We Should Be United in Driving Reform in Higher Education

In the current debates raging about the cost of a college degree, several unspoken but important points of agreement among parents, professors and politicians have been overshadowed and overpowered by our disagreements.
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Throughout my career, I have witnessed the following: It is much easier for humans to ascertain when and where we disagree rather than when and where we agree. We declare our disagreements proudly and loudly, while our points of agreement tend to remain hidden, silenced by our passionate discord.

In the current debates raging about the cost of a college degree, several unspoken but important points of agreement among parents, professors and politicians have been overshadowed and overpowered by our disagreements.

First, higher education is a great American success story. Its history pre-dates the history of our nation as many elite institutions were founded before the American Revolution. Higher education remains one of the few activities where the United States has a substantial comparative advantage with the rest of the world, and it is why so many international students are keen to attend our colleges.

The second point of agreement is the value of basic and applied research. Research conducted at American universities is the envy of the world and has led to significant advancements for our society, our economy and our democracy. Disagreements about university research tend to focus on ethics, priorities, funding and the appropriate role of the private sector. But, research as the source and creation of new knowledge is safely, and often sacredly, agreed upon.

Third, there is general agreement that those who dedicate themselves to the work of teaching, conducting research and administering our institutions of higher education deserve our gratitude and appreciation. The talent and dedication of these professionals give reason for optimism and prove we have the capacity to improve our institutions and ourselves.

But beyond these three silent points of agreement lies an even deeper and more profound truth. We in the business of higher education have an obligation to boldly and loudly challenge the status quo of the venerable, elite institutions of higher learning we so respect to ensure that a top tier education is accessible and affordable to any student who meets the academic criteria, regardless of country of origin or economic status. And it can be done.

My experiences as a university president, a public servant, and a parent have led me to believe that a focus on five changes in higher education can make our highly selective universities even better than they are today.

  • Curricular reform is needed at many institutions to ensure students are prepared to be the critical thinkers our world desperately needs. Curriculum that challenges students' thinking, coupled with teaching techniques proven to drive superior learning outcomes (and not just professorial popularity), will ensure we are providing an education worthy of talented students.

  • Affordability and access are major obstacles and prevent many bright students from matriculating at rigorous universities they are qualified to attend. American universities can do better at making an advanced education available to more students. Reducing or eliminating enrollment caps and quotas, providing more options and innovative approaches to financial aid and scholarships, and reducing overhead costs that do not contribute to educational outcomes are smart places to start.
  • New technology can be utilized in innovative, cost-effective ways to make possible more than just the dissemination of knowledge to a broader student population, but also to enhance teaching methods and facilitate truly interactive learning regardless of location.
  • A global experience is more vital for students today than ever before. Expanding opportunities for more students to live abroad, experience diverse cultures, and study and interact with a global student body from all walks of life will benefit all students.
  • Research, not in the traditional sense but rather focused on analyzing and evaluating the outcomes of teaching methodologies, will help provide guidance to institutions on how to produce the highest quality education at the lowest possible price.
  • Advancements in technology, changes in teaching and learning techniques, and speed of communication in a closely connected global environment are already in place to advance these five measures. It is our collective responsibility to take action and ensure that every individual hungry and qualified for a top-tier American education be afforded the opportunity -- because if we don't take action, another country will.

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