Home Learning Outcomes Assessment Hard Truths That Higher Education Has Evaded for Too Long
Hard Truths That Higher Education Has Evaded for Too Long

Hard Truths That Higher Education Has Evaded for Too Long

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In a January 10, 2023 opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, University of Texas professor Steven Mintz calls for those who care about American higher education to acknowledge a series of hard and unpleasant truths:

  • Postsecondary education in the U.S. relegates the students with the greatest needs to the most under-resourced institutions.
  • High performing Black and Hispanic students are less likely to earn a college degree than comparable white or Asian American students.
  • Elite universities operate with the top priority to preserve their prestige and brand.
  • Students’ academic success and well-being are depending on rich relationships. Fewer than one-in-seven undergraduates have rich relationships.
  • The main contributors to colleges’ rising costs are a growth imperative (think recruiting and admitting students), community colleges’ expanding mission, and four-year colleges’ expenditures on campus amenities, research, and fundraising as well as mental health, compliance, learning support and nonteaching professionals.
  • Graduate rates remain distressingly low for Black and Hispanic students, older students, part-time students, and community college students.
  • Inequities continue in higher education including gating factors for high-demand high-salary majors in computer science, economics, finance, engineering, and nursing.
  • College teaching continues to be “an amateur enterprise that fails to take into account the insights of the learning sciences.”
  • Most undergraduates exit college scientifically and culturally illiterate, unable to write well incompetent in math, data, and statistics, and lacking fluency in a foreign language.

Professor Mintz claims that these realities persist because:

  • Neither student learning nor equitable outcomes are pre-eminent institutional or faculty priorities.
  • Colleges and universities are pulled into too many different directions without focusing on learners.
  • The curriculum and educational experience offered represent a political compromise designed to maximize faculty autonomy, departmental enrollments, student choice and completion rate while minimizing instructional costs.
  • Accreditors do not require colleges and universities to be accountable for learning and representation of minorities in high-demand majors.

Changing this grim reality will require new ways of prioritizing learning and equity and adjust calendars, schedules, and course delivery modalities to better serve today’s diverse, post-traditional students. Dr. Mintz also writes that we should also devote as much attention to expanding instructor development in pedagogy and assessment as we do to research.

I am a fan of Professor Mintz’s Higher Ed Gamma blog that he writes for Inside Higher Ed. I agree with his observations. At the same time, implementing his recommended changes won’t be easy. The issues cited are social, cultural, systemic throughout K-20 education, and structural as it relates to higher ed’s very slow shift from emphasis on first-time, full-time 18-year-old freshmen on campus to working adults learning part-time and taking online courses.

While Dr. Mintz’s education and experience as a historian have honed his observational skills, the same cannot be said for politicians and leaders in many of our traditional colleges and universities. More than two decades after online higher education courses and programs launched in higher education, there are politicians, college presidents, and faculty members who think online courses are inferior education because they choose not to spend time understanding the framework of quality online courses. In an environment where finding solutions to declining enrollments from traditional students are the priority of most administrators, there are few willing to suggest pivoting their teaching, advising, and counseling services to meet the needs of the non-traditional, part-time learner.

There are examples of colleges and universities that are making changes in the direction suggested by Professor Mintz. Promoting institutions that lead the way for improving learning outcomes for all learners should be as important as pointing out what needs to be done. There’s no better incentive for a college leader than to hear that a competing institution is succeeding where their institution is not. There are impact investment funds whose goal is to find companies that make a difference in societal outcomes. Perhaps it’s time we identify Impact Colleges and Universities as well as Impact K-12 Schools. Set the bar high. Our future depends on it.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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