Wonk & Roll: Moving beyond access in higher education

I have just one reaction to issues raised at this week’s fine “Reinventing the University” conference sponsored by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE): How serious is higher education about change?  If we are indeed living during a period of “transformation” in higher education, as Pat Callan asserted at the NEBHE event, we have a lot of work to do and we need to do it with a greater sense of urgency.

The good news from the conference is that many of the speakers shared a similar message, with varying degrees of emphasis and effectiveness, with the packed auditorium. It went something like this: To keep America competitive higher education must change, more students need to complete degree programs, and the industry—or more precise, what the Washington Post’s Matt Miller calls the “higher education industrial complex”—needs to become more productive. The top dogs in the higher education policy community, and that includes representatives of the for-profit sector which were, congrats to NEBHE, well represented at the event—are changing the narrative from one emphasizing access to one emphasizing the Big 3: access, retention, and graduation. This has significant implications for public policy as governors, lawmakers, and institutional leaders figure out what incentives are needed to make higher education better respond to a more diverse nation which needs greater gains in college-level learning.

And what should students be learning? In the keynote address, Lumina’s Jamie Merisotis described work his foundation is doing to make it clearer what students learn in college along four dimensions—applied learning, knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic learning. We’ve spent years, a lot of money, and blood, sweat, and tears establishing learning standards for K-12. I think it is time for a similar revolution in higher education.

So what’s the bad news? I wonder who will lead the reform movement we need in Massachusetts. The higher education “debate” in our state has been mostly about some feel good legislation focused on the status and marketing of our public state colleges—soon to be state universities. I’m not against a state university system, but I do think policymakers should have used granting university status as an incentive for improvement. Meanwhile, the future of higher education, so fundamental to the well being of Massachusetts, our citizens, and our economy, receives no mention from any of the four candidates running for governor. And where’s the legislature in all this? Two of the best questions at the conference were by a member of the part-time New Hampshire House of Representatives. The Massachusetts General Court has a joint committee on higher education and it is time for them to step up to the plate and propose some big and bold reform legislation to graduate more students, stay competitive, stabilize the funding quagmire, and measure results. NEBHE’s conference showed us what needs to get done and reminded us that even though we think we have this higher education thing figured out in Massachusetts, there’s a lot to learn and we ought to take a look around once in a while and see what the other 49 states are up to.

One more thing: Congrats to the Gateway City of Holyoke for breaking ground on October 5, 2010 on an $80 million high-performance computing center. The partnership between Cisco, EMC, and university partners U Mass, Harvard, Boston University, and Northeastern will not create many jobs, but it will be a catalyst for education and training opportunities, create a buzz about Holyoke, and spark innovation in a leading sector of the state’s economy.

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