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Policy Report Says Reform Critical to Viability of U.S. Higher Education

In order for public colleges and universities to remain viable and effective in the coming years, higher education leaders must revamp the way they do business and refocus on delivery modes that lead to higher rates of completion.

Such are the main messages in a new report titled Front and Center: Critical Choices for Higher Education.

Produced by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, the report calls on higher education leaders to “take several actions, none of them comfortable.”

Those recommendations essentially call for a leaner, meaner higher education system, if you will, that focuses more on accountability, using online and other technology to get better results, de-emphasizing “general education” and keeping a tight rein on research.

The report—borne largely through a meeting convened in December 2010 in Charlottesville, Va., by the Miller Center, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices—drew both praise and sharp criticism in various quarters of higher education.

Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, called the report “essentially schizophrenic” for its endorsement of liberal education on the one hand but then calling for certain students to bypass liberal education altogether.

“Whatever you’re majoring in, whether medical records or engineering, everybody needs big-picture knowledge,” Geary Schneider said, explaining that liberal education inculcates essential things such as critical thinking and ethics.

Stan Jones, founder and president of Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to increase degree attainment, particularly for traditionally underrepresented populations, credited the report with calling attention to the role that government can play.

However, he said he disagreed with the report’s suggestion that the federal government act as a “convener” of state leaders on higher education.

“I don’t think that makes much sense,” said Jones, explaining that the power to determine things such as tuition, appropriations and charters is reserved by the states.

The report also evoked some skepticism for its not-so-subtle presupposition that its recommendations will radically change America’s higher education and economic landscape.

“I do not think that state or federal policy-makers can enact changes in policy that will cure the problems of cost, degree completion and employment,” said Bill Barrett, Executive Director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art & Design and a vocal critic of various efforts to formulate more standards.

“These issues are way too complicated and interwoven with global forces beyond our control, for a simple gathering like the one at the Miller Center to have any meaningful effect,” Barrett said.

The primary recommendation of the Miller report is to “promote and reward institutional changes that advance the completion agenda.”

But this also includes allocating greater percentages of operating budgets to instruction, reducing the number of adjuncts and requiring permanent faculty to teach more courses while letting go of other interests or assignments.

The report also calls for colleges and universities to “evaluate and reduce administrative overhead” and shifting the savings to the area of advising.

“Many institutions have grown used to spending their money on things that may not reflect the needs of the states or regions that they are supposed to serve,” the report states.

The report also calls on states and the federal government to “focus research efforts at fewer institutions” and say clearly that the “research” obligation of the great majority of faculty members is simply to remain in their current fields.

“Relatively few of them,” the report says, “are going to make historic contributions to human knowledge.”

The report states further: “The past few decades have seen far too many colleges and universities engage in a rush toward elite status. The more selective an institution is, the better. The more research money it collects, the better. The higher it ranks in national and international publications, the better. But what has the race for status contributed to the public good?”

Geary Schneider, of AAC&U, said it’s wholly wrongheaded and shortsighted to view research in such a way.

“The U.S. investment in research and the advancement of knowledge as a core mission of higher education is what helped us become a world leader in higher education in all fields,” Geary Schneider said, “and it’s simply folly to imagine the United States can pull back its investment in research and advance knowledge and still be a world-class higher education system and society.”

Not everyone agreed. Barrett, for instance, said he was aligned with the report’s stance on research, increased faculty responsibilities and other issues.

“I generally agree that we will need to focus research at fewer, mega universities; we will need to increase teaching loads at most other colleges; we will surely need more flexible delivery systems, and we will need more coordination, cooperation and data,” Barrett said.

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