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Assessing the Academy for 21st-century Performance

If the role of higher education is to prepare citizens to engage in critical thought, lifelong self-development and, by so doing, enhance an ever-evolving world, then the academy must also evolve. Higher education, as it is currently configured, was designed to serve a homogeneous student population in a far less complex world.

The quality and quantity of change from that less complex world to this 21st-century reality with its knowledge economy, shifting demographics and graying phenomenon, among others, require an elastic postsecondary paradigm that anticipates change and rises to each opportunity. From pedagogy to venue, curriculum to funding, the paradigm has shifted, and the academy must look forward and learn how to meet new needs.

Some attention to this need for change is evidenced in ways such as new Carnegie classifications for institutions whose curriculum requires community engagement, more focused attention to improving access for urban and rural communities and an increased conventional wisdom that even “traditional” students are not likely to complete an undergraduate degree in four years.

However, these changes alone cannot achieve the systemic shifts that must occur before citizen, then community, then nation move forward as an educated democracy.

And what of those institutions whose mission is committed to the service of new populations entering higher education — adult learners, part-time students, English as a second language learners, heads of household, single parents, populations of color and others? How will those institutions be assessed by governing bodies whose focus on retention and graduation, in “non-elastic” terms, does not comprehend the new students’ commitment to “persistence” over “finish-in-four” based on life circumstance? And as “mainstream” institutions seek this burgeoning student market, how will they ensure the creation of learning environments that will recruit, retain and graduate?

If the American academy is to prepare new and “traditional” populations for new questions based on new perspectives, then the institutions that facilitate that preparation cannot be penalized for not adhering to past measures of institutional success. Specifically, if colleges and universities are assessed and allocated resources based on standards established to assess a homogeneous student population, then those institutions that serve the 21st century’s heterogeneous student population will be penalized.

As American institutions that serve heterogeneous student populations seek out their peers to problem solve and identify best practices, they often seek measures of comparability that oversight bodies neither measure nor appreciate as significant. Further, some characteristics that are coincidental to the lifestyle and/or life course of new groups stand in antithesis to 20th-century assessment indicators by which institutions are often measured.

Indicators, such as percent of students receiving financial aid and percent of parttime enrollees, assist heterogeneous institutions in addressing the core challenges with which they and their students are confronted. New student populations face a myriad of challenges based on their unique needs that require additional resources. Yet, if the institutions that serve them are penalized because of, for example, low graduation rates — since working youth and adults who enroll part time because of family obligations take longer to graduate — then these factors and others negatively impact competition for limited resources.

Another critical component of the academy’s forward movement must be to work, in structured ways, with pre-K through 12th grade environments. The Spellings Commission Report provided candid data about the dissonance between grade school and postsecondary educators’ perceptions of student preparedness for higher education. If the professionals are at odds, how will the youth move forward?

In many ways, the current circumstance in which the academy finds itself represents a stage on which the multiplicity of unresolved social, cultural, political and economic issues with which America has always been confronted are being played out. Perhaps this time, the populations seeking entry have reached proportions of such breadth and depth that all corners of all communities are impacted. Perhaps this time we will realize that the absence of access for any one group negatively impacts us all.

— Dr. Beverly M. John is the interim vice president for enrollment management & administrative services at Chicago State University.

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