In the report “American Higher Education: How Does It Measure Up for the 21st Century?”, James B. Hunt Jr. and Thomas J. Tierney explore educational leadership and look at higher education from an outsider’s perspective. Hunt references the land grant acts of the 19th century and the GI Bill of the 20th century as major education initiatives in this country: what will be that initiative for this century?
This is a good question, and in the area of standards, it would be great to see a return of true value to the degrees being issued by today’s institutions of higher learning. But what would this education initiative look like? More testing? Probably not, since there is plenty of that already.
A 2005 report argued that only 31% of college graduates were truly literate (http://tinyurl.com/agz6b): “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder”. The knowledge and information from rigorous testing may be there, but the ability to use that information/knowledge in a productive way is not there.
The answer isn’t more testing; it’s more practical application of knowledge in the classroom and outside of the classroom that is needed in the 21st century. In this day and age, students have access to more information than ever before in human history; for the immediate future, we need to have standards established mandating a higher level of ability to actually use that knowledge.
One of the five major areas Hunt covers in his writing above is this concept of “learning”: what exactly is being learned in college and how can it be measured? From the results of the literacy exploration, we can see learning is short-circuiting between the acquisition of knowledge and the use of that knowledge.
A personal anecdote I’d like to share from my own teaching experiences demonstrates this lack of ability and perhaps a reason why. Once upon a time, my beginning-composition sections did an in-depth study of Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” commencement speech from the late 1970s. Two months later, the essay prompt for their final – chosen by the department and assigned to every section of beginning composition at the campus – was taken from this same Rich piece.
How many of my students remembered the 75-minute class session we spent dissecting the reading? None. How many of my students even remembered Rich’s name? One, out of 71 students who completed the course and took the final.
Where in this process is learning coming to a halt? They read, they learn on the spot, but then they forget. They don’t retain the information for future use; they don’t have the ability to file away information for unknown future use. If they don’t see an immediate application for the information, they tend to forget it.
Hunt writes, “The fundamental educational challenge of our times is to get more people better educated and get most of them through postsecondary education.” But it’s not enough to just “get them through”; to some extent, we’ve already been doing that. The challenge lies within getting them through with serious abilities that will be of use in a post-graduation world. For as much as Hunt discusses “learning”, he doesn’t really pursue it. He returns to the same ideas of access and affordability, without recognizing standards are the third part of that ever-important equation.
Access and affordability mean nothing unless what it attained actually has value at the other end, and this is where the standards come in. For a vision of the 21st century, Hunt – a four-term governor in the state of North Carolina – seems to lack clarity and focus on what is truly important.
This isn’t a new, strange concept at all. In the same article, Tierney addresses the urgency of the above lack of focus when he writes “As Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, chair of the National Governors Association, [once] said, ‘Knowledge-based jobs are going to go where the knowledge workers are.’ And the promise of economic growth and prosperity is going to go with them. Indeed, the stakes could hardly be higher for the states and the nations in this competition. At issue is whose standard of living will rise and whose will fall in a global economic environment that demands ever larger numbers of highly trained and educated workers.”
The U.S. economy will depend on keeping jobs for those who have the abilities; knowledge without ability is meaningless. This is an imperative need right now in higher education. Tierney addresses the reality in another way:
“Nowadays, people with no education or training beyond high school are unlikely to even be considered for jobs that support a middle-class life. Instead, they fill most of the nation’s low-wage service jobs. ‘Education and training beyond high school’ is a broad and inclusive concept, but whether we are talking about an educational path that leads to a specialist certificate or to a Ph.D., higher education is no longer just the most direct route to a middle-class life; it has become essentially the only route. It has become a necessity.”
It can be argued that even the college education isn’t enough anymore, particularly in competitive job markets. Graduate school is the new necessity of the 21st century, and getting into graduate school requires knowledge and the ability to use it. If 69% of the college graduates are functionally illiterate, are the other 31% the ones going to graduate school and fulfilling this necessity? The question undermines the entire higher education concept.
Tierney also misses the ball on the issue of completion of the collegiate degree process. He asks “What about college completion rates? Bad news again. We have made only very small gains in associate, baccalaureate, and certificate program completion—nothing commensurate with the improvements we’ve seen in high school course taking.” Completion isn’t the issue, and in lieu of the literacy results, we could argue the “small gains” Tierney notes are more the result of standards dropping than they are of true gains indicative of sustained-quality progress.
Tierney is an education outsider, and even he fails to see the true problem: lack of ability even within the college graduate workforce. If 69% of his employees were functionally illiterate, he should notice. Instead of looking at the issues of getting people degrees in higher numbers, Tierney should be focusing on workforce preparation. The problem isn’t access and affordability as much as it is standards and quality control.
While all three issues (access, affordability, standards) are important, the first two don’t mean a thing if the third thing isn’t in swing. Higher education, government and society can all get together to increase the access to a collegiate education. This means more people than ever can attend college, from all socio-economic realities in ways they’ve never been able to manage before in previous centuries.
Higher education, government and society can all get together to make the cost of the college education more in reach for more people than ever before in our nation’s – or the world’s – history. This means even the individual from the lowest socio-economic status can go to college and fulfill a dream or two. But if higher education, government and society do not get together to ensure that collegiate standards are heightened and maintained to guarantee a college graduate has the requisite skills, competencies and abilities to succeed in the real world workforce, then it won’t matter.
Access means nothing if it’s access to nothing but a piece of paper that won’t help a student keep a job; affordability means nothing if $20,000 has been spent on coursework that doesn’t help a student keep a job. Energy on these two areas of need is wasted unless the third part of the equation – standards – is addressed at the same time and in full force.
What it takes is leadership to radically suggest an overall of the standards-based, quality assessment in higher education, right now. We cannot be graduating 69% of our students as functional illiterates; they can read and tell you what they read – but they can’t tell you what they just read actually means. They can’t use what they just read to do anything.
They have wasted their learning; in essence, we have wasted their learning by not enforcing standards thoroughly enough, and this will be the major need of the 21st century.