Magazine article University Business

Higher Education at Risk: A New Documentary and Companion Book Examine the State of Post-Secondary Education in America

Magazine article University Business

Higher Education at Risk: A New Documentary and Companion Book Examine the State of Post-Secondary Education in America

Article excerpt

In 1983, "A Nation At Risk," the landmark study from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, encouraged a scrutiny of K-12 education, the effects of which, for better or worse, are still being felt today. But some say the focus on K-12 diverted attention from growing problems within higher education. On Thursday, June 23, PBS stations across the country (check local listings) will air Declining by Degrees, a documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes to experience college through the eyes of students, parents, professors, and administrators. The program and its companion paperback volume examine whether the reality of higher education measures up to its ideal as America's "crown jewel of education." The book features a variety of perspectives, from contributors outside the academy and within, including journalists, social scientists, novelists, college presidents, professors, and foundation officers. University Business Editor Tim Goral spoke with Richard Hersh, former president of Trinity College (Conn.) and co-editor of the book, about the project and what he hopes will result from it.

University Business: What was behind the Declining by Degrees project?

Hersh: We were trying to find ways of expressing an insidious trend that wasn't being captured yet by people who were heavily concerned with K-12 outcomes. The accountability movement has been mostly concerned with issues of retention and cost and access, without talking about the underlying implicit concern--that is, what is really happening in college once you get there.

How do higher ed expectations compare to the realities?

There's no doubt that higher education has become evermore important for people's future jobs and careers. But there are also other equally important goals--what we mean by a "higher" education in terms of thinking ability, with the notion of becoming a global citizen, developing your fullest capacities with regard to both head and heart. And as people recognize that higher education is more important, the issues of access and cost have intensified, largely because we are trying to make this as democratic and equitable as we can. But as you improve the access and affordability, you also want people to have access to quality, otherwise, it's a hollow promise.

My concern is that a liberal education is a relevant education for the 21st century but that people have myopically thought, in the last 20 or 30 years, that a more professional or narrow education has been seen as adequate. I believe a liberal education is an important baseline for any four-year education, no matter what the major is going to be. It's the best preparation for a life of work and citizenship. But it ought to be a genuine first-rate liberal education, otherwise we deprecate its notion both in terms of its function and in terms of quality. If it's not done well, it becomes a phony promise.

The student demographic has changed in recent years, with more non-traditional students going to college primarily to pursue career-oriented education. Is there a trade off?

I'm not sure there has to be a trade off. Access has increased the choices people can make about when, where, and how they will get some form of higher education. But that doesn't deny that a bachelor's degree--whether one goes full time, straight from high school, part time later in life--should not, in some sense, make a claim that higher education is not about simply learning a few job skills, which would be eroded as those jobs come in and out of the marketplace, but that it's meant to be something larger and broader. The fact that people are coming in older and making demands that their education is to be more focused is clearly part of the consumer orientation. And just because the marketplace is prepared to give the consumer what he or she wants doesn't necessarily mean that we are doing a good job of what higher education should be. …

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