"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Spellings Omission on Higher Ed

Here's one worthy of discussion from Peyton Helm, President of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA:

We ignore complexity at our peril. Cut corners in the manufacture of O-rings and you have the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster; underestimate the expertise required to mount a major disaster relief effort, and you have post-Katrina New Orleans.

Now, the recently drafted Report on the Future of Higher Education (also known as the Spellings Commission Report) proposes a set of one-size-fits-all measures that, if adopted uncritically, could cripple America's extremely varied and complex system of colleges and universities - a system that, imperfect as it may be, is the envy of the world and the engine of America's economic, scientific, and technological leadership. Alarmingly, Education Department officials seem to be looking for ways to implement these recommendations without congressional approval.

To its credit, the report makes a compelling case for higher education as an important national priority. It effectively highlights the crisis in higher education affordability, especially for minorities and the poor. It recommends more federal support for need-based financial aid. But it ignores the complexity of American higher education, and fails to appreciate the reasons for and the value of that complexity.

The difficulty begins almost immediately with the report's assumption that the sole purpose of higher education is workforce development. As the father of a college senior, I am unabashedly in favor of preparing students for the world of work. But the purpose of higher education goes far beyond providing job skills. We also expect our postsecondary institutions to transmit values, develop civic virtue and leadership skills, refine aesthetic awareness, and nurture analytical abilities. Our marvelously complicated system of higher education is currently capable of meeting each of these objectives, depending on the interests, needs and aptitude of the learner.

Admittedly, were higher education to be solely focused on workforce development, it could be much more efficient, dispensing with literature, history, philosophy, religion, music, and other "impractical" fields. On the other hand, this narrow definition assumes that we know what skills the workforce will require and in what relative numbers - not just four years hence, but 10, 20, and 30 years down the road. Anyone who has observed our economy over the last few decades will find this a highly dubious proposition.

Some of the commission recommendations flowing from this assumption are simply naïve, promising what cannot be delivered. Others pave the way for intolerable government intrusion into individual privacy and academic freedom. Creating a Department of Education database with extensive personal information on every student, for example, was already rejected as unacceptably intrusive by Congress in its recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act - a position endorsed in a recent poll by over two-thirds of Americans.

The suggestion that institutional accreditation should be the responsibility of government bureaucrats is equally chilling. Standardized testing for all institutions ignores the variety of students' educational objectives and raises the specter of government control of the curriculum (the power to test is the power to determine what is taught).

The elimination of barriers to transfer credits regardless of the nature of institutions would weaken American higher education by insisting on mindless standardization.

By advancing proposals that would homogenize higher education, the commission missed an opportunity to rally America's families, policymakers and educators to the cause of building a stronger, more accessible, more affordable system.

Make no mistake, America's higher education system is extremely complex. Its more than 4,200 institutions include public, private, for-profit, technical, secular, and faith-based institutions with enrollments ranging from fewer than 10 students to more than 115,000; four-year graduation rates ranging from less than 1 percent to more than 97 percent; costs ranging from a few hundred to more than $45,000 per year, and teaching styles ranging from the intimate student-faculty interaction of residential liberal arts colleges such as my school, Muhlenberg College, to the on-demand (if less personal) online programs of the University of Phoenix.

The report simply ignores too many of the current system's strengths and assets and discounts too many of its triumphs to represent a helpful contribution to the national dialogue on higher education. One would never guess, for example, that a recent poll shows that recent independent college graduates right here in Pennsylvania not only earn more, but are significantly more likely to hold jobs, own homes, register to vote, and volunteer for charitable organizations than non-college grads - and that these results hold true regardless of whether the graduate originally came from an upper, middle, or lower socio-economic background.

In its quest for simple solutions, the Spellings Commission has not only missed an opportunity to send a clear message about the necessity of public support for higher education, but has proposed measures that could substantially weaken a healthy system.

Peyton R. Helm is president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

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