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Why Fundamental Change in Higher Ed is Necessary (Guest Post)

The following is the second in a three-part series of guest posts by Rasmus Lynnerup, former executive vice chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. See the first post here.

Today, the United States has two parallel structures of public postsecondary education: universities (four-year schools) focused primarily on the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees and above, and community colleges (two-year schools) focused on teaching high school curriculum, providing industry certificates and associate degrees, and helping students gain admission to four-year schools.

Both of these structures are in turn governed by the overall frame conditions of higher education, which include the bodies that ensure accreditation of institutions and programs, federal and state regulations, and the implicit and unspoken rules of the sector.

All parts of the postsecondary education system are in need of dramatic improvement. In my opinion, both the structure of the sector and the purpose of the individual institutions must be fundamentally transformed towards a solitary focus on student learning and outcomes.

Many of the specific changes required are well-known to most in higher ed, but the sector as a whole is embracing the required, large changes exceedingly slowly – while millions of students discontinue their studies and the United States keeps decreasing its relative standing in the world.

First, focusing on the frame of conditions for the industry as a whole, there are four large, interlocking sets of problems that collectively ensure the inertia that has allowed the educational levels of the American populace to deteriorate so dramatically in comparison with international standards:

  • Accreditation: The quality assurance process of institutions is largely organized by volunteers that come from within the industry. In many cases, this establishes mindsets and requirements that are insular and self-referencing. Moreover, the penalties for non-compliance are very limited – or exceptionally overreaching in the cases where an institution is disallowed from allowing students to pay tuition with federal financial aid.
  • Governance: In general, the sector is governed in a decentralized manner, with public policy considerations largely divorced from decision-making and with highly diffuse accountability structures. As an example, employees routinely form parallel institutional governance structures outside the appointed or elected institutional board members, which represent a mechanism to maintain the status quo of power structures.
  • Funding: State legislatures are increasingly defunding public tertiary education institutions throughout our nation. Such decisions are often rooted in the sector’s lack of responsiveness to societal and student requirements, combined with perceptions that higher ed’s cost and pricing structure has gotten out of control.
  • Leadership: Recruitment of executive leadership within the industry puts a unique premium on having grown up in the system. Hiring processes are often institutionally focused with large groups of people making hiring decisions. As a result, the sector’s inability to recruit the best and the brightest from across all sectors of society sustains the status quo – and continuously declining outcomes.

Second, reshaping the institutional focus on improving student outcomes, and especially the equity of those outcomes, will require tackling similar sets of large problems that directly challenge the existing power bases in the sector:

  • Relevance: Program and curriculum development is in most cases not connected with other institutions or the labor market. As a result, the transferability of credits across institutions and the eventual usefulness of those skills in the labor market is often limited.
  • Structure: In general, the industry does not provide good structures that allow for students to understand their goal, the path to reach that goal, and the implications of going off course. These structures must be deeply embedded within the fabric of each institution. One simple example would be to insist that classes are offered to students when they need them, instead of when institutions want to offer them.
  • Student Supports: Higher education officials maintain mountains of individual student data and could be leading the way in the use of analytics and proactive interventions. However, most institutions have not aligned their systems to proactively identify and support students showing signs of being in trouble.
  • Operational Excellence: Despite being organizations with massive balance sheets, billions of dollars of revenue and costs, and serving millions of students, postsecondary institutions often place little emphasis on truly implementing principles of operational excellence. These institutions have all the characteristics of billion-dollar businesses—but are not managed as such.

In short, there are very large issues, both within the sector as a whole and within each institution, that must be fundamentally changed—and this change will take years or even decades to take effect. However, the sooner we start, the sooner we will put our nation on track to a future of world-class, equitable educational outcomes for all.

About Rasmus Lynnerup

Rasmus is a first-generation college student who immigrated to the U.S. in his 20s. He now resides in Chicago, where he served as executive vice chancellor for the City Colleges of Chicago. He has a passion for helping his adopted home country’s residents fulfill their highest potential and rebuild a system of higher education that his twin boy and girl can grow up to view with pride.