may appear to center on costs but a little digging will reveal that the issues are more fundamental.
With the help of many of you, I’ll dig deeper into these and other issues facing higher education from a new perch as a member of the faculty at the School of Education at UNC. With the support of two planning grants, my colleagues and I will begin exploring how a research university can best contribute to the conversation. You’ll be hearing more about that in weeks to come.