What they said at the panel on the future of higher education.

Since many of you were kind enough to suggest questions to ask of Margaret Spellings at SJSU's Founders Day "The Future of Higher Education" panel last Friday, I thought I should report back on that session.

First, the bad (but utterly predictable) news: while Margaret Spellings gave the keynote address, she didn't stick around for the panel discussion afterwards -- so she wasn't there for the question and answer period. However, the panel of experts certainly had something to say about the Spellings Commission report on higher education.

It was striking, as CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed introduced the panel, that his framing of our educational mission had the workforce as the goal -- not one goal among many, but really as the only goal worth caring about. Even when he mentioned the "intellectuial community", it was to point out its instrumental value in boosting the economic base.

In her keynote address, Spellings at least paid lip-service to the idea that the economy isn't the only reason we should care about higher education. She said that there was a "moral imperative" to provide education because it is a central part of "what it takes to lead fuller lives" and plays an important role in helping people discover their "passions and potentials".

Then, of course, she launched in on the economic imperative, the importance of higher education on producing the more educated workforce required by a global economy, and so forth. With the high price of higher education, college is an investment, so students and their parents need more transparency so they know what they're getting for their money. There's some merit to this, but I have concerns about casting students as customers and education (or grades? the diploma?) as a "product". I think becoming an educated person is more complicated than buying a major appliance.

Anyhow, noting that a college diploma is now pretty much a requirement for a decent job (and, I would note, that it is no guarantee of securing such a job), Spellings emphasized the importance of math and literacy and "rigorous" classes (though she didn't actually spell out what she meant by rigor), not to mention "aligning courses with workplace needs". She also called for putting information about the "value added" of a college education at one institution versus another in the hands of students and parents. In principle, more information is better, but I'm not sure how exactly one is supposed to capture all the different factors that contribute to the educational experiences at very different institutions. It's not just apples and oranges you'd want to compare here, but the whole farmers' market. As well, while I'm all for math and literacy, on their own they don't take you very far -- critical thinking, imagination, and love of learning get you so much further, at least as a human being setting your own ends, if not as a cog in the capitalist workforce.

After Spellings departed, we got to the panel of experts:

Jon C. Iwata, senior vice president of communications at IBM: Globalization is not some future that's coming, but a reality right now. Multinational corporations like IBM need leaders who can think globally rather than nationally, to lead global teams that are geographically dispersed. To do this, one needs to understand different languages and cultures. In other words, numeracy and literacy aren't sufficient. As well, the pioneering of new fields requires innovation, which is different from invention. (The precise different wasn't explained -- Iwata was trying hard to stay in his allotted time.) Web 2.0, social networking, and social media will also play a central role in the fit between higher education and the global workforce, since a generation with the means to produce and share information are suddenly on stage all the time. The need for authentic corporations and leaders, said Iwata, means that a crucial part of higher education will be teaching values.

Tom Ehrlich, senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: A key goal of higher education about which the Spellings Commission report is silent is the cultivation of good citizens. Education plays a fundamental role in the sound functioning of our democracy, and so civic knowledge, skills, and engagement are extremely important. Ehrlich said a lot of good things about service learning, and said a key part of our mission is nurturing citizens who interact with, learn from, and grow with each other. (I'd probably broaden this to citizens of the global community, given the significant number of our students who aren't U.S. citizens.)

Gerardo Gonzalez, director of the National Latino Research Center: The pipeline to a college degree is leaking like you would not believe, partly due to expectation gaps and partly due to transitional issues (i.e., getting the support you need to make the patterns of your life fit with the patterns you need to get through college). The challenge is looking at the data (which I found really depressing -- even in the demographic groups with the best throughput, the percentage of students making it all the way to a bachelors degree was much lower than I expected) and working out how to create pathways that get students all the way through. First, of course, you have to help student navigate pathways to college, rather than deciding that what they ought to do is join the workplace right out of high school. This will require a change in the culture (or cultures -- not just expectations at home, but expectations from the rest of society). In California, a big leak for Latino/a first-time frosh seems to happen at the community college level; just over 10% transfer to universities in the UC or CSU systems to start work on a four year degree, which means for almost 90%, the AA degree is the end of the line.

