Fixing Higher Education (9)

February 25, 2010

Next up in Daniel deVise’s series on “Fixing Higher Education” on his College, Inc. blog is a contribution from Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation.

He sets a new record for problems addressed/solutions offered with twelve.  The level of substance is extremely high, but of course he offers only a sentence or three on each solution.  His problems are all good ones.  While I don’t agree with all of his solutions, they are serious and tough-minded.

I’ve criticized other contributions as being self-serving — that is, as making a narrow case for the writer’s own institution as the fix that’s needed.  In a way, you could say the same thing about this contribution from Merisotis.  As he admits, “Of course, all of this is based on Lumina’s efforts to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees and credentials to 60% by 2025.”  He uses his contribution to lay out the Lumina agenda.  Still, that agenda is an agenda for the nation, not an agenda for one college or university trying to shine in the marketplace. Because of Lumina’s mission, the focus is heavily on access and completion for low income and minority students.

Here’s one problem/solution with which I agree: “Problem: Scarce financial aid dollars are used to promote institutional marketing and prestige rather than to primarily serve low-income students.  Solution: Re-focus state and institutional aid programs on need-based aid.”  Several contributions to the “Fixing series have also called for an end to merit aid (Sandy Baum’s, mine, now Jamie Merisotis), and no one has defended the practice.

Like several other contributors to the series, he’s for more attention to learning outcomes and for public disclosure of those outcomes (“Report publicly on outcomes for graduates including information on learning outcomes.”

Here’s a problem/solution I’m not so comfortable with: “Problem: The funds that would be needed to expand the current higher education system to the size needed by the nation do not exist, and are not likely to exist in the future.  Solution: Make the higher education system far more productive by reducing costs throughout higher education, expanding low-cost/high-quality delivery, shortening time to degree, and increasing college completion rates.”

It’s the framing of the problem that troubles me.  Perhaps he’s right that more funding for higher education cannot be found.  And if he’s right about that, I think he’s pointing in the only directions we can pursue.  But I also believe we are kidding ourselves if we think we can provide a quality education for many more Americans with no increase in higher education funding.  And I believe that increased public funding for higher education would work as an investment in the nation’s future, not just an increased expenditure.  There would/will be a payoff in the productivity of our economy and the quality of life of our citizens.  Jamie Merisotis may be the realist here, but I’m not ready to accept a dimmer future for the United States by accepting that many young people will not be able to achieve a good education.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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