Education Reform: Universities Have Been Forgotten in Reform Wars

Change has already come and is still coming to K-12 education. “No Child Left Behind” has given way to “Race to the Top” and will soon give way again, to the Common Core standards, teacher evaluation schemes, and hundreds of other initiatives and pilots at the local and state and federal level- teacher-developed, district-developed, union-developed, DOE-developed.

Teachers, school leaders, district leaders, governmental leaders, and other stakeholders are not always united on the solutions, but we all sure as hell know there’s a problem, and so the order of the day is “movement.” That’s what reform always looks like in this country: clumsy and loud. And, like it or not, that’s what’s happening. You only have to look at the considerable points of agreement between the various “sides” on points like evaluation and teacher preparation if you need evidence of that.

Compare and contrast K-12 education with America’s colleges and universities and you’ll see some of the same problems in both - incomplete but dismaying data on achievement, racial and class disparities in academic success, inequity, but a huge difference on attentiveness and progress between the K-12 and university systems. And where K-12 educators almost universally recognize that there is a problem, college and university educators often don’t even see student learning as a major priority, and often seem to attribute blame for the current state of higher education solely to state and federal policies and budget cuts, failing to also acknowledge the responsibility of their own institutions and mindsets. 

Certainly, budget cuts have been debilitating for many universities and university systems. The University of California, for example, has struggled with massive cuts that have resulted in increased class sizes and decreases in faculty hiring, among other things. 

But there are also major problems with the fundamentals of American higher education that originate within the system itself. 

The main problem on that front is our own limited information on what’s actually happening in college classrooms throughout the country and what’s going right and wrong in them. There is no uniform evaluation system for college instructors, aside from student evaluations, and there is no uniform measure for demonstrating student learning, let alone uniform standards for what that learning should look like.

What limited information that we do have presents a troubling picture. Admission and matriculation rates are, not surprisingly, highly correlated to race and socioeconomic status, with wealthier students and white and Asian students showing higher admission and graduation rates than poor and working class students and black and brown students. Between admission and graduation, there are issues with the quality of the education received. A recent study involving 2,300 students’ achievement on a measure called the Collegiate Learning Assessment showed 45% of them demonstrating no significant growth between their 1st and 2nd years and 36% of them demonstrating no significant growth between their 1st and 4th years. That’s at the same time that direct spending on instruction and time spent by professors on preparing and delivering instruction have decreased.

As these things have been on the decline, grade inflation, college costs, student debt, administrative costs and staffs, and average time to degree have been on the rise. In other words: students are now paying more over a longer period of time, and getting less actual, real education for their time and money.

And no wonder, with a new Gallup poll of college administrators and presidents showing only 39% of them think the cost of a degree is "Highly Important," while 54% of them disagree that a college degree is becoming a privilege for the rich.

Mindsets, especially at the top, matter. Where people fail to see a problem, solutions are not readily in the offing. The phrase “vicious circle” comes to mind.

So, in sum, what we’ve got is a system of largely unevaluated and often ineffective education- whose students pay record costs for less contact than ever with professors, receiving grades that are often inflated, resulting in the receipt of a degree that may or may not earn them a job after college.   

Why then, when we know this, do we continue to relegate the education reform discussion to just K-12 educators and schools? Why do we continue to talk about how we need to build a generation of “college-ready” students when we know that “college ready” is not, in any way, shape, or form, the same thing as “life-ready” or “success-ready” or even “able to pay bills and taxes-ready”? In 2013, it often just means the same thing as “dropout-ready” or “Sallie Mae-ready” or “debt collection-ready.”

What we need is an honest discussion, similar to the one we’ve had on K-12, of what modern university education should look like, and how educators and university officials and university governing boards can be held accountable for student learning and outcomes. This is especially necessary given the exorbitant costs those universities are charging for degrees, and the reticence of some university instructors and officials to adopt cost-cutting measures such as online lower-division and prerequisite courses. 

Until we do that, we’ll never have real and effective educational reform: the kind that results in a world-class system of education that doesn’t just give all children the opportunity to go to college, but one that also gives all children the opportunity to live livable, sustainable lives.