Both the Gates and the Lumina foundations are pushing for changes to allow more college students to graduate quickly and at lower cost. The Obama administration seems on the verge of announcing a major effort in a similar direction. Will these initiatives help or hurt higher education?
Change is coming. In July, President Obama announced that an “aggressive strategy to shake up the [higher education] system” would be unveiled this fall. Though the details of the shakeup are not yet known, the Obama administration has made it clear that it wants more students to graduate from college more affordably.
Meanwhile, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in the past five years to reform higher education. Likewise, the Lumina Foundation contributed more than $30 million last year toward its goal of increasing the number of Americans with “college degrees, certificates, and credentials” to 60 percent by 2025.
How will this fast-track approach affect traditional four-year colleges? We asked 245 leaders of colleges and universities with Phi Beta Kappa chapters about the future, and about 13 percent kindly responded. About half of those warn that higher education will suffer from the mass-market training model—especially public universities. “Although not the intent of Gates, Lumina, or Obama, [their approach] potentially provides political cover for disinvestment from public universities and from aid programs that have traditionally allowed the poor and middle class access to the best of American higher ed,” wrote Stephen E. Thorsett, president of Willamette University. Others, including Stanford University President John Hennessy, pointed out that more students could result in “less student-faculty contact.” Perhaps education is a dish best served slowly, most presidents agreed. “A focus on expediency will certainly undermine quality education,” wrote H. James Williams, president of Fisk University.
Almost 30 percent of responders, however, said the Gates-Lumina mindset might help. “Too many students take too long (at too much expense) to complete their college degrees—if they complete them at all,” wrote Steven Poskanzer, president of Carleton College. “Efforts to keep students in school and to facilitate the completion of degree programs … need not be a threat.”
With a college degree, more people might enroll in graduate school. “If we start focusing on how to help students achieve success more rapidly it allows them to follow post-graduate education or to enter the workforce more efficiently,” noted Lisa S. Coico, president of the City College of New York, who answered “help” to our question.
Another 24 percent answered “neither” to our query, many adding that it’s too soon to tell. “Neither [Gates and Lumina] nor the President can influence things much,” wrote John Roush, president of Centre College. “The future will belong to those colleges and universities that are focused on quality and value, open to fresh ideas, and committed to preparing students for lives of work and service, not just pickin’ up degrees.”
Many other presidents elaborated on their responses:
Help. While the college completion initiatives of Lumina are helpful, the college cost debate seems to me to foster a virulent vocationalism that fails to address intrinsic questions of quality. We need to keep focused on why we educate students. Liberal education is even more important for ALL students in the 21st century than ever before. Initiatives that address access and completion rates (or narrow workforce needs) are not enough. If these initiatives lose sight of the purposes of college education, they will be in vain. If they clear away some of the questions about cost and access, they will be somewhat helpful. I’m not sure that that will be so, however.
—Christopher C. Dahl, State University of New York at Geneseo
Actually, I wish there had been an option for “Both” instead of “Neither.” I think the initiatives proposed by the foundations have the potential for helping some students who really need to move through college more quickly and less expensively than current models allow. However, I’m also concerned that encouraging rapid movement through college will undermine many of the important educational experiences of residential liberal arts college that inspire creative thinking, that cultivate meaningful relationships, and that lead to the transforming of lives.
—Rob Pearigen, Millsaps College
Neither. It’s a trade-off. Helping more men and women get to and through college can’t be a bad thing. But the issue is quality of the learning experience, not time spent or pursuit of a credential that isn’t backed by solid learning.
—Dale T. Knobel, President Emeritus, Denison University
Hurt. A quality education takes time. Training can be done in a shorter time, not education. The two foundations need to understand that training is preparation for the expected, education is preparation for the unexpected. Our world is filled with the unexpected. Faster graduation does NOT equate to a better education. I am all for lower cost!
