The Problem with Higher Education

By Watson Scott Swail, President, EPI International and the Educational Policy Institute.

This morning I sat in on the OECD Institutional Management in Higher Education Conference in Paris listening to a panel on the need to do more with less in higher education. The illustrious panel included representatives of Open University, Cisco Systems, and others, and was moderated by my friend and colleague, Peter Smith of Kaplan Higher Education.

My take, to a point, is that there is a significant and real disconnect between those who have filled roles at traditional, government-run higher education and those who live, dare I say, in “the real world.” The disconnect is that those who reside at the former are focused on increasing access to an anachronism of a learning system, held together only by the mortar laid by brick masons educated at those lowly trade schools. The latter—from business, industry, and private higher education, to a degree—are focused on creating a new manner of acquiring and using knowledge, not for pure intellectual pursuit, but to answer real world issues.

Charles Fadel of Cisco Systems USA suggested that today’s students (and by extension their parents) do not go to university to learn. Rather, they go to earn a credential. I’ve argued for some time that in all the talk about diploma mills, especially with regard to for-profit higher education, higher education has essentially become just that: a diploma mill for students to earn credentials to gain access to employment which not quite enough dialogue about the learning benefits.

This argument is not to take issue with what Tony Carnevale has recently said about the need for more and more higher education. He correctly surmises that we are producing more and more of the wrong type of education—education that is outdated, outmoded, but one that still provides the credentials that students yearn to earn.

This morning, Peter Smith added that we have built an entire system on scarcity and “winnowing out” those who don’t belong without focusing on teaching and learning. As Peter said, the “culture” of higher education almost always trumps change, and this culture focuses on job protection and keeping things as similar as they are.

Many people do not subscribe to this viewpoint, especially in the United States. But I argue that the US, in particular, is so far behind the proverbial eight ball compared to other nations that any talk of reclaiming our place as a global leader is amiss in so many ways. We are more convinced that simply increasing access—getting to that 60 percent degree-attainment mark, will change our country. News flash—it won’t. The only thing that will change us is changing how and what we do at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. Until we change the core of teaching and learning in our education system, all we are doing is bestowing more credentials on more students who come out the other end with little skills or knowledge. And more debt.

Charles Fadel spoke of how he has pushed his daughter to focus on getting a good education during high school and to not focus on grades, per se. Now he, like other parents, focuses excessively on grades because they matter in today’s cut-throat higher education system. They need to get in to the right institution so that they earn the right credential. And with the new world rankings that just came out, we hammer another nail into defining quality simply by counting beans. It shouldn’t be so.

I also find it interesting that, while Congress continues to fire bullets at the for-profit industry, they are doing little to look at the disconnect of which Carnevale speaks. The for-profit schools—those that are far more innovative educationally than traditional higher education—are an easy target for Congress. But we need to be more holistic in our review of higher education. There are bad actors on every corner in higher education. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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