The Mounting Pressure for

Change in Higher Education

While trying to decide whether I wanted to do this column for CyberCollege and the InternetCampus, I made a list of at least a half dozen topics I felt needed to be addressed. 

As I considered what I wanted to say in each case, I immediately flashed on some individuals who might take exception to certain comments; not because they wouldn't be true—I would hope that wouldn't be the case—but out of a need to protect some vested interest. 

Not only does this help explain my decision to write under a pen name, but it introduces the main thrust of this column: the mounting pressures for change in higher education

While many of us in education might be more comfortable if things didn't change too much, we also see the handwriting on the wall — the harbingers of inevitable change on the horizon. 

First, there are some negative factors driving the need for change.

Although the educational costs at all levels continue to escalate, studies show that in some key academic areas U.S. students have now dropped to the level of students in some third-world countries.

This has impacted our colleges in various ways. Strangely, while we've been seeing a downward trend in SAT scores, we've also been seeing an upward trend in the grades being given in most of our colleges.

Those of us who teach at the college level would like to claim that this simply demonstrates our ability to take students who are not as well prepared and move them to higher and higher levels of achievement.

If only this were true! 

Unfortunately, if you spend any time in a typical college or university classroom you have to admit that there are many students — even seniors — who

  • can't do simple math (such as how to figure out the percentage of questions they got right on a test)
  • have not mastered the mysteries of subject-verb agreement or the elements of a complete sentence
  • cannot write a short paper based on researched facts rather than a somewhat unorganized collection of unsupported personal opinions
  • cannot follow basic instructions for doing an assignment

I'm sure that professors a few hundred years ago also complained about the abilities of their students. Even so, those of us who have been teaching for a few decades have clearly seen a decline in basic academic skills.

We also know that employers are becoming more and more skeptical of the competence of both high school and college graduates. As a result, many have instituted their own testing programs to see if potential employees have the basic reading and writing skills necessary for employment.

We are now "importing" foreign students in areas such as engineering and computer science, simply because our colleges are not turning out enough qualified people.

" According to the New York Times, test scores in science for U.S. high school students have been in decline for more than a decade.

At the same time, schools in India and China, to cite two examples, have been turning out more and more highly-qualified students in science."

Although we could go on with the litany of shortcomings of current college students, since the purpose of this column is to establish some of the pressures for change, let's turn to some other areas.

 As the cost of a college education has gone up, parents have been asking more pointed questions. In the process of shopping for a college, they often ask about the percentage of our graduates getting jobs in their field of study, and even about the specific jobs being held by our graduates. 

Such questions might be good news for those who feel that colleges should be more accountable for what they do. However, those within academia who feel that a college education should stress a liberal education, or even classical knowledge, are having a more difficult time justifying some curricular requirements. 

"What good is an education, if you can't get a job," is a phrase being heard more often from parents and prospective students.

Possibly even more pointed are questions about how specific required courses will assist the prospective student's career. The final areas of pressure for change come from changing educational technology. CyberCollege is a good example. Here students can "attend" courses whenever they want and wherever they are (at home, in a dormitory, or even while traveling in Europe). 

They can learn at whatever pace meets their own needs; they can finish a course in a few weeks (or possibly even a few days), or spread it out over a few months. 

Even though this type of distance learning is clearly in its technological infancy, we already have some studies that suggest that an interactive Internet electronic classroom is at least as effective, and in some cases more effective, than what takes place in a typical college classroom.

As we know, many universities are now offering college courses via the Internet. Some degree-granting colleges now offer all of their course work on the Internet. It is even possible to get a law degree entirely through Internet studies. 

As worldwide web bandwidth widens, transmission speeds increase, and standards for audio and video are agreed upon, we will undoubtedly see an even more rapid implementation of the interactive and involving potential of cyberspace. (Those of us who grew up with books rather than TV probably don't fully appreciate the power that video has with the present generation.)

Although I plan to elaborate on many of these points in future columns, I hope that in this "once over lightly" introduction I've established the fact that pressures from a number of areas are mounting.  As a result, we are going to see some very major changes in higher education in the next decade.

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