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Remember The Foundation of Higher Education on The Path to Reform

10/04/2013 05:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

It's that time again. Education "reform," led by President Obama and the Department of Education, is in the works. Now, the focus is on higher education. From what we've gleaned the key elements seem perfectly sensible. Paying for performance, promoting innovation and competition and ensuring that student debt remains manageable are points that are hard to fight. However, as always, the devil is in the details.

Although we have to wait for the specifics of the President's plan, I am concerned that the idea of paying for performance will ultimately focus on tying financial aid to metrics such as graduation rates, graduates' earnings, advanced degrees attained and other measures that will comprise yet another ranking system. Those of us who have followed the Department of Education's negotiated rulemaking process in the past, or have tried to get the Department's attention on problematic policies, want to ensure that whatever comes out of this process will be reasonable and efficacious for students or institutions.

As the president of an institution that prides itself on transforming young peoples' lives by opening up the world of higher education to the under-served and often under-valued, I wonder how much longer we will be able to continue our mission in its present form? Will liberal arts majors disappear as institutions such as mine are forced to move toward focusing on programs the federal government has decided are more valuable, such as business instead of philosophy or English? In order to protect ourselves and bend the metrics in the "right" direction, should we focus our recruitment efforts towards middle class suburban students and abandon our local urban population who often need significant remediation and may take a little longer to complete their degree?

It is one thing for the federal government to promote innovation via grant incentives; it is another to use students' financial aid and the government's regulatory powers to coerce institutions to adopt its view of the preferred curriculum (business over philosophy) or educational methods (MOOCs, online, or accelerated learning). How can we teach our graduates to appreciate the value of reflection, critical analysis, precision of thought and effective communication if we are pushing students through at warp speed in some misguided notion that it will save money?

It is certainly the case that higher education, like most of the United States, faces many challenges. The Great Recession may be over according to the experts; however many are still feeling its effects. Poverty has skyrocketed and income inequality continues to be a huge drag on economic recovery and prosperity. Higher education institutions must find additional ways to reduce cost, improve graduation rates, and concretely demonstrate value to students and their families. However, many of the lagging metrics that the Obama Administration laments are largely outside of higher education's control. Health care premium increases, the cost of complying with federal, state and local regulations, and the loss of direct state support, particularly in my own state of New Jersey, are all factors that continue to put upward pressure on tuition. Furthermore, remediation requirements and lagging graduation rates that get so much attention can be linked back to urban education systems that have struggled to meet the needs of today's students, while rising student loan debt and delinquencies are a function of macroeconomic factors that have impacted just about everyone in society, including our graduates. If we are to use as one measure of our effectiveness the percentage of graduates who obtain employment post graduation, perhaps we should wait until we have an economy that actually produces job opportunities for the millions who lost jobs and the millions of recent graduates still looking for jobs.

I do not want to be perceived as someone who is against reform, innovation and change. I have encouraged my own institution to adopt online learning where it makes sense and in a way that does not dilute our Jesuit values. I have also embraced new technologies to assist in streamlining administrative and student information systems in order to keep costs as low as possible. We have explored and instituted new, cutting edge majors to meet market demand and student interests. But we have not, and should not, surrender to those who believe that the most important measure of a successful, well-educated person is the amount of money they earn or how quickly one obtains their degree. Among our graduates, we have leaders of Fortune 500 companies, bankers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, teachers, nurses, poets, priests and ministers, historians and public officials. And many of these graduates have pursued liberal arts majors in fields not ordinarily thought to be aligned with their profession. Most people would judge them to be successful and they certainly have fulfilling lives. Each contributes in important ways to the success of our nation, its creativity, and vitality. In the name of reform, we ought not squander precious financial resources and time, and most of all, undermine the foundation of what has made the United States so successful -- our system of higher education.

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