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Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,

Experts call for new higher education research agenda

Although more people than ever have access to American institutions of higher learning, a new report says that research is needed to examine what educational programs are offered at colleges and what students actually learn.

The 25-page essay, titled Beyond Dead Reckoning: Research Priorities for Redirecting American Higher Education, is published by the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement (NCPI) headquartered on campus. The report poses a fundamental question: "Access to what?"

"We think that many policymakers look at initial enrollments as the minimum threshold for access," said Patricia Gumport, associate professor of education and the center's executive director. "What we're saying is, 'That's not enough.' You have to follow people through [college] to see what happens once they get in the door."

The report, available at, is the result of a yearlong agenda-setting initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education to identify the most pressing issues confronting higher education today. NCPI is a partnership among Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

While the paper does not offer specific policy proposals, it asks probing questions that Gumport said "can and must be answered" to help set a new agenda for higher education research. "We are trying to create a sense of urgency in how well colleges and universities are meeting diverse needs and changing expectations," she said. "We don't want this [research] to be put on a shelf and gather dust." So far, the report has received a healthy public response -- as of Jan. 1, nearly 22,000 copies had been downloaded from the center's website.

In preparing the report, Gumport and her colleagues consulted with a broad range of policy and institutional experts, and organized a series of national roundtable discussions. "One of our goals was to promote dialogue and [in doing so] provide a common language for institutional leaders and policymakers, which was one of the divides discussed in the report," Gumport said. The work also draws from NCPI's policy seminars and focus groups held during the last six years.

The report notes that colleges and universities today serve a very different undergraduate student body from the one they were designed to accommodate three decades ago. According to U.S. Department of Education data, between 1972 and 1995, the proportion of high school graduates going directly to college increased from 49 to 62 percent. Today, more students come from a wider range of socioeconomic, ethnic and racial groups, and they enter with different levels of academic preparation. Despite such broad shifts, the core practices of education remain essentially unchanged.

"We argue that too many of the maps and navigational instruments that were once effective guides are now obsolete, and that too much of higher educational traditional language no longer describes actual conditions, notwithstanding its continued rhetorical appeal," the report states. "The very discrepancy between ideals and realities makes evident that higher education is less than it should be."

Beyond cost and access

William Massy, education professor emeritus and a member of the NCPI executive committee, said that most public commentators write about the cost of education and how to increase access for underrepresented populations. "While these are important questions, they become far less salient if America's colleges and universities don't deliver high-quality education and balance market forces with public purposes," he said. "The report asserts that we can no longer take these outcomes for granted."

According to education Professor Michael Kirst, the mainstream media focus mostly on private higher education institutions that serve only 20 percent of students nationwide. In contrast, he said, the report looks at "broad access universities," which accept the bulk of high school graduates.

Many of these students arrive poorly prepared for college. For example, Kirst noted, more than 50 percent of students entering the California State University system fail a placement test in English or math. Such students also have poor completion rates. Despite this, the report notes that policymakers have not found a way to ensure that public funds invested in higher education actually promote effective learning. Nor, the report adds, have they developed a meaningful link between the "rhetorical support of [kindergarten to 12th grade] education and their definition of the obligations colleges and universities bear for the quality of public schools."


Three research priorities

Beyond Dead Reckoning identifies three research priorities:

In the first section, the report points out that colleges and universities are not effective at linking knowledge about the process of learning to the practice of teaching. The report also focuses on the changing academic workforce. For example, teaching and research are increasingly viewed as "separable" activities, with many faculty holding part-time, adjunct and non-tenure-track term appointments. The report states that more than half of full-time appointments made during the 1990s were for non-tenure-track term positions.

"Working concurrently with the traditional professoriate is a contingent workforce, whose employment is contracted on a fee-for-service basis," the report explains. "This persistent tension produces an institutional stalemate where the hiring of part-time and off-track faculty has become an ad hoc managerial solution yielding uncertain consequences for educational quality, curricular innovation and governance."

The report's second focus looks at the increasing power of market forces to reshape institutional practices and priorities. State appropriations declined from 44 percent of total public college and university revenue in 1978 to 33 percent in 1997. As a result, much of the burden of financing college now falls on students themselves. "Not surprisingly, many Americans now perceive higher education as more of a private than a public good," the report states. Furthermore, "public universities and colleges now emulate private institutions in their jockeying for competitive positions in niche markets and in the aggressiveness of their fundraising efforts."

What higher education requires is a strategy that enables institutions, even as they are increasingly privately financed, to remain publicly committed, the report argues: "Without such an understanding, colleges and universities run the risk of becoming merely businesses, paying only symbolic homage to the social charter that distinguished them from the for-profit enterprise."

The report's final focus is on the need to create a reliable frame of reference for understanding how higher education has changed and will continue to evolve. For example, it points out that the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the federal government's core data collection program, does not request or provide data on the use of technology on campus. "Over the past three decades, higher education has changed dramatically in terms of the students it serves, just as students' own purposes and paths through higher education have changed," the report states. "Despite these changes, the image of the academy that most public officials, parents, faculty and administrators retain is one that more closely resembles campuses during the time when they themselves were undergraduates."

Gumport said the report poses big questions of real consequence for what happens on college and university campuses. "I don't think we risk a crisis," she said. "But we're saying it's alarming that higher education has become less of a priority for public investment at a time when we really need to support colleges and universities to be as effective as they should be. Responding to the report will enable researchers to help colleges and universities move beyond a kind of dead reckoning to plot their future course."


By Lisa Trei

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