Half Empty and Half Full

Jul 8th, 2003 @ 1:21 pm | Author:
A recent press release from the Educational Testing Service revealed interesting results from a national survey. Quoting the press release:

"Americans are generally pleased with the performance of colleges and universities. However, the public is concerned with affordability, access, and ensuring high school seniors are prepared to further their education.

"The following are key findings of the survey:

*Satisfaction with higher education remains high. 56 percent give higher education an A or a B, while only 31 percent give those marks to K-12 programs.

*Affordability of tuition is viewed as the largest problem facing higher education (52 percent), followed by decreased government funding (20 percent) and quality of faculty and academic programs (15 percent). Also, 74 percent of respondents said they favor federal limits on tuition and 66 percent say they would pay more taxes to increase financial support for colleges and universities.

*Nearly 90 percent of respondents feel the federal government should play a significant role in higher education. However, there is nearly a 50/50 split on whether such involvement should be limited to student aid or extend to accountability.

*Regarding accountability, 45 percent say colleges and universities should be more accountable, while 46 percent say they are sufficiently accountable already. Respondents also placed a higher priority on accountability for program quality (52 percent), compared with only 24 percent saying accountability for use of funds is more important."

What are the people saying? The results are so diverse that I think I can detect two opposing points of view. One person gives higher education an A or a B grade and would pay more taxes to keep tuition reasonable and provide significant levels of student financial aid so that people can afford to enroll. The other person thinks higher education is mediocre or worse and needs its feet held to the fire to ensure academic quality and reasonable tuition rates.

Which one is correct? I appreciate and, in fact, share the views of the first person. It may surprise you to learn that I also appreciate and agree to some extent with the second person, who appears to have high standards and expectations. This is good. We can always get better, and we want to. Where Person Number Two and I part company is on the matter of how to do that.

That person implies that shortcomings are due to low standards or incompetence within higher education - that only policing will improve performance. I have met thousands of college personnel and studied hundreds of institutions. I can assure you that low standards and incompetence are very rare, not sufficient to cause any widespread problems in higher education.

I believe most people know that nearly all colleges are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Financial pressures on families and governments create great frustration and desire for someone to "fix it now." These and other current conditions call on all of us to change. As in coaching an athletic team, positive change will happen through encouragement, clarity of expectations, and team work. In this case, the team needs to include the colleges, the governments, and the public.