Deputy Secretary of Education John King and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attend an awards ceremony at Patterson Elementary School. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that he would be leaving the Cabinet and that John B. King, Jr., deputy secretary of education, will take over. At this turning point, the president of a small private liberal arts college offers her thoughts on what is needed for higher education.

[U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to step down at end of year]


Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University (Photo by Michael Sink)

Nancy Gray has been president of Hollins University in Virginia since 2005; she was previously president of Converse College in South Carolina. Here are her thoughts on priorities for the next Secretary of Education:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s resignation prompted many of us in higher education to think about which priorities the Department of Education should consider under its new leadership.

While we applaud Secretary Duncan’s many accomplishments during his tenure, including his emphasis on greater transparency and accountability, a new secretary provides an opportunity for fresh thinking, especially when it comes to the mission of American higher education and the role of colleges and universities in serving today’s diverse student population.

First, I believe there’s a crucial need to take a more holistic view of higher education’s role in broadening the perspective on the value of education.

If America is to maintain its global leadership position, we have to educate a new generation who can solve problems creatively, think critically and communicate effectively, rather than just educating students for the sole purpose of job placement.

Many of us in higher education find that today’s high-school graduates are often unable to analyze and synthesize information, construct a meaningful argument or demonstrate creative and critical thinking skills.

Yet these are the skills that many employers say they want employees to have.

At Hollins, we believe that developing critical thinking skills with traditional, job-specific skills make a well-rounded, better-prepared graduate and future employee who can not only think for the job, but also think and navigate through changes on the job.

The 21st century workforce needs employees who can be innovative and adaptive in order to bring new products and services to market, as well as have a commitment to social and civic responsibilities that enable companies and organizations to build strong community networks.

Secondly, small liberal arts universities should not be evaluated in the same way as larger publicly-funded four-year institutions or even a community college.

The current obsession with college rankings, for example, does not take a holistic approach to accounting for the diverse student populations and needs served by public, private, liberal arts and community colleges, and these institutions’ respective roles in educating students for various purposes and career paths.

While well intended, the new College Scorecard for higher education which emphasizes job placement and starting salaries does not serve well. It looks at students’ starting salaries as a primary measure of success, which suggests that the only value of education is measured by short term earning potential, not earning potential over a lifetime or overall contributions to society at large.

Further consideration should be given to students who choose lower-paying careers. Is a public school teacher’s career any less than that of a Wall Street hedge-fund trader? Both have merit in their own way, and both the teacher and the hedge-fund trader may be perfectly satisfied with their chosen profession even though they have vastly disparate salary ranges.

Lastly, the declining middle class and new generation of first-time college-bound students require an overhaul of the financial aid process.

According to the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, Virginia’s private colleges and universities enroll a higher percentage of under-represented populations of students than Virginia’s four-year public colleges. With few exceptions, most students today need additional support.

Take FAFSA, the application for federal student financial aid. It is a challenging process even for college-educated adults whose first language is English. Let’s not discourage students and their families from seeking the American dream of a college education just because the financial aid forms appear to require an advanced degree to interpret.

Additionally, there is a lack of appreciation of the role higher education institutions play in providing financial aid.

According to August 2014 data provided by the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, for example, private colleges in the commonwealth invest their own resources in their students: First-time, full-time undergraduate students receive almost $180 million in grant aid. Of this total aid amount, 80 percent is provided by private institutions, 12 percent is provided by federal grants and eight percent is provided by state and local grants.

This data is further proof that cost is not necessarily a barrier for students who need smaller learning environments to thrive. Smaller private colleges may seem more expensive, but students rarely pay the “sticker-price.”

As a college president I’m delighted that students are pursuing higher education in increased numbers with varied personal goals. I look forward to higher education continuing to meet their needs — be it passion- or career-driven — so that we can produce well-educated American citizens who will be productive members of society.

I encourage Education Secretary nominee King to keep in mind that a one-size-fits-all evaluation approach to higher education doesn’t work.

Read more:

How Duncan and Obama have changed America’s schools

Reactions to Duncan’s departure illustrate national divide over education

Answer Sheet: If you think Arne Duncan is controversial, meet his successor