Addressing our Higher Education Woes

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I am stunned how many really bright people still want to fix college during the college years. OK, let’s back up. What do I mean? The biggest challenges with college, with regard to college access and completion, occur way, way before a student approaches matriculation. College access is fundamentally about academic preparation. All other issues, including finance, are secondary. When students can’t do the “math,” so to speak, they can’t go to college. The problem we have is that we let so many students who can’t do said math go to college anyway.

The remediation problem in the United States is a pandemic in the system. This year, 34 percent of undergraduate students will take at least one remedial course, half of whom will not complete the course. While 58 percent of non-remedial students will complete a BA, only 17 percent of students who take remedial reading and 27 percent of students who take remedial math will graduate.[1]

I’m not worried about students who need an updater in algebra; if you haven’t taken math for a year or so, you probably need an update because math is somewhat like language skills; if you don’t use it, you lose it. This discussion is about the perennial remediation that occurs. Bottom line: you can’t fix 13 years of schooling in one or two remedial courses. Can’t be done.

If a student cannot perform at a relatively high level in their last two years of high school, then they can’t perform similarly during college. The problem there is that the last two years of high school are somewhat wasted. Most people know that the twelfth grade is largely a waste of time. Some students pack in AP classes, but most don’t because they don’t have to. They wade in the shallow water waiting for graduation and then matriculation to college. A wasted year, for the most part.

Higher education policy cannot operate without careful and constructive concern for elementary and secondary policy. The foundation for higher education is early learning, and until we have a conscious effort to improve learning, we will not have any significant impact on college access, remediation, and ultimately success. By the way, the new common core state standards will have limited impact on student preparation.

