Where’s the Learning in Higher Learning?

By Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh    //    Volume 20,  Number 4   //    July/August 2012

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama joined the chorus of critics assailing higher education for high costs and low graduation rates. While they are important issues, cost and completion are not the fundamental problems that have put higher learning in crisis. What calls for our urgent attention is low value—a critical deficit in the quality and quantity of learning in college. To state it as plainly as possible: Most students graduate without learning enough. There is no longer enough higher learning in higher education.

State and federal governments primarily focus on cost, retention, and accountability because they want to ensure access, efficiency, and good student outcomes, such as completing a degree and getting a job. Of course! Those are laudable goals. But getting in, staying in, and graduating from college matter only if students learn. Otherwise, the whole value proposition of higher education is in serious doubt. Imposing top-down, government-mandated “solutions,” such as simplistic assessment requirements based on superficial metrics that do not measure student learning, will only make things worse.

It is in responding effectively to the real problems in higher learning—and in helping the college or university avoid well-intentionedbut hopeless and potentially counterproductive solutions—that a board has a particular opportunity to advance the interests of both its institution and current and future students. Addressing the crisis in learning will demand substantial and sustainable institutional change. Boards, in dialogue with presidents and faculty members, can establish a vision and set a direction for strengthening student learning that will guide that process of change. To make that possible, boards must appreciate the range of deficits in undergraduate learning today, hone their ability to articulate aspirations that will improve learning, and act as catalytic agents in raising crucial policy issues and questions for their institutions.

The Crisis in Higher Learning

Too many college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, understand the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers. It is possible for under-motivated undergraduates to “get by” academically and eventually graduate without working very hard at all. Low expectations—on the part of students, parents, faculty members, and administrators in too many higher education institutions—have replaced the idea that college is supposed to be rigorous and challenging. Instead, the goal of graduating has displaced the real purpose of college: learning. The new norms in college culture are characterized by grade inflation, minimal investments of time in study and preparation for class, and a belief that the degree is a commodity that can be bought, not one that must be earned.

Several studies affirm this dismal situation:

  • The National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE) and other research reports show that undergraduates are studying, on average, a mere 10 to 13 hours per week, compared to 24 hours in 1961.
  • The American Institutes for Research (AIR) found in “The National Survey of America’s College Students” (2006) that 75 percent of two-year college students and 50 percent of four-year college students did not perform at proficient levels of literacy on tasks such as summarizing competing arguments in newspaper editorials or comparing competing credit-card offers with differing interest rates.
  • The 2007 study done by the National Center for Education Statistics, “The Condition of Education,” found that only 31 percent of college graduates could read a complex book and take away lessons or messages from the text.
  • The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ landmark study of undergraduate quality, “Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College,” concluded in 2002 that “even as college attendance is rising, the performance of too many students is faltering,” a sentiment later echoed in the 2006 Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s scathing indictment of higher education as “risk-averse,” “selfsatisfied,” “unduly expensive,” and “ineffective.”

Last year, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), provided even more alarming data: Most students make only a 7 percent significant gain in critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, and written communication skills in the first two years of college, and 35 percent of students make virtually no gain at all over the course of four years. No subsequent study has contradicted their findings. Metaphorically speaking, we are losing our minds—and this is a costly failure that must be resolved if we are to sustain our nation’s political, social, economic, scientific, and technical leadership.

The Heart of the Problem: Culture

What happened to higher learning? How did we get here? Culture—the new norms in college culture noted earlier, as well as fundamental shifts in the values and expectations of society about education, the purposes and priorities of college, and the importance of learning itself—is at the heart of the matter. No Child Left Behind may have had noble purposes, but it has produced a generation of high school graduates who are well prepared to pass objective achievement tests (and make their school districts look good in the process) but not to think, understand, or succeed in college. Thinking and understanding take far more time than memorizing, and too much of our high school students’ time is squandered on activities and entertainment, instead of studying or engaging with academic work.

Moreover, we as a society have bastardized the bachelor’s degree by turning it into a ticket to a job (although, today, that ticket often doesn’t get you very far). And the academy itself has adopted an increasingly rankings-oriented, competitive, customer-based ethic that has reaped costly effects. The expectations and standards of a rigorous education have yielded to thinly disguised professional training, while teaching and learning have been devalued, de-prioritized, and subjugated to enrollment management, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, and more research grants and publications. Teaching is increasingly left to contingent or adjunct faculty, and tenure-track faculty members have few incentives to spend time with undergraduates, improve their teaching, or measure what their students are learning. Retention and completion are prioritized over student learning and success in order to make the budget. None of this makes for higher learning, much less good preparation for employment or citizenship.

