Declining by Degrees?

Jun 20th, 2005 @ 7:45 am | Author: Kimberly HeschBy Ellen-Earle Chaffee
A special television program from the Public Broadcasting System is scheduled to air this Thursday evening. The topic is "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk." I have already seen three opinion pieces about this program in the media, all of them taking issue with the PBS program's premises that American higher education is in decline and we cannot blame it all on lack of preparation at the K-12 level.

This program may prove to be a catalyst that turns significantly more public attention to higher education issues in the future.

About 15 years ago, more or less, the spotlight hit American health care in similar fashion and for similar reasons. Rising costs have outpaced inflation over time in both sectors. Left unchecked, such a trend eventually consumes every dollar from everyone. So both health care and higher education have become much more efficient and cost conscious than they were a generation ago. While cost is still a huge issue, attention has turned increasingly to quality, too.

Is higher education in decline? It depends on whether you're talking about test scores, job opportunities, critical thinking skills, societal benefits, preparation for citizenship, cost per unit of value, ability to reach all who have college achievement potential, or any of hundreds more indicators we might choose.

Apparently the PBS program is very concerned about a perceived decline in the liberal arts. The faculty at Valley City State University spent a full year trying to define "liberal arts" in a meaningful way, and finally moved on to more productive discussions. The central dilemma at Keene State College for several years has been how to define what it means to be a "liberal arts college for the 21st century," and I suspect they, too, will move on.

There is no need to panic over a decline in liberal arts if we do not even know what it means. But is there a decline in the knowledge, understanding, and abilities that college graduates should have? Put an entirely different way, should college graduation today signify the same, more, or different learning than it did generations or centuries ago?

Higher education and many other functions inevitably reflect their times and circumstances. After doing two dozen case studies on small colleges around the country I thought, "Colleges get the leadership they deserve." If either the leader or the college is disappointed in the other, the relationship often ends quickly. But in the case of institutions, there is no place to go. The institution and its environment make adjustments to each other over time, for better or worse.

Adjustment is usually painful, but it is not all bad. For example, science once was not considered an appropriate subject for higher education. The faculty at Valley City State University researched the skills and abilities graduates need, taking account of both traditional and emerging expectations for success in these times. Then they made changes to be sure that they taught accordingly and that students documented their learning.

In short, the question is not whether we are doing what we used to do, but whether we are doing what should be done. I can assure you that this is a question our faculty ask and answer every day as individuals and periodically as a group.