  1. Redefine how we do elementary and secondary education. It is time to stop tinkering and just find a better way to do it. Our Pre-K to 5th grade should not be graded at all. They should be experimental and foundation years, where we work as hard as we can to have all students understand the basics of reading, writing, and, yes, arithmetic. Every student should be able to have core knowledge and processing at this point. And for those who show this early, they should be able to work forward and also learn other skills. Learning should absolutely ‘be a blast’ at this point for students. All learning should be competency based with checklists (e.g., Has Jennifer successfully completed all 10 skills in this math unit?). Kids are kids, and at 11 or 12 years old, we should still treat them that way and not put any more pressure on them. School should be fun. Period.
  2. Secondary school, starting at the sixth grade, then should start pushing students through experiential learning activities, building from elementary. Team building, learning through experimentation, and communication of their learning through presentations and reporting should be the basis for learning. Again, competency-based education is the ONLY way to go. Let students learn the “core” competencies through learning units, not dissimilar to what we experimented with 30 years ago. We would still have math and science and English, but put together differently with different focus so that students could learn the essential skills via areas of interest. The fact that we teach math the way we do is unbelievable in this day and age. Everything should be project based and that’s where the skills are indelibly stamped on students’ brains. Let students learn math through shop class, and let them learn about literature through the arts, not by sitting them down and making them read Shakespeare. Let them experience Shakespeare. And contemporary artists, to be sure.
  3. The final two years of high school should be high-level preparation for college, with those at the top completing college-level course work; those in the middle honing their basic college-level skills, and those who have less interest honing their vocational skills. For those that call this tracking, sure, it tracks, but the responsibility should fall on students and their parents. Do we want college students who think and respond with high-level critical skills? Sure, but we want our vocational students to think similarly, do we not? And no, I do not believe that all students need Algebra II, calculus, and trigonometry to learn “higher order thinking skills.” Most will never use it. I argue that 95 percent of all math used in the real world (beyond scientists) is basic algebra. So why do we teach trig (high-level trig) to all students? Bogus notion, at best. Why do we do it? Because it filters students out and gives yet another badge of honor for those at the top. Sick when you think about it. Don’t talk to me about tracking: talk to me why we do these other things that really mess with kids heads and keep them back.
  4. Once we get students to college, we should allow them more flexibility in what they want to take rather than shoving irrelevant courses down their collective throats in the early years. If a student didn’t like English in high school, why must they take certain, non-relevant English courses in college? If a student plans on becoming a journalist, why should he or she be forced to take yet another math course that has zero relevance on his or her education? Colleges are very stubborn, old systems (and yes, so are elementary and secondary education systems) that do not like to conform to a new world. Well, it’s time. The cost of college is expensive enough that I don’t think I want a self-serving and biased academic senate telling me or my children to take useless courses that cost $3,000/piece. Don’t waste our time when they could take much more relevant courses (and perhaps courses at other universities) to their studies.
  5. And why is college four years? Why does college need to be four years in this day and age? Why did I have to go to college forever to get my doctorate? Mind boggling to me that I submitted myself to such pain over the years. But because we are a credentialed society, I needed it to do what I do today: write with abandon and stream of consciousness for the reading pleasure of you. Perhaps you are right: I wasted my time. But why do we focus on 120 credit hours (at a minimum; some studies may be 140 or 145 credits)? Take out those useless courses, allow for flexibility in how we learn, and even where we learn. The MOOCs that many people are hoping disappear will not: they will form our next evolution of learning, complete with badges and other competency-based strategies. I borrow from Peter Smiths’ book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent, in suggesting the learning from the real work, in real places, should count for college credit. Just because a course is taught by a professor who, like me, went to school for far too long, doesn’t mean it is a good, or even adequate, learning experience. I’m tired of higher education telling us what higher education should be. They don’t know. They just want full classes.
  6. And then the big thing, college costs. College is far too expensive for the experience. ROI is decaying rapidly for a four-year college degree and even for a two-year degree. One could argue that we have flooded the market with BAs (I believe this) rather than with people who have a competency-based skill set that has utility in the real world. I want skills. I want to know what future employees understand and can do. If someone comes to me with experience in SPSS or SAS, I don’t really care that much what their degree is or if they have one. I want to know if they can run a bunch of numbers and solve one of my headaches. It is incumbent upon us to redo college to make it link with the real world. It doesn’t right now, except for the “professions,” which utilizes the guise of a BA for licensure. College needs to cost less. Rick Perry has the right idea in Texas. A BA should be able to cost $10,000, or at least less than $20,000: not $200,000. By the way, revenue from tuition in public higher education has risen 225 percent over the last 25 years, and 84 percent over the last decade.[2] You don’t think we have a problem here?
  7. And finally, financial aid. The price of embarking on a high tuition, high aid system is that you have to have the high aid. And we are largely failing at the state level. Just last month, the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) said that we need a new approach to financing higher education.[3] And although states still provide 51 percent of all higher education funding ($72.2 billion in 2012), [4] state funding for public higher education has dropped 11 percent over the past decade. It has increased 7.8 percent over the past quarter century, but these numbers are inflation adjusted and DO NOT account for the continued massification of our higher education system. There are more students. The cost is higher. But we have only increased state funding 7.8 percent in the past 25 years while enrollment has increased 72 percent. [5] That is simply deplorable. State grants to students have only risen 31 percent in that time.

So, this is my diatribe for the day. Something to think about. Perhaps something to get mad about. But ultimately, something that we have to do something about, because this system just doesn’t work efficiently or effectively enough.

Our higher education system is still ranked high only because our best students are among the best, and that the best from around the world still come here and fill seats. Why wouldn’t it rank high when the leaders of the Fortune 500 all went to these top schools?

Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back: our system isn’t that good (and certainly not as bad as some would have us believe). It needs to be better and we are doing very little to make it better. Our state policymakers have to step up to the plate and do some radical things. Let them start with my list above.

One thought on “Addressing our Higher Education Woes

  1. Your post [rightly] implies the elimination of standardized tests, at least in K through 6 – another impediment to educating students. Students in the US are tested to death, to the point that it is destructive to developing critical thinking skills, along with motivation and passion for learning.

    The pre-K to 5th grade in the US is seriously flawed as you point out. My oldest two children were educated in Canada in the public school system in elementary school, while my youngest here in the US from Kindergarten and on. The contrast between the two systems is stark. In Canada kindergarten up through first grade is all about play, and more play. No flash cards, no tests but learning happens through stories, art, play and games. The oldest two could read by middle of first grade in the Canadian system via this method; it was not forced through instructional methods. On the other hand my youngest could also read by first grade, but after many tests, drills, flashcards etc. However the latter child did/does not like school, is more resistant to learning in school, does not enjoy reading for pleasure while the other two read avidly. Coincidence? Perhaps, but somehow I don’t think so.

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