America's colleges are churning out uncreative graduates who leave campuses overburdened with debt and with too little sense of civic responsibility, according to an unusually critical report from the widely respected Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
"Students too frequently sit passively in class, take safe courses, are discouraged from risky or interdisciplinary research projects and are discouraged from challenging the ideas presented to them," according to the report, "Higher Education and the American Resurgence."
The report by Frank Newman, former president of the University of Rhode Island, called for a drastic overhaul in the nation's system of higher education and the way students pay for it, including a suggestion that the federal government curtail its massive loan program and make students perform community service work in exchange for financial aid.
The current system of saddling students with huge loan debts upon graduation discourages them from entering lower-paying community-service and public-sector jobs, Newman said.
"Excessive loans inadvertently undercut traditional values. Working one's way through college is a cherished American concept that conflicts head on with 'Go now, pay later,' " wrote Newman, who is president of the Education Commission of the States. "A student who leaves college with a large debt burden may well feel he has already assumed all of the risk that he possibly should."
The report's suggestions on college-student aid come in the midst of a national debate on how to restructure federal college-assistance programs, as Congress prepares to reauthorize the omnibus Higher Education Act.
The sponsors of this report expect it to spark the same kind of impetus for reform in higher education that the widely touted "Nation at Risk" report produced at the elementary and secondary school level. That report attacked the low standards of American public education and said the nation was at risk from a rising tide of mediocrity.
Some of the report's suggestions will be discussed for possible implementation on campuses when a consortium of 100 university and college presidents meet in Cambridge, Mass., next month. That group is expected to draft a joint statement emphasizing that students must become involved in their communities as a key facet of their college life.
While insisting that American higher education is still the best in the world, the Carnegie report attacks the hierarchical structure of the American college, in which professors often lecture in large halls to students expected to take notes and repeat the professor's words on a final examination.
Such a system, according to the report, aptly prepared students for work in the old-style hierarchical corporate world. But the new world of business, in a highly competitive international economy, requires workers who can think creatively to solve problems outside of a formal management structure.
"Much attention has been focused on whether higher education is graduating a large enough pool of technically trained manpower to meet the needs of an advanced technological society," the report said in one of its summaries.
"A more urgent question is whether graduates, in all fields, have the ability to be innovative, the will to take the necessary risks, the capacity for civic responsibility and the sensitivity to the international nature of the world to be effective in today's society," it added.
On another topic, the report emphasized the need to improve minority participation in higher education by creating a National Opportunity Fund to support grants for disadvantaged students. Recent studies and informal surveys have shown that minority -- particularly black -- enrollment on college campuses has declined since the 1970s.