Destined to Fail?

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute and EPI International

For the past two decades, I have followed higher education trends and practices as part of my work at The College Board, SRI International, the Council for Opportunity in Education, The Pell Institute, and, of course, the Educational Policy Institute and EPI International. My first detail focused on student access and persistence, followed by college costs and affordability issues. In doing so, I learned much about historical education policy issues in the US, Canada, and in many other countries.

Today I continue to follow trends through our daily news outlets, including and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I am somewhat disturbed that the reports I read today are replicates of those of the 1980s and 1990s. Very little has changed with regard to access and success during the past quarter century. Internally, I am wary that it is easy to become an anachronism in our business; sounding more like an old crotchety man than a progressive and reflective policy analyst. As an analyst, I am critical by nature, and being positive when there are so many issues is challenging at best.

I am most disturbed that our policymakers have done little to deal with the impeding issues facing higher education. We know that states have not stepped up to the plate, even though Governors like to trumpet themselves as saviors of education and higher education. They aren’t. They haven’t been and they aren’t likely to become so. At the federal level, the US Department of Education is handcuffed by what they can really do for students, which is part of a much larger philosophical dialogue about the true federal role in education. The real blame lays at the feet of elected representatives at the state and federal level, who have largely shrugged their responsibility for meaningful public policy. Members of Congress, especially, who continue to act childlike in their ability to pursue shared bipartisan goals. Two thirds of members of the 113th Congress have a law degree and one fifth are “educators” in some fashion. Still, they do so little for education, even though they have arguably benefitted the most. Shame on you.

Where we have succeeded, one might argue, is in continuing to pry open the doors of opportunity. But that positive thought quickly acquiesces to the reality that access is ultimately relative. The question “Access to what?” still resonates strongly, as it did when Larry Gladieux and I wrote “Financial Aid is Not Enough” back in 1998 for The College Board Review. Those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder do not have the same access as those from affluence. In recent projects I have conducted with school districts and colleges in Ohio and Mississippi, our conclusion from 1998 rings as true today as it did then: access depends almost exclusively on the level of academic preparation our youth have. We concluded in Not Enough that “we need comprehensive reform of K-12 education to raise performance levels and to reduce the disparities in academic preparation documented above.” Couldn’t be more true today. And our dialogue about developmental education, student retention and persistence, and preparation for careers is saddled by poor teaching, poor facilities, and poor pedagogy. Nothing is equal in K-12, thus nothing should be expected to be equal at the postsecondary level. True to form, nothing is.

While we have made almost no ground in improving academic preparation in my time as an educator and policy analyst, the greatest positive is that we are redefining what higher education is on a daily basis. Whether talking about MOOGs or other avenues for learning, these new elements are beginning to pull apart the historical walls of higher education brick-by-brick. More choice of delivery, let alone redefining seat time vs. competency, puts students in the driver’s seat, as opposed to passengers on an education ride defined by obscure and obtuse faculty members in some cases.

INTERLUDE:  Drivers Seat by Sniff and the Tears

Interestingly, I just read a piece by the Community College Research Center which suggests that the increase in access to online education widens gaps in participation for non-traditional students. While an interesting analysis, I don’t buy the authors’ conclusion because I don’t think you can measure “limiting” access by curtailing the ceiling for other groups. Increasing access and success for ALL groups is important, and if one method also has an advantage for traditional or affluent college students (read: better prepared students), there is no rule that suggests we should not pursue those goals. Increasing, these opportunities do not reduce access to lower-income, first-generation students: they just may not open the door as wide as for other, more prepared students. And that’s ok in the bigger schema as long as we are also pursuing policies and practices to legitimately increase success factors for our neediest students.

I strongly believe that we are pushing higher education, finally, to a place where access will be more universal. Concerns of quality are appropriate, but they are now and they have been historically. We need to think of better ways of delivering better content at a better price. The discussions of a $10,000 college degree are not pie in the sky anymore—there is little reason to think that we can’t do some of these things. The biggest threats to moving forward are, well, universities and faculty. It is not in their best interest to see cheaper, more universal postsecondary education progress.

I still argue vehemently that we are not having the real argument of the rightful purpose of higher education in society, business, and industry. The misuse of data showcasing how well “educated” folk do compared to “uneducated” folk is unapologetically inappropriate. The battle for more and more education is as political as debt ceilings, universal health care, and sequesters. Please—let us have a real conversation and not scare families and students into taking on far too much debt for very little ROI. And let us also be real about the nexus of higher education and the workforce. As a high tech executive in Northern Virginia exclaimed in last week’s Chronicle piece on this issue, new hires are “Woefully unprepared” for work.

For now, I’ll continue reading new stories about old issues, such as March 4th’s Fixing Financial Aid, or how colleges can avoid more budget cuts. I’ll also read, with excitement, the $40,000 for Student Who Sued Over Guinea Pig and Why I Didn’t Go to Dubai.


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