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Campaign for the Future of Higher Ed Principles

More than 70 faculty leaders from universities across the country met in Los Angeles in January 2011 for a first-of-its-kind discussion on how to assert the faculty’s voice in the national debate over the future of American higher education. At the meeting, they agreed upon the following principles. The campaign's formal launch was May 17.

Perhaps the most widely accepted belief about higher education today is that our nation will need more college-educated people in the future than we have now or than we are on track to produce. This belief, given greater urgency by the most recent economic recession, has increasingly led to calls for transforming higher education and for embracing a wide variety of “innovations.”

Without question, improving higher education should be a goal for everyone—the public, elected leaders, businesses, and those who work to provide that education.

But as conversations about specifics develop, it is crucial for discussion about change to be guided by principles that will lead us toward real improvement in American higher education. Wholesale embrace of change without careful thought and deliberation can take us in the wrong direction — not toward reforming higher education but, in fact, toward deforming precisely those aspects of American higher education that have made it the envy of the world.

There are surely no simple answers, no one model, and no magic bullets for meeting America’s needs for broadly accessible quality higher education, but we, the undersigned, believe that the following principles can provide a helpful rubric for both developing and assessing proposals for innovation or restructuring in the future.

1. Higher education in the twenty-first century must be inclusive; it should be available to and affordable for all who can benefit from and want a college education.  

2. The curriculum for a quality twenty-first-century higher education must be broad and diverse. 

3. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require a sufficient investment in excellent faculty who have the academic freedom, terms of employment, and institutional support needed to do state-of-the-art professional work.   

4. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century should incorporate technology in ways that expand opportunity and maintain quality.  

5. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require the pursuit of real efficiencies and the avoidance of false economies.

6. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require substantially more public investment over current levels.

7. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century cannot be measured by a standardized, simplistic set of metrics.

Discussion of the principles:

1. Higher education in the twenty-first century must be inclusive; it should be available to and affordable for all who can benefit from and want a college education.  

Demographic trends make clear that our country will not return to world leadership in college attainment without increasing access and success for all sectors of our increasingly diverse society. A vigorous democracy and a thriving economy in the future demand that we assess policies and practices based on whether they enhance higher educational opportunity and success for all, including the growth segments of the college age population: lower-income communities, immigrants, and communities of color.

Higher education should not be rationed on the basis of economic status or race.

Higher education should be recognized more as a public good and a right than as a private good and a privilege. Currently, many qualified students are being priced out of the higher education market with high tuition and inadequate financial aid, while others graduate with crushing debt. That compromises the American promise to provide affordable access to all who can benefit from it, and dampens the broad social and economic benefits of higher education.

2. The curriculum for a quality twenty-first-century higher education must be broad and diverse. 

The knowledge based society of the twenty-first century calls for a population that is broadly educated for critical thinking and innovation. Yet the current emphasis is on the short-cycle, workforce development role of community colleges and the similarly narrow model of for-profit higher education. Narrow training condemns graduates to dead-end paths. They often end up in low wage jobs, unable to repay their student loans and ill-equipped to adjust to changing job markets and careers. The country’s economic potential is thereby constrained. 

A broad and diverse curriculum is also important in the interconnected world of the twenty-first century. We need graduates who can draw on a liberal education to function effectively in a diverse, global environment.
 
A healthy democracy requires a broadly educated citizenry. Healthy civic and democratic participation cannot flourish when broad education is reserved for the elite while and narrow training is offered to everyone else.

3. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require a sufficient investment in excellent faculty who have the academic freedom, terms of employment, and institutional support needed to do state-of-the-art professional work.

Faculty and professionals must have the academic freedom to exercise their professional judgment in educational decisions about what and how to teach in the best interests of a quality education. They must be free and secure enough in their terms of employment to stretch and challenge students, and to apply high academic standards.

Colleges and universities must also provide faculty with the resources and continuing professional development to stay current in their fields and to use the best methods for enhancing student learning and success.

The growing practice of hiring faculty into full and part-time contingent positions in teaching and research that are not eligible for due process protections of tenure inhibits the full application of academic standards and the free exercise of professional judgment.

If we are to enhance our nation’s human capital, we must expand the human capacity of our colleges to educate and help those students succeed. We must balance facilities and non-educational activities with faculties and educational activities. The employment structure of higher education has been overhauled over the past thirty years in ways that compromise the quality of education. It is time to systematically realign our employment practices. If institutions are to engage students to ensure their success, they must engage faculty in working conditions that best serve students’ learning outcomes.

Federal policy is now leveraging increased demand for college at a time when states and institutions are cutting their capacity to meet that demand. In failing to employ sufficient numbers of tenure-track faculty and to provide quality working conditions for contingent faculty, we are failing our students. Higher education institutions need to get back to academic basics, putting money where the students are, and shifting the balance to educational expenditures and away from administrative ones.

4. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century should incorporate technology in ways that expand opportunity and maintain quality.  

Technology that enhances learning is a welcome addition to the twenty-first century college experience. Most faculty members embrace it. Yet too often policy is based on faulty assumptions.

