A Low Point In Higher Eductaion

For more than a year the state of higher education in the United States has come under intense scrutiny by a seven-member panel, organized by the National Institute of Education and called the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education. Its report was issued a few days ago, under the somewhat portentous title of "Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education," and it contains both facts and recommendations that deserve the most careful, if not universally favorable, consideration.

The language of the report, for one thing, leaves a good deal to be desired. It reflects no credit on any of the panel's members that they collapse into the jargon of sociology and pop psychology; an ostensibly serious study of higher education loses some of its credibility, to put it charitably, when it talks about "parameters" and "feedback" and "interpersonal skills." But once you cut through the fog, the messages come through clearly and with considerable urgency. Here are a few of them:

* College is big business. "Our colleges, community colleges and universities enroll more than 12 million students, employ nearly 2 million workers, and account for 3 percent of the Gross National Product." Since 1950, "enrollment in higher education has increased almost 400 percent, while the number of institutions has increased by almost 60 percent to nearly 3,300."

* Narrow specialization is the order of the day. Colleges "now offer more than 1,100 different majors and programs, nearly half of them in occupational fields." Only 36 percent of bachelor's degrees are awarded in the arts and sciences, down from 49 percent in 1971. Professional accrediting associations encourage -- even mandate -- this trend, by requiring that as much as 80 percent of a student's baccalaureate work be in his professional field.

* Colleges tend increasingly to be large, with deteriorating physical plants and heavy debt obligations. "Virtually all institutions of higher education, public and private, are dependent on some form of enrollment-driven funding and hence tend to serve the changing whims of demand rather than student needs."

* Credits given for course work tend to reflect time in class and grades achieved, but not "the academic worth of course content." It is widely possible for a student to graduate with a full load of credits yet to be woefully ill-educated. "For example, in some colleges students can earn the same number of credits for taking a course in family food management or automobile ownership as for taking a course in the history of the American city or neuropsychology." This reflects "the tendency of colleges to control their 'inputs,' such as the characteristics of the students they admit, while paying insufficient attention to their 'outputs' -- in particular the learning of the students they graduate."

In sum: "The realities of student learning, curricular coherence, the quality of faculties, faculty morale and academic standards no longer measure up to our expectations." This is not a damnation -- if anything, the report bends over backward to credit higher education for the actual or fancied good that it does -- but a simple statement of fact. Higher education in the postwar era has grown so rapidly and democratized so chaotically that its standards have declined even as its influence and prestige have inflated; in its haste to be all things to all people, it has forgotten that its primary mission is to educate.

In a nutshell, what the report says is that higher education has ignored the person whom it exists to serve: the student. We know remarkable little about "what students actually learn and how much they grow as a result of higher education." Thus the report focuses, in its recommendations, on putting the student back in the center of the picture. This is not a matter of reverting to the '60s and that decade's insane mania for turning the curriculum over to the students, but of making certain that the education for which a student attends college is actually delivered to him.

Thus, for example, the report recommends a reallocation of "faculty and other institutional resources toward increased service to first- and second-year undergraduate students," who now "are often closed out of course selections, treated impersonally, and given lower priority in academic advising" than upperclassmen. It cautions against letting the fad for computers and other new technologies "isolate the learner from the teacher and the teacher from the assessment process." It calls for a reversal of the trend toward part-time instructors, arguing that "part-time positions should be used to attract individuals with special talents and abilities and to provide flexibility in staffing special programs, not as a method for obtaining cheap labor."

There are many other recommendations, some familiar and others less so, but the one of greatest importance is that the bachelor's degree, which is "basic to higher education," must be restored to "something of common -- but high -- value." In what it concedes "some might regard as a radical restructuring of undergraduate professional programs in fields ranging from agriculture, business administration and engineering to music, nursing, pharmacy and teacher education," it recommends: "All bachelor's degree recipients should have at least two full years of liberal education. In most professional fields, this will require extending undergraduate programs beyond the usual four years."

It's incredible that this should be regarded as "radical," but such is the state of American "higher" education that indeed it is. Before it is too late, the report pleads, stop the transformation of American colleges and universities into glorified trade schools. Give us educated men and women, and the job market will take care of itself: ". . . the best preparation for the future is not narrow training for a specific job, but rather an education that will enable students to adapt to a changing world."

Study history, in other words, for the shopworn but indisputable reason that by knowing the past we can better understand the present and future. Study language and literature so we can better express ourselves and understand others. Study philosophy so we can develop powers of analysis and synthesis. Study the physical and biological sciences so we have a firmer knowledge of the body of learning upon which our technological society has been constructed.

This may seem approximately as radical as pablum, but it needs to be said and it needs to sink in. That it has been said by a panel whose members are all academics and/or academic administrators should help get the message across; even better is that there's not an English professor or a historian in the lot, so the panel cannot be accused of advancing its own interests. To the contrary, the interests to which it has addressed itself are those of society at large, which can only be properly served by a system of higher education when that system seeks to educate, not merely to train.