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Hard Truths That Higher Education Has Evaded for Too Long | Inside Higher Ed


There are harsh truths—lies and secrets, guilt and shame—that we generally don’t want to admit. That our family or our marriage is dysfunctional. That our intimate relationships are marred by hurtful, traumatic, toxic or abusive behavior. That our loved ones are unfaithful or addicted or are suffering mental decline.

Some harsh truths are actually clichés. Your actions are more important than your thoughts. Sustaining intimacy takes work. Talent means nothing without hard work. Perfectionism is a curse; unrealistic standards lead to paralysis. Impatience is destructive; it fractures relationships, makes us rude and petulant, degrades performance, and leads to rash decisions. In the end, we and our loved ones will die.

Some inconvenient truths are business-related. Your target audience isn’t everyone. You can’t do everything. Effective decision-making requires goal and priority setting and unpleasant trade-offs. Without a well-defined strategy and an understanding of an organization’s strengths and weaknesses and its competition, institutions inevitably squander their resources and energies. Adapt or die. Without innovation no organization can thrive. Success requires leaders to learn how to say no.

Anyone who cares deeply about American higher education needs to come to grips with a series of hard and unpleasant truths:

  • That this country’s system of postsecondary education relegates the students with the greatest needs to the most underresourced institutions.
  • That high-performing Black and Hispanic students are far less likely to earn a college degree than comparable white or Asian American students.
  • That “elite universities operate on the principle of self-interest above all else,” and their top priority is to preserve their prestige and brand.
  • That rich relationships are central to students’ academic success and well-being, but fewer than one undergraduate in seven has such relationships.
  • That the main contributor to college’s rising college costs isn’t the cost of instruction, which has stagnated. It lies in a growth imperative and ever rising standards of care—in community colleges’ expanding mission (which now includes offering dual-degree/early-college programs, a host of certificate and certification programs, and applied bachelor’s degrees) and four-year institutions’ expenditures on campus amenities, research and fundraising, as well as mental health, compliance, learning support and nonteaching professionals.
  • That despite a quarter century of intensive efforts to raise college graduation rates, rates remain distressingly low for Black and Hispanic students, older students, part-time students, and community college students.
  • That inequities pervade American higher education, including gates that restrict entry into high-demand, high-salary majors in computer science, economics, finance, engineering and nursing.
  • That college teaching remains largely what it has always been: an amateur enterprise that fails to take into account the insights of the learning sciences. This means that most classes are instructor-centered and involve little active or experiential learning apart from instructor-led discussions.
  • That most undergraduates exit college pretty much as they enter it: scientifically and culturally illiterate; unable to write well; incompetent in math, data and statistics; unfamiliar with the methods and theories of the social sciences; and lacking fluency in a foreign language.

It’s high time to acknowledge and address those disturbing realities.

It’s not that institutions ignore campus inequities or student learning. The problem is, rather, that other priorities eclipse what campuses claim to value.

First, however, let’s ask why those inequities realities persist.

  1. Because whatever their professed claims, neither student learning nor equitable outcomes are pre-eminent institutional or faculty priorities. It’s not what institutions say that matters. It’s what they do. Campuses could take steps to improve students learning outcomes and equitable access to high-demand majors. They could, for example, expand bridge programs and supplemental instruction in especially challenges courses and monitor and redesign courses with high DFW rates. Failure to do so is itself evidence of a campus’s true priorities.
  2. Because colleges and universities are pulled into too many different directions. They need to rededicate themselves to their primary mission and ensure that they are learner- and learning-focused.
  3. Because the curriculum and the educational experience offered represent a political compromise designed to maximize faculty autonomy, departmental enrollments, student choice and completion rates while minimizing instructional costs. If student learning really were our main concern, we’d offer far fewer large lecture classes without breakout or lab sessions and more opportunities for active, interactive and experiential learning and do more to align coursework with the essential skills and knowledge we want our students to master.
  4. Because of a lack of accountability. Accreditors could, for example, require institutions to undergo professional development training in teaching. They don’t. Institutions could take steps to increase representation of underrepresented students in high-demand majors. They haven’t. Campuses could require more reading and writing. Not.

What would it take to change this grim reality?

  1. We need to reframe the conversation about equity in ways that prioritize learning and equity in learning outcomes. Today’s campus conversations tend to focus on issues like academic freedom or free speech and affirmative action in admissions. In my view, we need to devote more attention to student learning, equity in access to and completion in especially challenging majors and postgraduation outcomes.
  2. We need to negotiate and implement a new set of academic compromises that place student learning front and center. That would require campuses to eliminate many large lecture classes and expand supplemental instruction even at the expense of other institutional priorities. It might also force institutions to reconsider gen ed requirements, course scheduling and pedagogy, and create more integrated major pathways.
  3. We need to rethink calendars, course schedules and delivery modalities to better serve today’s diverse, posttraditional students. To increase completion rates and expedite time to degree, today’s working, commuting and caregiving students need course offerings that better conform to their needs and schedules, even if this conflicts with existing expectations. That will require more block scheduling, varied-length courses and perhaps more four- or five-credit courses that will allow students to concentrate on a particular class rather than multitask in ways that have proven counterproductive.
  4. We need to think more intentionally and strategically about the knowledge and skills we want students to acquire. If writing and statistical, social scientific, and scientific literacy are truly a priority, we must ask ourselves how we propose to help students acquire those competencies. We must also ask ourselves how students are supposed to gain other skills—study skills, time-management skills, research skills and leadership and interpersonal skills—that academic and postgraduation success require but that aren’t explicitly taught.
  5. We need to redesign and give greater precedence to faculty development and instructional support. Shouldn’t we devote at least as much attention to expanding professional development in pedagogy and assessment as we do to research integrity and computer security? And shouldn’t we devote more institutional resources to the redesign of bottleneck and gateway courses?
  6. We need to redirect state, federal and foundation funding toward the institutions that serve students with the greatest instructional needs. Let’s put our money where our mouths are and do much more to ensure that all students receive the supportive college education that they need.

There are a host of inconvenient or unpleasant truths that we forget at our peril. We err when we avoid discomfiting truths because they trouble and embarrass us and when we dismiss tellers of ugly truths as biased ideologues.

The economist Richard Vedder once published a paper detailing 12 unpleasant truths about higher education. He pointed out, for example, that undergraduates are too often neglected by faculty, that institutions too often run for the benefit of their administrators and employees rather than students, and that colleges hide vital information from consumers and legislators. However exaggerated, his claims need to be confronted, not ignored.

If we want to make higher education truly equitable and produce the learning outcomes that we claim to seek, then we must confront painful truths no matter how uncomfortable they make us. Which brings to mind a quotation from Abraham Lincoln:

“If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Educational innovation isn’t a quick, painless or friction-free process. So, let’s acknowledge the disquieting truths about higher education, face up to them and do more than claim that our campuses are doing God’s work. Let’s take the steps that will make equity and deep learning more than empty promises.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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