A Call for Board Leadership

While faculty members are and should be the arbitrators of pedagogy and curricula, the crisis in higher learning demonstrates the need for the engagement of governing boards with questions of the quality of student learning. Ideally, the board, faculty, and senior administration work together integrally to promote the interests of the institution and its students. As part of its fiduciary responsibilities, the board should ensure that current and future students are well-served.

As the AGB “Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality” (AGB, 2011) notes, “boards cannot delegate away their governance responsibilities for educational quality.” The statement recommends seven guiding principles to define the board’s paramount obligation to steward the institution in this capacity and to “recognize and support faculty’s leadership in continuously improving academic programs and outcomes, while also holding them—through institutional administrators—accountable for educational quality.” Peter Ewell’s classic, Making the Grade: How Boards Can Ensure Academic Quality, originally published in 2006 and with an update due this fall, similarly affirms this responsibility.

What is needed—and what the board can advocate—is that learning becomes the primary touchstone for institutional decision making and resource allocation. What other touchstone is so perfectly aligned with every college or university’s mission and vision? Institutions that make decisions based on their impact on learning will plan, operate, manage, and allocate resources differently than those that continue to emphasize magazine rankings, sideline businesses, athletic preeminence, or competitive enrollment metrics. Imagine the learning equivalent of an environmental-impact statement for new facilities or master plans. Boards can help shepherd change in institutional culture by emphasizing the placement of learning at the center of all policy discussions. The governing board can hold the president and faculty members accountable for establishing and implementing policy that emphasizes learning as that new touchstone for decision making.

Trustees, the president, and faculty members together, through the practice of shared governance, need to address questions such as the following:

  • What are our expectations for the outcomes of undergraduate higher education? What knowledge, skills, attitudes, commitments, and values do we expect our graduates to have?
  • Does the overall undergraduate experience effectively support students in meeting those expectations?
  • What evidence do we have that our students have met our expectations and standards?
  • If there is a gap between our expectations and students’ achievement, what change is needed to improve outcomes?

Evidence of Change

As the governing board works with the president and faculty members to put learning at the center of the institution’s business, evidence of change should be gathered, reported, and discussed. Here we list some pertinent examples of such evidence—demonstrations of shifts in institutional culture, priorities, strategy, and decision making. The pace, outcomes, and manifestations of appropriate culture change at each institution will vary, but if learning is becoming the highest priority, trustees and the rest of the institutional community can expect to see all or most of the following:

