New Models for Higher Education ; Report Points to Poorly Trained Grads, Sagging Completion Rates, and Low Expectations in Its Call for an Overhaul

Article excerpt

The future of higher education arrived without fanfare for Kimberly McClish during her freshman orientation last fall, when she was handed a laminated notebook divider.

On it were the "Principles of Undergraduate Learning" - a reminder of what her life would now be about: Communication skills, critical thinking, applying knowledge, intellectual depth, understanding society, and ethics.

Within a day or two, Ms. McClish forgot all about them. But later that semester, she found that her professors at the Indiana University-Purdue University campus in Indianapolis (IUPUI) insisting she compose assignments with those principles in mind - and explain how they were incorporated. The principles were in course syllabuses, too.

A simple tool, the statements are part of a five-year-old IUPUI effort to bring more coherence and focus to educating 19,000 undergraduates spread across 180 degree programs. The principles will also be the basis for assessing students to ensure they graduate with core abilities.

The experiment is just one small part of a growing effort to rethink and retool American higher education for the 21st century.

By most measures, higher education in the United States is a huge success story. Multitiered, diverse, with wide access and world- class research faculty and labs, US colleges are wildly popular with foreign and domestic students. Many of the 4,000-plus higher- education institutions are enjoying unprecedented enrollment.

Yet behind that rosy glow, the basic structure is increasingly ineffectual in its fundamental purpose of undergraduate education, some say. Low college-completion rates, soaring tuitions, and employer complaints that graduates can't write or analyze well are spurring speculation that higher education must change its approach. The student body, they say, has far different needs from those of the highly homogeneous, elite group of the 1960s.

Indeed, a study released yesterday by the American Association of Colleges and Universities argues that higher education runs a grave risk if it won't adapt.

"Even today, too many students still receive what Robert P. Moses calls a 'ghetto education,' " says the report, entitled "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College." "If colleges hold low expectations for many of their students and shunt them into narrow or shallow tracks, they could be re-creating at the collegiate level the severe, discriminatory problems of the twentieth-century high school experiment."

A "practical liberal education" is not a "utopian dream" for institutions of higher learning, the report argues. Instead of graduating students with mediocre analytical and communications skills, colleges need to insist on crafting students who may become:

* "Empowered learners" with strong oral, written, and quantitative skills they can use to evaluate a flood of information.

* "Informed learners" who understand global and cross-cultural relationships, know a second language, and value the history underlying US democracy.

* "Responsible learners" who understand the ethical consequences of actions and are active participants in democracy.

In tone, the report pitch sounds similar to President Bush's K- 12 No Child Left Behind Act. And it's the sort of idealistic message that might have met with stony indifference even a year ago. But currently, groups with names like "the Millennium Project" (University of Michigan) and "the Futures Project" (Brown University) are churning out new models of higher education. The National Governors Association has its own project, too.

It could appear to be so much academic rumbling. But some observers see a new intensity behind the initiatives.

"Academics are forever writing about the future of higher education," says Alan Guskin, director of the Project for the Future of Higher Education at Antioch University in Seattle. …