—Gen. Charles C. Krulak, Birmingham-Southern College
Help. This proposal has the merit of allowing some students to lower college costs and realize the opportunity cost of getting a job in the marketplace or into grad school sooner. Two caveats: (1) this idea should not be oversold; it is not advisable for every student. In fact, I do not see more than 10-20% of all students taking advantage. (2) schools need to think through how an expedited pathway can instill the same values and virtues we associate with the more traditional four-year pathway, especially since the Obama administration is unlikely to commit any additional funding to support this policy idea. Should the White House want to do and not merely talk, it should consider making federal assistance (e.g., Pell grants) more flexible so that students could take the full amount of money they might receive over four years and apply it to pay their expenses over three years.
—Mitchell B. Reiss, Washington College
Hurt. The focus should be on the learning and the quality of the experiences, rather than on the length and cost. I am afraid that we, as a nation, are losing the proper perspective. Indeed, a focus on expediency will certainly undermine quality education.
—H. James Williams, Fisk University
While the effort is well meant, it is likely to lead to dilution of the learning experiences and less student-faculty contact. Change is necessary, but first, we need to understand how to change. The K-12 experience of change first, measure later, is not an inspiring model.
Neither. Mr and Mrs. Gates are good people with generous hearts, but neither they nor the President can influence things much. We—the leadership in the American Academy—must take charge. The future will belong to those colleges and universities that are focused on quality and value, open to fresh ideas, and committed to preparing students for lives of work and service—not just pickin’ up degrees.
—John Roush, Centre College, President
Help. Graduates with Bachelor’s degrees will earn more over their lifetime, as our graduates do better so does higher education and our individual colleges.
Help. “Quickly” is of course an unclear term. The public probably thinks that means less than four years. But if one looks at actual completion rates, four years would in fact be more “quickly” and less costly. And what about those for-profit or online entities that have astonishingly low completion rates?
—John M. McCardell, Jr., The University of the South, Sewanee, TN
Neither. Obviously, it depends upon how the initiatives intend to acheive these goals.
—George Bridges, Whitman College, Walla Walla Washington
Help. If we start focusing on how to help students achieve success more rapidly it allows them to follow post-graduate education or to enter the work force more efficiently. This is critical, especially for first generation college students where achieving the dream of a college degree can transform not only their lives, but the lives of their families for generations to come.
—Lisa S. Coico The City College of New York
Neither. It is too soon to tell about the initiative. Many of our students—our brightest—already graduate early because of AP credits, summer school etc.
—Donna Shalala, President University of Miami
Hurt. They will focus on the wrong thing: time to graduation. The quality of the experience and the amount of learning will get thrown under the bus.
—David Anderson St. Olaf College
Hurt. It’s a misunderstanding of what education, or at least a liberal education is about.
—John Neuhauser, Saint Michael’s College, Vermont
Help. Viewing the higher education enterprise from a nationwide perspective, it is undeniable that too many students take too long (at too much expense) to complete their college degrees—if they complete them at all. Too much human and financial capital is wasted is being. Efforts to keep students in school and to facilitate the completion of degree programs are important, and should be encouraged. They need not be a threat to more traditional, four-year residential college courses of study.
—Steven Poskanzer, Carleton College
Hurt. Amplifies growing divergence between the traditional, high-intensity, liberal arts model and the low-cost, mass-market training model of higher ed, and (although not the intent of Gates, Lumina, or Obama) potentially provides political cover for disinvestment from public universities and from aid programs that have traditionally allowed the poor and middle class access to the best of American higher ed.
—Steve Thorsett, Willamette University
Hurt. I am concerned that the completion agenda is not sufficiently focused on quality and that it will result in a continued divide in terms of student preparation for employment and civic life.
—Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, Kalamazoo College
Hurt. These initiatives have the potential to decrease the quality of higher education. Educational quality is a bigger problem than access.
—Dennis Ahlburg, Trinity University
Hurt. It further reduces education to a “commodity outcome” by assessing the time and monetary costs of “production.” This phenomenon has already worsened the quality K-12. Its impact on higher educations will be equally destructive.
—Charles M. Edmondson, Alfred University
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