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Is Higher Education Still Higher Education?

By Eugene Hickok

The Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education (created by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to evaluate American higher education) has been pelted by more spitballs than the proverbial teacher's pet. Salvos range from pea-sized-that the commission's report used the word faculty only once and ignored the role of liberal arts and sciences-to missiles, that the commission did not produce any concrete actions and failed to define what a high-quality, 21st-century higher education should look like. The only points that detractors-and proponents (there are some)-seem to agree on is that higher education does need reform and that a lot of talking about that issue took place. Dialoguing is something academia spends a lot of time doing, Eugene Hickok, the author of one of the following two articles, has said. Hickok and Robert Zemsky, who penned the other article, were ringing the bell for higher education reform long before the Spellings Commission existed. Now in its aftermath, they offer more than just words. Zemsky, a member of the Spellings Commission, calls for "dislodging events" to transform the cost and quality of American education. Hickok-who with Zemsky was a panelist at Higher Education After the Spellings Commission: An Assessment, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in March-questions whether a college degree does, in fact, signify a college education. Two perspectives-not a pro and con but perhaps one building upon the other.

It has become accepted wisdom that American higher education is the best in the world. Competition is fierce for admission into our best colleges and universities. Only the "best" get into the "best" institutions, and students from all over the world come to the United States to go to college. One recent study coming out of China cited 17 American universities among the top 20 in the world.

So, when U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings established a commission to look into the quality and character of postsecondary education in America, it came as something of a shock-especially to the faculty and administrators. The Spellings Commission toiled for a year and delivered a series of recommendations to the secretary that touched upon a broad array of issues. There was concern about costs, of course, and improving the financial aid process. Mild hand-wringing occurred over the "disconnect" between higher education and elementary and secondary education. The commission cited the need for parents, students, tuition payers, and taxpayers to have more and better information about institutions in order to make better informed decisions. There was talk about accreditation and a perceived need to focus more on what students learn rather than on how many books are in the campus library.

Only time will tell whether any of the commission's recommendations become reality. Secretary Spellings seems determined to try to increase the pressure on colleges and universities to be able to make a stronger case for the knowledge that students acquire during their undergraduate careers. She is right to focus on undergraduate education, but her fixation on finding some way to measure college student achievement (comparable to the way student achievement is measured in K-12 education in this country) is shortsighted and misguided. Higher education is not elementary and secondary education, at least not in theory. Trying to reduce measures of student achievement in higher education to a test score is woefully simplistic and reflects a troublingly narrow understanding of the purpose of higher education. Rather, more profound and important questions should inform any discussion of undergraduate education in America: What is the purpose of higher education, and is higher education in America truly higher education?

What they don't know

One need only probe a little beneath the surface to find real problems regarding undergraduate education in this country. Study after study has produced abundant evidence that our nation's college students don't know what they need to know and don't know that they don't know it. One such study, by the National Civic Literacy Board of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (on which I serve), found that seniors enrolled in the so-called best colleges and universities know surprisingly little about American history, civics, or government. Indeed, on some campuses they know more as freshmen than they do as seniors. Another study, from the National Center for Education Statistics, found that the reading comprehension of college students has declined over the years, as if the reading comprehension skills of college students should even be in question. Still another study, coming out of the American Institutes for Research, reports that fewer than 40 percent of college students can successfully perform such relatively elementary tasks as comparing opinions between two newspaper editorials.

Then there is the troubling data regarding college and university graduation rates and attrition rates. Overall, the graduation rate hovers at about 50 to 60 percent (that's after five or six years)-lower among public institutions than private ones. Getting into a college isn't really a problem in this country, but being successful in college is. The attrition rate for students of color is more than troubling; it is a tragedy. In response, the nation's postsecondary institutions tend to put in place all sorts of remedial and developmental programs to help struggling students succeed. The number of institutions offering credit for remedial coursework has grown steadily since 1983. Moreover, the amount of time students spend in such courses has increased. In essence, because these students have not acquired a high school education in high school, higher education institutions have determined they must provide that education, along with a host of other student services, thereby creating an undergraduate support infrastructure unimaginable less than a generation ago.

