The Platform, Part V, Section A: How Higher Ed Fails the American Promise

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the FAPITCA Platform series entitled: Sustain and Advance American Culture, Science and Education. Dr. Kuznar provides us a distinctive perspective on education in America.

By Dr. Lawrence Kuznar, Ph.D., Indiana University – Purdue University, Fort Wayne [1]

Higher education is central for Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age. This essay is one insider’s perspective on how higher education fails to deliver that promise to our next generation, and what can be done to correct this failure. [2]

The core of the problem is that higher education has become a system for issuing credentials (degrees), and not one that transfers the skills our next generation requires to serve themselves and our society in a globalized, interconnected world.

Consider three dimensions of the problem:

  • Our upcoming generation needs to acquire a set of useful thinking skills from universities
  • Our universities claim to confer these skills
  • Universities actually provide something else

The system fails due to specific actions by faculty, administrators and students, and therefore integrated changes in their actions can solve the problem.

Desired Thinking Skills

Here’s the bottom line objective: Today’s college graduates need to be employed to be productive, and the skills employers desire are consistent with academic ideals that are applicable to both the world of work and responsible citizenship. This involves knowing how to think and how to learn (and keep learning and thinking)!

A couple of recent surveys (National Association of Colleges and Employers, Chronicle of Higher Education) [3] provide results consistent with other research on the skills employers want and need, and what graduates often lack. Some of the most important skills employers note lacking in college grads, and that would be most valuable in the modern workplace, include: verbal and written expression, time management, problem solving and decision-making.

LK Pic - What Employers Want - Jul 2014

What Universities Claim to Produce

Academics consistently insist a baccalaureate degree signifies that a graduate has acquired the time-honored skills of expression, critical thinking and love of learning. This is true for an elite research institution such as Harvard [4], and for a State-sponsored institution such as Indiana University – Purdue University, Fort Wayne, which serves typical middle Americans. [5] Yet, employers of recent graduates claim that these skills are lacking across the board. Something is wrong.

What Universities Really Confer

If students are not acquiring the skills that academics claim they teach, then what do students get from their universities? The answer is simple: a credential, the baccalaureate degree.  Universities are more systems that confer symbols in the form of diplomas, and less like institutions that educate the next generation.

LK Pic - What Universities Give - Jul 2014

The Problem: Why Don’t Students Learn?

Universities fail to educate and prepare the next generation to lead our society because education has become a tertiary objective at best. Arum and Roska’s 2011 Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses is an honest and sound analysis of higher education’s failings. They administered a widely accepted test of expression and critical thinking to thousands of college students across the spectrum of higher education institutions. They found that students demonstrated only marginal gains in these skills since high school, and those gains were directly proportionate to the amount of time students spent reading and writing for their class requirements.

The problem is not that students are lazy. They spend a lot of time socializing, working and even serving their communities. What they do not do is spend much time studying because educators do not require much reading and much writing on behalf their students.

Arum and Roska keenly point out that over the past several decades, an agreement has tacitly emerged between faculty and students: “Don’t bother me and I won’t challenge you.” Students responded as consummately rational actors, allocating their time efficiently to gain their credential, the degree, with the least effort possible. We have incentivized students to earn credentials, and de-incentivized them to learn.

Why don’t my colleagues and I require students to read, process and think? It is because that would be valuable time taken away from our research, our ever-increasing administrative duties, and other academic activities. There is a triumvirate involved in this systemic failure. Administrators focus on creating new programs and increasing graduation rates, faculty concentrate on research accomplishment, and students efficiently gain the benefit we taught them to value, the degree.

In the end, everyone gets what they want (or think they “want”), but the students are robbed of a genuine education and our society is robbed of an upcoming generation prepared to meet the challenges of a new, interconnected and globalized world. We rob our future of the thinkers our nation so desperately needs!

The Solution

The solution is daunting, especially given how administrative, faculty and student goals interact to create an agenda that subverts the real educational mission…this substituted agenda has taken on a life of its own. [6]

Businesses in our modern economy demand smart, creative, communicative and sound-thinking employees and this should be used as incentive for positive change. To help things change, employers need to emphasize credentials less, and value evidence of thinking and the ability to express oneself effectively more in potential and desired employees. This could be fed back into the cycle through more active support of effective universities on the part of employers.

There is some progress. Some employers are starting to scrutinize the whole applicant and some universities are helping students develop portfolios as a means of demonstrating their skills. However, we need a tighter focus, and real education.

The successful Berlin model [7] that required educators to be current in their fields by engaging in active research has metastasized, practically turning many of our universities into for-profit research institutes. Teaching at these institutions is often denigrated, and graduate students are socialized to avoid and dislike the classroom.

In order to avoid this distraction and refocus the system on education:

  • Faculty and administration must balance the emphasis between research, teaching and service in meaningful ways when evaluating faculty for tenure, promotion, and compensation.
  • Time spent productively challenging and interacting with students should be rewarded and not punished. If so, I am pretty sure many of us would focus more time on challenging students and not merely mollifying them.
  • Graduation rates should not dominate the metrics used to calculate state and federal support.
  • Instead of using graduation rates, the teaching component in state and federal funding formulae needs to measure actual learning and intellectual development, not credentialing. An educated public can prevail upon legislators to change those formulae.

As for the students in this new focus on education, they just need to be themselves. Our next generations have always risen to a challenge, and they continue to do so today: that’s an American legacy that still works! Unfortunately, the older among us have forgotten that legacy and have stopped truly challenging our young learners in productive ways.

The problems with our higher education system genuinely threaten our ability to sustain the American Promise. If we fail to recalibrate our higher education system toward learning and away from symbolic credentialing, then we fail to provide our next generation with the tools they need in a modern, globally interconnected world…the Connected Age. Ironically, these are timeless tools the ancient Greek founders designed and intended for higher education to deliver 2500 years ago. It’s time to get back to applying their wisdom to the future of America!

Originally posted by Carl Hunt, on behalf of Dr. Lawrence Kuznar, on 7/9/2014.


[1] Mariah Yager kindly produced graphics for this essay.

[2] I am a career university professor. I attended a large state institution for my undergraduate degree where I witnessed the shift from learning to credentialing, and then attended an elite research institution for my graduate work where I was socialized to focus entirely on research and to denigrate teaching. I have spent the past 24 years as a professor at an institution that primarily serves working class, first generation college students. The views I express are mine alone and do not reflect any official position of my university.

[3] National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2014, Job Outlook Survey; The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions

[4] “To these ends, the College encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought”

[5] “IPFW values… a strong general education program and baccalaureate framework that emphasize critical thinking, promote lifelong learning”

[6] While I am focusing on education, it is important to note that universities also have equally important research and service missions that cannot be ignored in any solution. While none of these missions can be neglected, education has been de-emphasized and thus fallen behind.

[7] Anderson, Robert (March 2010). “The ‘Idea of a University’ today”. History & Policy. United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 20 June 2014.

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