Weathering Education…

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I have been burdened with a week in Southern California. Tough gig. First in Dana Point attending the College Board’s Annual Colloquium, followed by a Conference Sponsored by the University of Southern California. Just to put this in perspective, it was 22F when I left Virginia; 76 here. Tough gig.

My key take-aways from both events, not to “take away” from the events, is that no one has a clue, or at least won’t admit, our frailties in education. I have about had it with the presentations saying we need more and more and more higher education. We don’t. We just need better.

Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation for Education, made a convincing case for their 60 percent challenge: to get 60 percent of our youth into and through college. I’ve traditionally had a problem with this philosophy. I think it is overkill, to an extent. But Jamie caressed the message enough to get me on board (I’m sure he is relieved). First, the 60 percent isn’t just university level, but also two year, and more importantly, other trades and avenues of post-high school. Truly postsecondary education. I think this is important because the United States has never regarded “trades” as an important part of our economy. In fact, our economy would disintegrate without sub-AA trained persons. These are the jobs that literally put America to work. These are the jobs that are recession proof. Regardless of globalization, these jobs will always be here because we cannot live without them.

Perhaps more importantly, Jamie acknowledged that it isn’t just about getting the numbers, but getting quality numbers. This is my core issue. We don’t need more. We need better. We need graduates of all programs and all levels coming out with better skills; a better education. We have become a credentialed society. We don’t need more credentials. We need better skills. Our system of higher education has produced too many people at the AA, BA, MA, and Ph.D. levels who don’t live up to their letters. They did the seat time. But they didn’t learn very much. They have glutted the market.

To meet Lumina’s goals–to meet the needs of our nation–we have much work to do. We need the various stakeholders to work together in an unheralded fashion. As Jane Wellman said in yesterday’s afternoon panel, public and private non-profit colleges have a public responsibility to serve the public. And instead of protecting their self interests, they should do better to serve that public. But over the past century, we have developed an incredibly competitive environment in higher education where everyone fights for anything they can get… Michael Vick would be proud. But the idea of serving the public is minimized.

Disappointing, as usual, is the accounting of the Washington Secretariat, here represented by ACE and AASCU, that played the same politics as usual. If membership groups like those in the Secretariat continue to think only of their members and not of the world beyond, we won’t get anywhere. One comment about the Obama Administration yesterday by a panelist wondered if the President was creating a Ministry of Education? I guess that remark was subtly suggesting that this would be a form of socialism, like in France, England, and yes, cold, cold Canada. I offer this: how well have we done with a devolved system of 50 states in terms of equity, quality, and opportunity? Maybe the federal government needs to take a stronger role? Regardless, somehow, some entity needs to point the states in a coordinated fashion in education, from K through graduate studies. Institutions aren’t doing enough. They are too self-serving. I mentioned this in a prior commentary in 2009. A new consortium or leadership organization to provide direction, like an education UN.

Another challenge we have in getting there is, as another panelist mentioned, every institution would be a Research I institution if they could, because there wasn’t a mission creep a President didn’t like. It makes them look better; more important. They simply forget that it isn’t about them. It’s about students. Students don’t care about mission creep. They care about getting a job and the appropriate training to guide them to that place.

We have much work to do.

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