Part of this situation can be traced to the democratization of American higher education that has taken place. What was once the province of a relatively privileged few is now widely available. The number and the diversity of our higher education institutions mean that almost anyone should be able to get into one of them. And the amount and the availability of financial aid have greatly expanded access. On balance that is, of course, a very good thing. The more education Americans receive, the better off they and America are, but only if they are truly getting higher education. However, a college degree does not necessarily mean one possesses a college education.

A la carte

A cursory look at what passes for undergraduate curricula shows that few institutions have anything that resembles a serious required core curriculum. Instead, students are provided a menu of course offerings from which to choose. Those offerings usually reflect the research and personal interests of faculty rather than a principled statement on the part of the institution about what a student should know and be able to do. A study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of 50 "top tier" institutions found that 30 percent did not require students to take courses in writing, close to 40 percent did not require mathematics, and almost 90 percent did not require a substantive literature course. It might indeed be a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry to have a course on the history of comic book art, but one has to ask if such a course is appropriate to satisfy a general education or core curriculum requirement.

There has also been a decline in the rigor of work undergraduates are assigned. A 2002 NCES report states that in 1998 (the most recent data available) among full-time faculty, most evaluate their students with either multiple-choice exams (56 percent) or short-answer tests (64 percent); upward of 80 percent "sometimes or never" assign term or research papers. National Survey of Student Engagement data show that almost half of the seniors reported they were not required to write a paper longer than 20 pages, and nearly a third said they were assigned to read four or fewer books during their entire senior year.

The democratization of higher education might provide an explanation for the current situation, but something else is going on. How can it be that America's colleges and universities rate highly on international indicators yet seem to be slipping when it comes to undergraduate education? The reason, at least partly, can be found in the attitude of many people working in higher education. Simply put, the rigorous education of undergraduates is something of an afterthought on too many campuses. Higher education prizes research and funds that go to underwrite research but provides few incentives for faculty to teach undergraduates. Faculty get ahead by publishing, conducting original research, and generating research dollars, not by teaching.

The answer is also partly found in the egalitarianism within the academy. Here again, faculty play a major role. Colleges and universities once embraced discrete missions and purposes, and their curricula and academic programs reflected that. But since the 1960s, embracing specific missions has been displaced by an embrace of academic egalitarianism. Who says one subject or discipline is more important than another? Why should we tell students what they must learn? Why should we limit what a faculty member can teach? In the name of openness and equality and democracy, institutions that once proudly stood for something now stand for nothing much except the unfettered pursuit of whatever, as long as it is the least bit defensible.

In such an environment, faculty are not so much scholar-teachers as they are providers of courses that students can consume like any other commodity, and students are seen as nothing more than consumers. The institutional goal becomes admitting students and satisfying them, which is not necessarily educating them. The goal is consumer satisfaction: doing whatever it takes to make students happy. I'd argue that students are not merely consumers of higher education; they are clients. Institutions and faculty have an obligation to provide for the best interests of those clients. That means making sure they receive the education they need, not merely the education they want. That requires an institution to stand for something. It requires a curriculum that stands for something. In turn, this means students might have to take some courses they wouldn't choose to take, given the freedom. It also means faculty must teach courses that meet an institution's sense of what higher education is all about.

Undergraduate higher education in America shouldn't be about merely providing courses to students to help them prepare for employment. It should be about providing an education to prepare men and women to lead full and productive lives. It should be about preparing them for the responsibilities and opportunities of self-government in a democratic republic. This includes employment, surely, but also much more. Trying to reduce education to an indicator of student achievement on a standardized test woefully misunderstands and trivializes what American higher education is supposed to be all about.

But, then again, perhaps higher education isn't really about higher education anymore.

About the Author Eugene Hickok

Eugene Hickok is senior policy director at Dutko Worldwide and Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, both in Washington, DC. He was on the faculty at Dickinson College and Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and currently teaches as adjunct faculty at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Hickok also served as deputy secretary of education during President George W. Bush's first term.




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