John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley: The U.S. is falling behind relative to other developed countries; the U.S. is currently the only developed country where the older generation will have a higher educational attainment than the younger generation. The Spellings report focuses on squeezing all the efficiency out of the existing structure rather than making substantial improvements to that structure. Such improvements (at least in the public university systems, where about 75% of U.S. college students are enrolled) will probably require partnerships between the federal governments and the states of the sort seen in the 1950s and '60s. And, since "domestic policymaking in the U.S. is dead for the next two years," it's time to think about how to gear up for the next administration in terms of creating quality and making it grow in the public sector.

Alma R. Clayton-Pedersen, vice president of the Association of Americal Colleges and Universities: What do college graduates need to know and to be able to do? It's not the piece of paper that should matter; the real value of a college education is much deeper and broader than that, and it's a mistake to put all the focus on workplace preparation narrowly defined. Essential learning outcomes (about which much more here) include:

  • knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • intellectual and practical skills (including inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, and teamwork and problem solving)
  • personal and social responsibility (which includes civic knowledge and engagement and ethics)
  • integrative learning

It's important stuff, and you can't reduce it to a set of standardized tests.

It was a good panel. It would have been interesting to watch Spellings try to respond to some of the panelists' points, if only she had stayed.

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I suspect the IBM speaker (where patents rule) takes that approach to invention vs. innovation. Cherry-picking from M-W online dictionary try:
invention: discover; a device, contrivance or process originated after study and experiment
innovation: the introduction of something new; novelty [emphasis added]

For me an interesting difference. But then you know my background.

By Super Sally (not verified) on 09 May 2007 #permalink

Spellings is an idiot, a typical Bush appointee; the only thing that can be done with her is wait for the admin change so she can be sacked.

We go to college for math, literacy & values? Are you kidding? Who needs K-12 or families these days, anyway?

For Spellings and Iwata, education is another assembly line. It sounds like she imported a good dose of ideology regarding K-12 into her higher-ed policy. What sort of values does Iwata mean? Don't lie, cheat or steal?

I think I like Ehrlich and Clayton-Pedersen the best. (At least your summaries of them.) But you could have guessed that from the comments I made last week! And I like the AACU's learning outcomes and objectives. It would be interesting to hear more specifics (i.e. talking points) arguing against standardized testing.

Thanks for the follow-up post.

Thanks Janet, for the follow up. This comment: "It was striking, as CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed introduced the panel, that his framing of our educational mission had the workforce as the goal" just sent chills up my spine. It's starting at the elementary school level and they want to continue up the whole education system. It scares me.

Somehow, if given the choice, I can't see many college students spending years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars of their money to get "fuller lives". I suspect most students want to acquire useful skills, then get out of college and on with their lives - if they have time to spare, they might go to a few courses out of curiosity and interest, but not as many, or the types, that they are now required to.

When there's no market for what you have to sell, controlling what does sell and attaching your product to it can be a very effective strategy.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 09 May 2007 #permalink

Some of the panelists might be down with "Cultivating Humanity" by Martha Nusbaum from U. Chi. Rather sophisticated treatment of the non-technical things that can be gotten from a higher education that are not merely of economic value, but also of personal and social value.

I notice a tension between economic output and academic sensibilities here. I have sympathies somewhere in the middle, especially since I am finishing up my own law degree. Economists have injected some of their pesky ideas into the legal academy, and one is "regulatory capture," which is a beaut because it gives me a basis to critique the legal academy. The idea of regulatory capture is that those in power and making decisions that are supposed to be in the public interest have a vested interest in the outcomes of their decisions, and as a result decisions tend to be directed for the benefit of the decision maker. For example, at one prominent public law school, a space deficit means student organizations (including academic legal publications) are being dislocated into cramped quarters, but the faculty and administration get some extra elbow room and lose nothing. It is unclear how this move is supposed to improve the outcome that the law school has as its nominal purpose--turning out better lawyers. It reeks of regulatory capture.

Outcomes matter, though some are hard to impossible to quantify. They matter to the students and they should matter to the academy as well. I ditched a previous academic track because there was not an iota of interest in the outcomes; undergraduate education was something you held your nose while you did it shoddily in order to get to what it was really about--research. I would hope there are more people like me in academy than there were in the department I ditched.

By Unlearned Hand (not verified) on 10 May 2007 #permalink