Addressing the deficiencies of higher education in light of the pressures of globalization and the information economy are driving many very pointed recommendations for higher education reform. While US colleges and universities are carrying on their role in research and scholarship, their ability to attract, retain and graduate new students is being challenged by college student mobility, low high school graduation rates, high school dropouts, and ill prepared high school students across all demographics.
Secretary Spelling’s Kick-Off Summit ( press release)
Last week, Secretary Margaret Spellings held the first of the US Department of Education’s Higher Education Summits in Washington, DC aimed at selling her Commission’s main recommendations. 300 higher education leaders from across the country attended the DC summit to discuss the five core recommendations agreed to by most of the Commission members, http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/members.html,
1. Aligning K-12 and higher education expectations;
2. Increasing need-based aid for access and success;
3. Using accreditation to support and emphasize student learning outcomes;
4. Serving adults and other non-traditional students;
5. And enhancing affordability, decreasing costs, and promoting productivity.
One audience member posed the multi-million dollar question on the minds of many inside and outside of education: What role will Congress and the Bush Administration have in promoting and funding these initiatives? The Secretary’s response pointed to the purpose of the Summit to recognize the multiple stakeholders who need to be involved in finding ways to address these challenges. As with the No Child Left Behind law, whose reauthorization is underway, how these bold measures will be paid for is the current unanswered question. While the Secretary mentioned building stakeholder groups, higher education is funded in a variety of ways by state legislatures and that funding has been declining dollar for dollar over the last couple of years as other state priorities.
In January, Blackboard released two surveys of higher education leaders – one that included face-to-face interviews with 55 academic leaders and another online survey that polled over 500 leaders. Their reactions, not dissimilar to the Commission’s, showed four of the following top concerns among leaders of higher education.
1. Increasing Student Engagement
2. Increasing Institutional Accountability
3. Generating Additional Revenue
4. Globalization of Programs and Instruction
The institutions, we found, are moving on these four challenges. However, how to address the disconnection between high school and higher education, one of the Commission’s recommended areas for change, does not neatly fall into a funding area in either K12 education budgets or college budgets.
In the past years, higher ed outreach efforts have been cut back substantially and funding for college-bound courses is hard to come by with limited high school budgets. The survey did find that leaders look to online learning and distance education to help in each of the four areas above and tended to have faith that technology would and needed to play a role in each area. Going Virtual is Part of the Solution Blackboard, because of our role in both online distance education and online support for schools and colleges have seen many inventive uses of technology to help bridge the expectation gap between high school students and college attendance. A number of states have state-funded virtual schools that promote college attendance and provide college prep and remediation courses online to assist students and schools (see www.NACOL.org).
Likewise, many school districts and parents pay for courses that augment the college prep program. However, there is little or no Federal assistance for these programs.
The Not So Long Shadow of NCLB
There is a great deal of unease in higher education over how the Spellings Commission recommendations will play out at individual institutions and in state higher ed systems in various states. In K12, NCLB can place individual school districts under the control of state agencies. On the positive side, Spellings mentioned that while “one size fits all” will not work for developing standards to measure success in higher education – it’s important to get started and have some measures. Blackboard surveys indicated that most higher education institutions were already looking at their own accountability standards and measures either independently or in conjunction with state overseers.
Schools Fail to Challenge:
The Secretary mentioned several examples of schools not doing enough to challenge students in low-income areas, citing that only half of high school graduates are ready for college level work. She talked about the role of Advanced Placement™ (AP) courses in providing rigorous coursework for students and mentions that often the low-income urban areas have far fewer AP courses available than nearby suburban districts. She points to Langley H.S. in Maryland which has 20-some AP course offerings compared to Ballou in the district which offers just four.
Blackboard’s experience is that many schools and districts cannot pay for a full complement of AP offerings. The teaching staff and the test prep costs are far beyond the reach of many financially taxed districts. However, online solutions paid for with state funds and through private companies are now common and easily available to fill in the gaps. However, this path is not actively pushed by the Federal government, though information is readily available through the North American Council for Online Learning
Additionally, Blackboard will take a look at this particular topic of using AP courses to challenge students and measure academic excellence during a panel at our Users Conference featuring Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, Education Week Editor Virginia Edwards and Education Sector Senior Analyst Sara Mead.
Inject Transparency into Higher Ed:
The Secretary did discuss the need, and the funding, to inject greater transparency into higher ed institutions, using meaningful data to better manage and improve their accountability. As part of this effort, she reported, three states – Florida, Minnesota and Kentucky – have been given $100,000 awards to launch pilot programs which will provide consumers information with data about the schools across their states. Little detail was offered on the kind of data these states will provide – with much of the initial criteria/structure being left open for states to figure it out on their own.
Coming to a City Near You?
The next steps for moving the Secretary’s Commission on the future of Higher Ed will be a series of mini summits held in various markets around the U.S. in June.