When used appropriately, technology enriches education for higher levels of thinking and learning rather than reducing education to a transfer of information or to a drill. High quality higher education develops higher level skills of assessment, critique, and expression. It is a complex process that is facilitated by engagement with professors and students in a process that can be enriched—but not replaced—by digital formats.

High-tech instruction is not cheap. A good on-line course is more labor and capital intensive than one taught in a traditional formats. In substantially re-envisioning educational experiences with technology the priority should not be cost reduction for efficiency, but investment in increasing educational effectiveness. To ensure such a focus, faculty should be should be integrally involved as part of shared governance in selecting the appropriate technologies for their institutions.

Technological innovations in higher education are more complex than the current public discussion would suggest. We must address issues of access, insuring that students are not shortchanged because they don’t own a good computer or have access to high-speed internet; success (which online formats work best for which students); full cost; and quality.

5. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require the pursuit of real efficiencies and the avoidance of false economies.

Many of the cuts colleges and universities have made during the current economic crisis—cutting classes and departments, increasing class sizes, slashing curricula, and reducing support services for students—may have seemed to help campuses balance their budgets in the short term. But such measures are counterproductive in terms of educating and graduating students. And they bear long-term costs that have not been discussed. There are pitfalls to practice in such measures that cut what we know works in contributing to students’ success.

Unfortunately, the economic pressure to cut budgets and the political pressure to define all cuts as “efficiencies” currently makes it almost impossible to open a conversation about the hidden costs of various cuts. Moreover, the overriding focus on academic program cuts and on realizing efficiencies in academic labor costs divert attention from a principal driver of increased costs in higher education—non-educational personnel and programs. Not every cut in academic costs is a real efficiency. Sometimes, the best way to increase productivity is to strategically invest in, not to substantially cut from, programs, personnel, and costs.

We propose that the public discussion of increasing efficiency and productivity in higher education starts here: a real efficiency should be pursued that will increase long term educational productivity and either enhance or not compromise the principles of a quality higher education for the 21st century outlined in this document.

6. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century will require substantially more public investment over current levels.

Increased funding alone will not solve higher education’s problems, but they are necessary to accommodate the planned dramatic increases in student numbers.

Assurances that “we can do more with less” may play well politically, but they do not move us toward quality, affordable higher education. We cannot simply do more of the same. But to innovate and do more for more students, more investment is needed.

Hundreds of thousands of qualified students are now being turned away from college; those numbers will soon increase with the coming deep cuts in state support. In turning these students away, we are turning away from our future.
 
The failure of higher education and government leaders to highlight the perilous level of public investment in higher education does the country a disservice. It allows the public to believe we can achieve world leadership with reduced levels of funding, when that is in fact a recipe for racing to the bottom, to poverty, not prosperity. We have been reneging on our commitment to our students and our future.

To succeed in the future we must invest in the future. We must recognize high quality, affordable higher education and increased college attainment as public goods worthy of a public investment.

7. Quality higher education in the twenty-first century cannot be measured by a standardized, simplistic set of metrics.

Simplistic, standardized measures of success in K-12 that are the legacy of No Child Left Behind have not served our country, our children, or quality education well. Currently, similar simplistic, standardized, one-size-fits all measures of success are being promoted in higher education. An overriding focus on simple graduation rates encourages institutions to only serve those students most likely to succeed and to ignore the rest.

This trend is disturbing because a national drive toward increasing institutional graduation rates—to the exclusion of other goals—threatens to compromise access to student learning and success in the type of quality higher education we need in the twenty-first century.

A more fruitful direction would recognize that educational success, like human health, is a complex systemic process that requires a rich data picture (of both qualitative and quantitative measures) for full assessment. For higher education to flourish, all our leaders—in government and in education—must avoid the lure of reductionist measures and simplistic goals that will foster a false sense of progress now, but bitter disappointment with the results in the future.

Conclusion

Change in American higher education in the twenty-first century is ongoing; the question before us as a nation is what direction it will take, and whether it will serve students and the public good.

Change is commonplace in every college and university worthy of the name. A defining feature of American higher education has been its dynamism. There is a rich and diverse set of programs, courses, and teaching formats. Students have great variety to choose from. Instead of seeing that rich diversity as a luxury we can no longer afford or as a problem to be fixed with standardized measures and regulations, we should see it as a defining strength that should be fostered.
 
The question before us is what direction change will take, and how it will build on the foundation of our internationally competitive system. We hear much about our system’s shortcomings. But higher education is not the automobile industry, in a declining position internationally and requiring protection or a bailout.  We have greater demand for college than ever, both domestically and internationally. Systems across the world are seeking to emulate our universities and community colleges. We are a vibrant sector in which in which student demand and scientific output are growing.

The challenge lies in preserving the best attributes of our system and continuing to innovate in creative, productive directions. Too often, re-imagining initiatives that take on the guise of fundamental change are simplistic restructuring programs. They come and go with each administration, and represent public relations rather than reshaping human interactions and professional work for a quality higher education.

As we develop and examine proposals for change in higher education, we should draw on the traditions, principles, and vision that have characterized American higher education at its best. We believe that using the principles discussed here to inform the national conversation can lead us toward an American higher education system in the twenty-first century that will be a source of pride and serve our nation well.