08/27/2012 12:17 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Higher Education Reform in Motion

It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention. As we have shown in our first three posts in this series on higher education, there is much necessity. This necessity has spawned "inventions" and innovations ranging from system changes at the federal, state and local levels to individual initiatives.

In this final post, we provide a Whitman's sampler of some of the approaches that are being discussed or are underway in the areas that we analyzed in our prior posts: costs; graduation and placement rates, return on investment, career education and skill development, teacher preparation; technology and education; and the nation's primary and secondary education system.

Corralling Costs: As Andrew Martin reports in his May 14 New York Times article titled, "Slowly, as Student Debt Rises, Colleges Confront Costs," colleges have begun the cost control conversation but there has been little real substantive progress to date. Jeff Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, reinforces Mr. Martin's perspective in his June 25, 2012 New York Times article stating, " leaders desperately need to transform how colleges do business." Fortunately, there are numerous resources such as James Garland's Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America's Public Universities that the leaders of higher education institutions can consult as they initiate their transformation journeys.

Enhancing Graduation and Placement Rates: Public, private sector and for-profit institutions are placing a renewed emphasis on graduation and placement. The national Commission on Education Attainment chaired by E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University, has the goal, as expressed in its press release of October 17, 2011, "to chart a course for greatly improving college retention and attainment..." The Commission is scheduled to deliver its report on how to accomplish this in the fall of this year. We are certain that one of the works that the Commission will consider in crafting its recommendations is Bowen, Chingos and McPherson's, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities.

Ensuring Value: In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education passed "Gainful Employment" regulations which, according to the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, "will require most for-profit programs and certificate programs at public and non-profit institutions to pass at least one of three metrics to remain Title IV eligible." The Department of Education has also partnered with the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to provide tools to student borrowers to enable them to easily understand student loan debt and repayment requirements. It's not just about regulations and protections, however. Some institutions already excel at value creation. For the first time ever, in its college rankings, the Washington Monthly included "a cost adjusted graduation rate performance ranking." The three institutions at the top of this list were: University of Texas at El Paso; North Carolina A&T State University; and Texas A&M University.

Building Job Skills and Academic Competence: This was an area of important focus and concentration for the Bush administration and is even more so for the Obama administration. As Kevin Manning notes in his August 7, 2012 Huffington Post blog, "President Barack Obama's 'Skills for America' initiative is a step in the right direction. By encouraging partnerships between community colleges and industry, students will be able to connect their educations to careers, many in new and emerging industries." Valencia College won the 2011 Aspen Prize for Community College excellence for its leadership in developing a "focused curriculum" targeted and tailored to the needs of industry. Another community college model worth noting is the City University of New York's (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) which is focused on low income students and emphasizes workshops and intensive advising and tutoring. According to HCM strategists, ASAP is graduating students at "three times the rate of the average CUNY community college."

Improving Teacher Preparation: Probably the most radical reform on the horizon is in the area of teacher preparation and licensing. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity has developed a new model called the "Teacher Performance Assessment" that will be tested across the country over the next few years. As we noted in our last post quoting a July 29 article by Al Baker of The New York Times, "New York and up to 25 other states are moving toward changing favor of the more demanding approach that requires aspiring teacher to prove themselves through lesson plans, homework assignments and videotaped instruction sessions." It can't be just about assessment though, it has to be about improving the preparation process itself. Over the past few years, diverse groups ranging from the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education to the Center for American Progress have weighed in to describe innovations and better ways to teach teachers. We are not qualified to assess if there is a "best" way. We are qualified to know that "continuous improvement" is the hallmark of healthy organizations and professions and must be the same for teacher preparation.

Making the Connections: The U.S. Department of Education named August "Connected Educator Month." In recognition of this, on August 1, Katherine Schulten -- who blogs for The New York Times learning network -- asked 33 educators to share their learnings and recommendations for sharing with their counterparts. The educators provided hundreds of references proving the extraordinary value of these peer-to-peer connections in developing true learning communities that can be effective counterweights to top-down decision-making that has frequently caused education to careen from one fad to another. MOOCs (massive open online courses) represent a new way of connecting students world-wide to curriculum and faculty from elite institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Stanford. MOOCs are in their infancy. They could be transformative or they could merely be a variation on the online delivery theme. Time and technology will tell.

Passing the Test: No Child Left Behind has been left behind -- and its successor appears to be the common core standards. These standards which define the "knowledge and skills that students should have in English language arts and mathematics within their K-12 educational careers" were developed as a state-led initiative of the National Governor's Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers and launched in June of 2010. The standards have been adopted by 45 states and three territories. Thus, a uniform set of standards has gained initial acceptance across the nation. The great debate, however, revolves around the testing related to those standards. As the "Sunday Dialogue: Improving Our Schools" in the July 22 issue of The New York Times demonstrates, there is great fear within the educational community that the standards are driven by an obsession with testing rather than focused on improving student performance or dealing with root causes of performance problems such as poverty and poor parenting.

So, that's the higher education report card near the end of August, 2012. If we were giving grades, most of them would be "incompletes." That might be disappointing to some but not to us. The attention being paid and the dialogue and discourse in all of these areas -- even if some is in the early stages -- are signs that reform is in motion and the higher educational system is "unfreezing."

Staying the same is not an option. That's not our opinion. It's that of President Gee of Ohio State who Andrew Martin quotes in his New York Times article as saying, "The notion that universities can do business the very same way has to stop." It has to stop because we are at a pivot point for the future of higher education in this country.

Jeff Selingo referred to the period between 1999 and 2009 as the "industry's 'lost decade.'" The evidence suggests that the industry has begun to work the pivot points and there is forward momentum. If higher education, its allies and customers, can continue to plot and chart the course that has and is being laid out, they have the potential and opportunity to make the period between 2010 and 2019 the industry's "found decade."

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