A recent Treasury Department report confirms that higher education increases both job opportunities and American competitiveness and that graduates, on average, earn more, are more upwardly mobile, and are more likely to be employed than high-school graduates. Nevertheless, increasingly unaffordable tuition, rocketing student debt, dismaying findings about student learning, and dismal job prospects for graduates have coalesced into a cloud of skepticism about not just the cost but the value of the college degree.
I suspect that increasingly, that skepticism will affect both the completion goal of President Obama's first term and the key higher education goal of his second: to get the cost and price of the enterprise under control. The completion goal is downright pernicious if it entails the minting of an increasingly worthless currency, and concerns about cost are likely to take the form of cost-benefit analyses.
So while we work on reducing the college degree's cost—and its price to students (which they pay in some interesting ways, according to the Plus Ça Change feature in this issue)—we need to work simultaneously on increasing the value of the credential.
The article by Richard Skinner and Emily Miller in this issue provides a detailed account of how one representative public comprehensive university has attempted to (further) minimize its costs while retaining its essential character. The authors point out, though, that such efforts, however conscientious, “may not be sufficiently fundamental, or timely, or transformative enough”—that the culture, governance structures, and leadership of higher education typically prevent colleges and universities from making the radical changes that may be necessary. Given everything from policy pressures in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin to create a $10,000 degree, to competency-based credentials, to the low- or no-cost providers who are nibbling at our lunch, I suspect that they may be right.
Some of these alternative models certainly offer viable alternatives to the traditional college experience. But before we turn every institution into Western Governors University, we ought to consider the people colleges and universities serve and how various their goals are.
I think of a young woman I know, who entered college at 18 with a desire to learn but no idea about what, who discovered a passion for art history, and who emerged at graduation a fully fledged adult. And then there's my 30-something neighbor who wants to earn a credential that will enable her to get a less mind-numbing job than the food-service one she has now and will let her better support her five kids.
I also know a 40-something man who, having never finished college and suspecting that the lack of that credential had caused his resume to be eliminated from some job-applicant piles, got the degree online. Another man I'm acquainted with is about to start a low-residency graduate program that, he hopes, will make him competitive with the credentialed young things who are entering the market while actually teaching him something he doesn't already know.
Except for the last, who remains a work in progress, we failed these people in some way or other. All of them see higher education as a path to a more lucrative, secure, and fulfilling future—that's what makes the cost/benefit analysis come out the way they and we want it to. But neither of the women has the (paying) job that she wants: The former, who lives at home, is working as a volunteer at a museum, and the latter was ejected from the remedial black hole and dropped out of school. The forty-something man had and still has a good job, but his hope to learn something he didn't already know was dashed.
The thing is, we know how to do the job right—and examples abound of our doing it that way. We know, for instance, how to help adolescent students make the transition to adulthood in the best possible way. Change has featured many articles on best practices in undergraduate education; in this issue alone, there are several.
The one by Ernest Pascarella and Charles Blaich makes it clear that we know how to, and frequently do, offer students academic value, primarily by providing clear and organized instruction. We aren't as successful at preparing students for a global future, Patti McGill Peterson and Robin Matross Helms point out; they believe that such preparation is crucial not only to students' life prospects but to the nation's prosperity and security. And James Hall recommends that we do more to encourage student risk-taking. To borrow a phrase from the last issue's Perspectives piece by Burke Smith, “student failure isn't bad.” (But then he goes on to say, “expensive student failure is,” which takes us back to the cost-benefit question.)
Finally, Catherine Sloan shows that traditional-aged students can benefit greatly from the advice of someone who encourages them to articulate and focus on their life goals and to go after the resources that they need in order to persist to the degree. Brenda Martinez, who wrote this month's Listening to Students feature, got that guidance from her sister—who ushered her into the campus community and into an enlarged sense of what “community” actually means. But not all students have big sisters, so the ball, which we too often drop, is passed to us or people such as Sloan.
Not only do adolescent undergraduates but mature graduate students need someone to show them the path that will lead them to the career and life that they want. Debra Stewart contends that it not only a practical but a moral imperative that every graduate program know how its students fare in the work world and communicate that information to prospective and current students. I doubt that my cousin had that conversation with any of her art history professors—and if she had, I suspect that they wouldn't have known what to tell her. Even the professional program that the first man attended failed to provide that kind of information.
To do better is asking a lot of faculty. We want them to teach in ways we know lead to liberal learning; to track their graduates and find out what they're doing and how well they were prepared to do it; and adjust their programs accordingly—and simultaneously to do whatever it takes to survive in the current system, which is none of the above.
Perhaps we can find them some help.
Claire Van Ummersen suggests that it would be to their institutions' advantage to harness retired faculty members' experience in the service of students. Some institutions use undergraduates—whom I heard one Nobel laureate refer to as the most underutilized academic resource in the university—the way some MOOCs are starting to employ “power users”: to help with and improve their courses. Again, this works to both their and the courses' benefit. Employers too are a teaching resource—they can give students experiences and knowledge that are invaluable in the job hunt, and programs could benefit from their feedback.
But to keep costs down, it's important for institutions to know what they are and whom they serve. Then they need to focus their resources on those things that address the values of the former and the needs of the latter. It is only by doing so that the equation benefit/cost=value can come out the way we want it to.