The Higher-Education Lobby Comes to Madison

This month the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents heard from Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council of Education, who spoke about “Higher Education at the Crossroads: Multiple Challenges, Innovation and Learning.” Then she gave a similar talk, which I moderated, at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, this time to faculty, staff, and students.

I’m grateful to her for joining us, and I’d like to show her the respect of fully engaging with her comments.

Let’s begin with Broad’s assessment of higher education.

  • The economic strains facing colleges are intense: the slow economic recovery and new political pressures from the federal government and the states; the increasing number of low-income students who need support. Colleges can no longer raise tuition by ever-larger amounts. As a result, more and more are becoming “dependent” on Pell Grants and the other sources of financial aid their students receive—although funds for the grants may be cut in the future, and increases in interest rates are likely to make loans less affordable for students. (In any case, too much government involvement is not productive.)
  • Institutions vary greatly in our system, in terms of whom they admit and how much they spend to educate those students. One size doesn’t meet the needs of all students.
  • A college education is a key to success in today’s economy, but institutions need to pay more attention to providing quality education.
  • Today’s undergraduates are different from yesterday’s: They are “post-traditional,” often older, with fewer resources, working while in college, and interested in getting a return on their college investment.

The solution? In a word, innovation. Broad focused on making use of online technology, like the MOOCs (massive open online courses) offered by providers like Coursera, Udacity, and edX, which can serve large numbers of “post-traditional” students; on helping students make better choices about the kind of college to attend or course of study to follow; and on giving them choices like the University of Wisconsin’s Flexible Option, which allows students to demonstrate mastery of competencies.

As for quality, Broad noted the usual concerns about online courses, and then said that we could be confident that ACE was helping to ensure quality control. Specifically, she said, ACE had been “retained” by the MOOC providers to assess quality.

At the discussion I moderated, the audience had mixed reactions. A graduate student voiced concern that opportunities for graduate students to be trained in teaching would be diminished by MOOCs. A staff member asked how we might alter tenure incentives to encourage innovative teaching. A faculty member asked about how MOOCs generate money for their colleges. And finally, an administrator noted that broadband access, crucial to online education, is insufficient in some parts of the country. It didn’t seem to me that Broad had many answers.

Throughout, I struggled with the gulf between her analysis of trends (mainly accurate) and the solutions she offered. So I asked her: If we know that the number of economically disadvantaged students in higher education is growing, and that many colleges have fewer resources with which to serve them, then how can we expect a solution like MOOCs, which provide less human interaction (particularly the collaborative, face-to-face kind that research suggests is important to the success of-first generation students), to help? Especially if we have no additional revenue.

Her response was that our current model is broken, and that we should not underestimate the potential of disadvantaged students to benefit from MOOCs.

Hmm. Well.

First, that seems to argue that critics of MOOCs are the new “soft bigots,” with low expectations for disadvantaged students.

What I know, from spending time on the campuses of community colleges and less-selective institutions, which enroll many low-income students who need financial aid, is that their students prize their time with people. They are happy to have technology be a part of instruction, but it cannot replace personal interaction. I also know that creating MOOCs requires faculty to have release time from teaching—which is rare these days, especially at institutions that serve lower-income students.

Second, I worry that Broad and other educational leaders uncritically repeat claims that the current system is “broken” without questioning how and why it broke, and for whose benefit. What about the defunding of education and research, the push toward “innovation” generated in the private sector for reasons that have nothing to do with education, or the increasing focus on the deficits of students rather than the institutions serving them? Surely we should be talking about “fixing” some of those issues as least as often as we talk about alternative strategies.

Too many educators hail our success in expanding access to higher education, without talking about how the chances of earning a bachelor’s degree for students born in the bottom income quartile are less than one in 10. Too many blame students for their poor choices (like borrowing too much) and accept the fact that states are cutting appropriations for higher education (which drives up tuition). Too many ignore the way some institutions cater to the demands of rich students rather than focus on keeping college affordable.

To me, the picture Broad painted was not so much of higher education at a “crossroads,” but rather a disturbing vision of colleges and universities frantically trying to pull up the drawbridge and create a new moat for their protection. They want to keep those unwashed masses of unkempt, post-traditional students off their campuses; they want to prevent federal “intrusion” into colleges and universities. If they can’t meet costs by raising tuition (the public won’t stand for it), they shift to protecting the elite survivors of today’s downturn (the “A institutions,” Broad called them) by generating MOOCs that can be launched into the cloud to create a virtual wall between the chosen and the rest. In this way, they try to satisfy those new degree-seekers, whom colleges will not adapt to serve in person the way their administrators and professors will continue to educate their own kids.

Will “quality” postsecondary education survive? Does it still exist? I’m unimpressed by the ACE’s evaluating MOOCs. A look at ACE’s Web site and reports suggests close ties with selected MOOC providers and close relations with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, which pursue their own agendas of educational reform. That’s not what you want to see when looking for independent assessment.

More important, it seems that the persistence of elite status among those powerful institutions the ACE represents depends on the success of MOOCs. Without them, a real revolution might erupt—with the masses actually demanding the same types of face-to-face college experiences that American undergraduates are famous for enjoying.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is an associate professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a senior scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education.



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