Fixing Higher Education: Cheap, but Not Easy

“Beyond The Ivy Islands
Steven Brint
Los Angeles Review of Books
July 29, 2012

In a stirring review of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,  Andrew Delbanco‘s call for reform of American higher education, Professor Steven Brint of UC Riverside offers what has to be one of the most scathing yet hopeful and non-partisan critiques of the college experience. Refusing to offer soft palliatives, Brint tells us that there will always be an inequality in the education delivered at Ivy-league schools and the rest of American universities. The challenge is to keep that difference as thin as possible. Unfortunately, the gap is growing, and the problem is not only – or even mostly – funding.

Brint knows of what he speaks. He is not only a professor but as Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Affairs he is also one of U.C. Riverside’s senior administrators. As the University of California weathers a brutal if not existential budget crisis, Brint would be forgiven if he blamed the economy.

But Brint doesn’t even go there. Instead he turns to fire upon his own, professors and administrators who have succumbed to the efforts of non-academics to turn most of America’s universities into mass-production polytechnics. The fault (he seems be saying to his fellows) lies not in our spreadsheets, but ourselves.

In the process he manages to kill or wound a herd of higher-ed sacred cows: online education is not the solution, it may be the problem; most four-year institutions carry a large number of students who coast through the program at minimal effort, and are allowed to do so in the name of cranking them out.

He concludes his brilliant discourse with a brief but powerful list of recommendations, not least of which is:

A second improvement will be to infuse into the regular curricula special high-impact academic opportunities as often as possible. The goal is to reproduce something of the private college experience in settings where lecture courses will inevitably dominate. These special opportunities include year-long course sequences exploring different facets of a broad topic of public or scholarly interest in which students take courses with the same group of peers to build a sense of academic community. Other such opportunities include one-unit freshman seminars to bring students into immediate contact with faculty, new study abroad opportunities, expanded faculty-mentored research opportunities, and culminating experiences for seniors in which students are expected to produce an independent work of scholarship, research, or creative activity with the help of a faculty advisor.

Brilliant stuff, and in the context of his other recommendations doable without significant cost increases. He struck several other chords as well, including the stupidity of “no-frills” degree programs and for-profit higher education.

As I read through his essay, I was struck by two things.

First, the people running our great public universities are a veritable storehouse of solutions to the problems we face in higher education. Any intelligent state or national leader with a genuine interest in the future of the country would find a way – ways – to capture that thinking and start making some changes.

Second, despite Professor Brint’s defense of the concept of “a university education for all,” I remain unconvinced that a four-year college education immediately following high school is the right answer for everybody. While he deprecates  community colleges and politicians like Bobby Jindal who seem to want to use them as glorified trade-tech schools, he contends that little if any good really comes out of such institutions.

He may be right about community colleges, but the answer is to change them, not to discard them. Just as we need to follow Brint’s advice and rethink the delivery of the 4-year liberal arts degree, we have to do the same for every other facet of our modern educational system.

Community colleges need to go back to either being “junior colleges” preparing students for transfer into universities, or polytechnics preparing (or retraining) students for the trades, technical vocations, or industrial engineering. High schools have to be re-jigged so that the diploma means more than just “I didn’t drop out.”  And all of this needs to be done in a way that teaches students to become lifelong learners.

Finally, neither community colleges nor universities should be forced to offer and administer courses designed to bring high-school graduates to a minimally-acceptable competency in college prerequisites. High School classrooms doing double-duty as night school will do fine, with such programs operated by the school board with standards forged in the public university system.

We can argue the particulars, but first we need to agree that we need to start coming up with better, more thoughtful, and more creative answers to the problems of American education than simply throwing more money at it. The answers are out there, and I’m betting the educators have most of them.

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