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Follow the Evidence
None of higher education’s growth in the last 30 years has been in traditional institutions or traditional students. Consider an alternative to the accelerated approach to higher education.
There has been a big push within the Obama administration to team up with community colleges and to focus on degree completion, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been focused on degree completion as well. But last year, Melinda Gates resigned from The Washington Post’s board because Kaplan — a Post subsidiary — is a for-profit college. Her intent was to signal a deep commitment to public higher education, particularly community colleges, and an abhorrence of for-profit higher education.
I’ve never met Gates, but she and the Gates Foundation are committed to improving lives through their focus on health and education, and I believe the education folks in the Obama camp are not ideologues. But they collectively fail to follow a fundamental tenet of what academic training teaches us: follow the evidence, develop hypotheses to explain it and test those.
Part of the reason for this lack of diverse ideas is CLOs don’t have a voice at the table. Data might explain the phenomenon and why the administration and Gates’ wisdom might be faulty despite its good intentions. I hope for this to be an exercise in critical thinking, a reframing of a policy issue and a call to arms for CLOs.
Consider the idea that only for-profit colleges are exploitive. The world can’t be so neatly divided. Most students at elite public universities still tend to come from the upper middle class, but the institutions are heavily subsidized by the taxes of middle and lower income families. Further, if you include non-tenured and adjunct faculty, almost three-fourths of those doing the teaching at nonprofit universities are not tenured core faculty, which is about the average at for-profit universities.
The debate over nonprofit vs. for-profit is a red herring. What is important is an institution’s ability to develop people and meet their learning needs. This is where popular wisdom may be wrong.
Looking at graduation rates for proprietary colleges and comparing them to traditional schools, both the Obama administration and the Gates Foundation raised red flags. They point to six-year college graduation rates as a matter of deep and urgent concern. The implication is if we do not quickly increase the number of people going to college and graduating, we will lose the global talent war. As a consequence, millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives such as dual enrollment, early college and accelerated schooling and three-year bachelor’s degrees. The logic is if we can just get more people through college more quickly, we can regain our pre-eminence as an economy.
The evidence, however, may tell a different story, and if that story is right, then our public policies are wrong.
The assumption behind the prevailing approach is that students should be traditional. The goal is to graduate from high school, enroll in college, get a degree and seek employment. But none of higher education’s growth in the last 30 years has been in traditional institutions or traditional students. The vast majority of students now meet at least one of the federal criteria for nontraditional, and the growth in higher education has occurred in programs that cater to nontraditional students via distance learning, community colleges and for-profit colleges.
People are changing jobs and even careers much more frequently. There is also this new notion of degree entropy. Is it really the right decision to front-load all of your learning at age 18, or is it more prudent to build credentials over time?
We shouldn’t stop trying to make it easier to access higher education. But we also shouldn’t assume there is only one algorithm for that access. We need to recognize that students have diverse needs, that the world is dynamic and demanding, and that the power of American higher education is its diversity. Let’s make sure our policies don’t hurt our largest body of college students and employers, and move us away from a robust institutional environment to a template approach to higher education.
Doug Lynch is vice dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and created the first doctoral program for corporate training, the Penn CLO Program. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
Microlearning — Size DOES Matter
June 20th 1:00pm - 2:00pm CT
2013 CLO Breakfast Club, Boston
September 12th - 12th, 2013The Westin Copley Place
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