'Wake-up call' for higher education

Nov 29, 2012 by Greg St. Martin
David Leonhardt (left), the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, moderated a panel discussion on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., at a forum hosted by Northeastern University and the Brookings Institution. The event marked the release of a national opinion poll to shed new light on Americans’ attitudes toward the future of higher education in the United States. Credit: Paul Morigi

Joseph E. Aoun, pres­i­dent of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, said America's higher-​​education system has flour­ished because of its social com­pact with the country's cit­i­zens. As part of that agree­ment, insti­tu­tions pro­vide edu­ca­tion and help people live ful­filling and accom­plished lives, while also ensuring that the U.S. remains strong and com­pet­i­tive on a global level.

Now, Aoun said, a new survey com­mis­sioned by North­eastern serves as a "wake-​​up call" for higher edu­ca­tion to become more aware of stu­dents' evolving needs. And the higher edu­ca­tion com­mu­nity, he said, is taking notice.

"The social com­pact has to be rethought and rede­fined, and we are here to do that," Aoun said in his keynote address at a forum Tuesday morning in Wash­ington D.C. The forum, enti­tled "Inno­va­tion Imper­a­tive: The Future of Higher Edu­ca­tion," was hosted by North­eastern in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion and attended by leaders from gov­ern­ment, acad­emia, the news media and the pri­vate sector.

The results of the national opinion poll were released at the event. The poll was con­ducted by FTI Con­sulting, and was based on 1,001 tele­phone inter­views of Amer­ican adults and an over­sample of 250 Amer­ican , ages 18 to 30, sur­veyed online in October.

Among the top find­ings were that Amer­i­cans strongly value higher edu­ca­tion and that there are more oppor­tu­ni­ties today to achieve a col­lege edu­ca­tion than in past gen­er­a­tions. How­ever, while respon­dents believe the U.S. is a global leader in higher edu­ca­tion, they said greater invest­ments are needed to main­tain that standing. They also acknowl­edged there are sig­nif­i­cant obsta­cles making it harder to achieve a col­lege degree today, and they called for greater inno­va­tion to ensure the U.S. remains at the fore­front of higher edu­ca­tion in the world.

In par­tic­ular, Aoun noted that survey par­tic­i­pants called for more flex­i­bility, online/​hybrid edu­ca­tion options and oppor­tu­ni­ties for expe­ri­en­tial learning, entre­pre­neur­ship and global expe­ri­ences. He also pointed to respon­dents' con­cerns of rising costs, global com­pe­ti­tion, stu­dents finding jobs after grad­u­a­tion and grad­u­ates today having fewer oppor­tu­ni­ties than their parents.

How­ever, Aoun cited an "explo­sion of inno­va­tion" in higher edu­ca­tion that is aimed at addressing these con­cerns, including short­ening the path to degree and advance­ments in how aca­d­emic courses are assessed.

Aoun has been a national leader on issues crit­ical to higher edu­ca­tion. He is board chair of the Amer­ican Council on Edu­ca­tion and a member of an aca­d­emic advi­sory council that reports directly to Home­land Secu­rity Sec­re­tary Janet Napolitano.

The event also fea­tured a panel dis­cus­sion mod­er­ated by David Leon­hardt, the Wash­ington bureau chief of The New York Times. Pan­elists com­prised: Molly Broad; pres­i­dent of the Amer­ican Council on Edu­ca­tion; Michael Horn, co-​​founder of Innosight Insti­tute; Daphne Koller, co-​​founder of Coursera; U.S. Con­gressman George Miller, senior Demo­c­ratic member of the House Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mittee; John Sexton, pres­i­dent of New York Uni­ver­sity; and Pra­teek Tandon, an econ­o­mist at the World Bank.

The engaging panel dis­cus­sion shifted between a range of topics, from the cost of higher edu­ca­tion to quan­ti­fying the impact of a col­lege edu­ca­tion. Leon­hardt said that while the dis­cus­sion focused largely on the ways to improve higher edu­ca­tion in America, the system largely works very well and "remains the envy of the world." He also said it pro­duces a "phe­nom­e­nally broad return," citing the cur­rent 3.8 per­cent unem­ploy­ment rate for col­lege grad­u­ates, well below the national average.

How­ever, Leon­hardt pointed to sta­tis­tics that show only half of those who enter col­lege earn degrees, as well as the gap in access to higher edu­ca­tion based on eco­nomic status.

Early in the panel dis­cus­sion, Sexton com­mented on how col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties can main­tain their strengths while also addressing their weaknesses.

"I think the single most impor­tant thing that higher edu­ca­tion has to do is do what it does best, and that is 'think,'" Sexton said. "Thinking is the essence of what uni­ver­si­ties have been doing for a thou­sand years, and as we think, we should be unafraid to dis­rupt the received wisdom. That's also been a great strength in the advance­ment of knowledge."

Applying those ideas to today's chal­lenges, Sexton said higher edu­ca­tion must con­tinue to find new ways of being cre­ative and inno­v­a­tive, and also embrace dis­rup­tions from tech­nology and glob­al­iza­tion as "oppor­tu­ni­ties to create blended nuanced solutions."

Later, the dis­cus­sion shifted to the assess­ment of col­lege learning, and Koller was asked whether more must be done to refine this evaluation.

"One of the things that has emerged from the use of tech­nology in edu­ca­tion is that the ques­tions of what exactly are people learning and how do we assess it has to come to the front and center of how these new courses are con­structed," Koller said. "For courses with thou­sands of people in them, it's not pos­sible to just use the tra­di­tional, some­what ad hoc assess­ment mech­a­nisms that we've employed in ."

Koller acknowl­edged that most courses don't have a rig­orous struc­turing of learning out­comes and how assess­ments align with those learning out­comes. "When you're con­structing a course for thou­sands of people, that has to occur," she said. "This is not the solu­tion to the assess­ment problem, but it's a very valu­able step along the way."

On that same topic, Leon­hardt asked Broad about how to respond to a parent who asks how to deter­mine what his or her child actu­ally learned in college.

"[That] is the focus of a con­sid­er­able amount of effort today in the issue of assessing learning out­comes and to ensure that the things that really matter," Broad said. "That ability to have intel­lec­tual skills, to have a deeper knowl­edge in a spe­cial­ized area, to apply what you have learned in a real-​​world envi­ron­ment, to be able to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tively, both orally and through writing. Those are the things that I would urge they look for."

Explore further: Zero hour contracts are 'tip of the iceberg' of damaging shift work, say researchers

More information: www.northeastern.edu/news/2012/11/innovation-summit/

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