  • Institutional consensus on student learning goals. Faculty members, administrators, and professional staff from throughout the institution consider, discuss, and ultimately reach strong consensus about the desired learning goals for undergraduates and then communicate those goals broadly, clearly, and effectively. Most students, and most members of the faculty and staff, are able to articulate them—and the reasons for their importance. The board’s committee on academic affairs, for example, is part of those discussions. Further, the board can reasonably and appropriately expect to receive a clear explication of the institution’s learning goals to inform its review of the annual budget, accreditation self-study, and strategic-planning reports, as well as requests for new programs.
  • Divisional, departmental, and program-specific learning outcomes. The major divisions of the institution (especially academic affairs and student affairs, in most cases) define their own divisional learning outcomes, nested within and linked to the overall institutional outcomes, and departments in every division describe their own intended learning outcomes, nested within and linked to the divisional outcomes, for minors, majors, programs, services, and activities. In various ways, these goals and outcomes are shared with students, as are the ways in which achievement of those outcomes is measured and reported. Students have no doubt about what the institution intends for them to learn at any level or from any learning experience.
  • Learning impact statements. These statements—again, think of a comparison with environmental impact statements—are submitted as a required part of every proposal for new or redirected resources. In these statements, administrators, faculty members, or staff members who request new positions, equipment, courses, academic or other programs, student services, or facilities carefully describe the anticipated effects of the proposed actions on the quality and quantity of student learning. How will a new cross-departmental, interdisciplinary major improve student learning? What about an addition to the student center? Hiring new enrollment-management staff? Developing an attractive, but expensive, hiring package for a new research faculty member or football coach? Given the board’s responsibility for determining how institutional resources are directed, learning impact statements are expected as part of budget requests—a matter of policy that also signals to faculty and staff members, and the board itself, the crucial focus on learning as the lens through which decisions are made.
  • Elevated expectations of and support for students. Much more writing is required of students in all majors; few students can get away with spending fewer than 20 to 25 hours per week studying. And students, responding to greatly improved and more-accessible and comprehensive advising, make coherent, purposeful decisions about academic programs, individual courses, out-of-classroom learning experiences, internships, community service commitments, and, eventually, career options. Students describe their undergraduate experience as challenging but purposeful and are able to identify ways in which advisors, professional staff, and faculty members have helped them see the connections among their courses and the linkages between in-class and out-of-class learning experiences.
  • Rigorous and comprehensive assessment of student learning. A rigorous regimen of learning assessment is established and sustained throughout the institution. Professors and professional staff members routinely assess the quality and quantity of student learning in every kind of learning experience, inside and outside the classroom, in both formative (during the educational experience) and summative (at the end of the experience) ways. The institution collects and archives evidence of student achievement, including not just grades, but a variety of other artifacts of learning demonstrated in ways appropriate to the discipline or subject. Those archives, often maintained digitally in e-portfolios, contain work and assessments of student learning in general education, experiential learning, minors, and majors. This cumulative evidence of achievement is regularly mapped against desired institutional student-learning goals. In other words, the institution and the board that governs it can easily tell whether the quality and quantity of student learning are sufficient. Such data are only useful if they help the institution continuously improve, however. The board ensures that process by requiring, for example, a five-year comprehensive review of institutional learning data and by evaluating a sample of such data from various departments and programs each year.
  • Learning-oriented promotion and tenure criteria. Criteria for the hiring, reappointment, promotion, and tenure of a faculty member emphasize the importance of learning and the quality of teaching and learning attributable to his or her efforts. In the reappointment, promotion, and tenure process, the institution uses direct, faculty-derived, authentic assessments of student learning as evidence of the degree to which any faculty member is effective in teaching. Tenure-track faculty members can readily articulate promotion and tenure criteria and the role of learning assessments in them. Assessments of the quality and quantity of student learning in classes replace the customary satisfaction surveys in which students rate professors on various (and often dubious) performance criteria.
  • Continuous faculty development. The institution provides strong support for faculty development in advising, student mentoring, pedagogy, learning, and the assessment of learning. As part of its annual budget review, the board requires a report on the nature of faculty-development programs and activities that reviews not only their costs, but also the evidence of their value and effectiveness. Regular, routine needs assessments permit both junior and senior faculty (and both tenure-track and non-tenuretrack faculty) to identify professional-development priorities that are then addressed through peer support, group learning, formal workshops, and individual coaching by expert colleagues. No one assumes that scholarly achievement in a particular discipline, such as chemistry or sociology, indicates teaching expertise, and there is only support for faculty members who seek assistance in improving their performance as teachers. Faculty members can describe their own plans for improving teaching and strengthening student learning.

Too little learning occurs in colleges, and an institution of higher education that fails to deliver learning is not worth the cost at any price. High cost plus poor quality always equals low value, and lowering cost without simultaneously improving quality only makes low value more affordable. Students deserve better, and governing boards, working in integral partnership with presidents and faculty members, can ensure that they get it.

Significant institutional cultural change is needed to elevate learning in our colleges and universities. We must raise our standards and expectations for students and their work and conduct rigorous, timely assessments of learning that both provide evidence of what is being learned and guide improvements. Greater effort will be required of both students and faculty members, but the payoff—higher quality and greater value—is well worth that investment. It is appropriate and reasonable for boards to engage with these endeavors in the context of their continuing efforts to promote both institutional and student success.

Unless substantial change occurs, the federal and state governments, in the name of an increasingly frustrated public, may choose to impose external standards, assessment requirements, and evidence of accountability on higher education institutions. Board leadership, therefore, is an important pathway to needed cultural change within the academy. Governing boards have the commitment, authority, proximity, and fiduciary responsibility to help their institutions make learning the core institutional priority and central touchstone for decision making. The academy needs to rise to this occasion. Change cannot wait; the costs in learning and student achievement are too high.

Guiding Principles for Boards

  1. The board should commit to developing its own capacity for ensuring educational quality.
  2. The board should ensure that policies and practices are in place and effectively implemented to promote educational quality.
  3. The board should charge the president and chief academic officer with ensuring that student learning is assessed, data about outcomes are gathered, results are shared with the board and all involved constituents, and deficiencies and improvements are tracked.
  4. The board is responsible for approving and monitoring the financial resources committed to support a high-quality educational experience.
  5. The board should develop an understanding of the institution’s academic programs—undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, as applicable.
  6. The board should ensure that the institution’s programs and resources are focused on the total educational experience, not just traditional classroom activity.
  7. The board should develop a working knowledge of accreditation—what it is, what process it employs, and what role the board plays in that process.

From the AGB “Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality” (AGB, 2011)

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