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The Commish (of Higher Ed)

08 Apr Posted by in Academics, Business | 1 comment

This week we’ll presumably learn the membership of the Governor’s new Commission on Higher Education, which will be asked to report (at least in part) by November.

The presumable goal — of figuring out how to provide more Virginians with access to higher education and to expand degree completion — is splendid. I think and hope that the Commission can render real service — particularly if its lifespan is not confined to the initial, rather brief reporting period. I believe that the universities and colleges of the Commonwealth can, and certainly should, be open to recommendations for innovation and to challenges to some current practices.

This said, there also must be some concerns — and I don’t think that stating these contradicts the openness just urged. The biggest worry is that the Commission will adopt glowing goals of enrollment expansion on the cheap, with at most some rhetoric about how more business-like practices should allow the goals’ achievement without significant additional cost. It’s perfectly reasonable to inquire — inquire, not conclude in advance — about how higher ed can handle more students at something less than current per capita costs. Good education is, however, labor intensive, and one hopes that the real intention is expansion of good education, not degrees for the sake of degrees.

There are some subset concerns. Over-optimism about the cost saving potential of technology is one. I think the Commission would be well advised to set up a subsidiary task force to look into faculty productivity, including technology’s current and prospective role. But successful technology-aided instruction is not cheap, and the subject deserves serious inquiry and not pie-in-sky.

A quest for expansion of degrees, and related improvements in both recruitment and retention, must also attend to the changing demographics of student populations. We need to figure out how better to reach students from families where college is not a standard expectation, and this implies some imaginative higher-ed/school partnerships. There are some great opportunities here, but undue focus on low costs will not do the trick.

Narrowing higher ed’s focus to preparation for first jobs in a final in-advance concern. Considerable focus on STEM is to be expected. But we should look to higher education to provide wide-ranging exposures and opportunities that prepare students for long and, often, varied careers, not just entry level technical skills. This means liberal educational values and not just bean-counting the expansion of STEM majors. It also means linking undergraduate education to the research roles of higher education, which must not get lost in the shuffle.

The task is complicated as well as opportune. I hope we will see some unexpected ideas and challenges. Making the higher ed establishment a bit uncomfortable may be quite desirable. But this is a job that might also be done badly, which is why some wide attention, even early on, may prove desirable.