Forum Panelists: U.S. Higher Education Should Discard Outdated, Elitist Practices

WASHINGTON – As the United States continues to slip further from its former No. 1 spot in college degree attainment, the nation must embrace new and innovative ways to provide broader access to post-secondary education and discard the elitist practices that have characterized higher education in America for the past century.

That was the crux of the message delivered by a series of speakers Thursday at a panel discussion titled “Charting the Future of Higher Education.”

The event—funded by the Lumina Foundation and hosted by Education Sector, an independent policy analysis organization and think tank in Washington—is the capstone of the release of a college rankings guide published each September by Washington Monthly magazine.

As in the past, Thursday’s panel discussion featured higher education movers and shakers who were featured in Washington Monthly’s college rankings guide, which was created largely as the antithesis to the college rankings guide published each fall by U.S. News & World Report.

For instance, whereas the U.S. News’ rankings focus on things like selectivity, Washington Monthly’s rankings focus on social mobility or, more specifically, how many Pell Grant-eligible students earn a college degree, largely seen as a ticket to the middle class.

“The traditional approach to rankings is driving too much of what’s wrong, things such as increased selectivity and marketing,” Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis said in his welcoming remarks.

Lamenting America’s slippage from its former superior rank in college degree attainment, as noted in a recent OECD report that now ranks the nation as 15th out of 34 OECD countries in tertiary attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds, a few spots lower than in years past, Merisotis called for more to be done to find ways to broaden access to higher education.

“We think (students) need lots more options that better match students to institutions that will both challenge and prepare them for a more global future that we see reflected in these international rankings,” Merisotis said.

That’s where two of the panelists—Craig Powell, CEO of ConnectEDU, and Robert W. Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University  –- came in.

If the need to broaden access to higher education is a war, then, based on the work of Powell and Mendenhall—at least the way it was presented in the current edition of Washington Monthly—it’s going to be a war where a key battlefront is in cyberspace.

Powell’s ConnectEDU—described by co-panelist and Ed Sector policy director Kevin Carey as “the future of college admissions”—functions largely like an online matchmaking service for colleges and prospective students, although Powell says his service is more involved than simply connecting colleges and students online.

“The paradigm here is much more complicated than merely matching,” Powell said. When students live in environments where they may get incorrect messages about which college is for them, Powell said it’s important for institutional leaders to let prospective students know what they can offer—something that can be difficult if colleges only rely on obtaining names from SAT and ACT and sending out materials to takers of the college entrance exams.

“You have to get into the relationship development business and out of the marketing and facade business,” Powell said.

Mendenhall said higher education remains trapped in a past where seat time, credits and courses count for too much as opposed to competencies, which he says students can reach at varying paces. But traditional classrooms, he said, don’t engender individually-paced learning in the way done by the online Western Governors University, or WGU.

At WGU, he said, the institution defines what graduates must know how to do, “and, when they get those competencies, they graduate, irrespective of how many courses they took.”

Mendenhall also lamented that the accreditation process takes too long, typically half a decade, “so the goal is, if you can figure out how to stay in business five years without being accredited, you’ll get it.”

“We have an environment that doesn’t foster innovation or change,” Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall suggested that less emphasis be placed on regulation so that the higher education industry can reform itself.

“Today is a good time to do pilots around new models of higher education … and come up with what does the future look like, and then we can regulate it when we figure out what it looks like,” Mendenhall said.

However, Zakiya Smith Senior Advisor for Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council, said regulation must stay in place because there is a constant need to protect citizens from waste, fraud and abuse.

“We’re always open to ideas, so we’re balancing (innovation and regulation) and not harming people,” said Smith, who recounted various Obama administration reforms, such as tighter rules for for-profit colleges, new “gainful employment” rules aimed at keeping the student loan default rate below a certain threshold, and moving toward requiring for-profits to publish more easy-to-read data on labor market outcomes for students.

But one of the reasons for-profits exist, it was suggested, is because accreditation is so hard to obtain, particularly when the accrediting bodies are made up of members of existing institutions that—according to Carey, of Education Sector—“judge newcomers largely on how much they look like those who already exist.”

Instead, Carey said, “There should be a fast track to accreditation for those who make the best case, and a fast track out for those who are not serving students well.”