David C. Paris: Higher Education at Risk?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David C. Paris is the Leonard C. Ferguson Professor of Government at Hamilton College and Senior Fellow at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. He is the author of Ideology and Education Reform: Themes and Theories in Public Education (Westview Press, 1995), and “Standards and Charters: Horace Mann Meets Tinkerbell” in Educational Policy (1998) and is the former vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Hamilton College.]

We’ve heard this before. Our schools are failing. International competitors are gaining on us. Our economic future is in jeopardy. This time, however, the educational institutions examined and found wanting are our colleges and universities.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence and Education declared that we were “A Nation at Risk.” The report asserted that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in K-12 education was putting America at an economic disadvantage in global competition. Now the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the Spellings Commission) has delivered a similar message.

While acknowledging that “higher education in the United States is one of our greatest success stories,” the commission claims that “a lot of other countries have followed our lead and are “passing us by at a time when education is more important to our prosperity than ever.” The report warns that “[h]istory is littered with industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to — or even to notice — changes in the world around them ... institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap.” Apparently, we are at risk again.

What have we learned from our experience in K-12 education reform that would help us in evaluating the Spellings Commission report? That history warns against putting too much emphasis on the economic context of higher education. It also shows that quick, “top-down” fixes for reforming education at any level are unlikely to work.

The dire prediction in “A Nation at Risk” of economic decline without educational transformation was simply wrong. Despite the fact that the public schools have improved minimally, if at all, since 1983, the American economy has outstripped its international competitors. The performance of our schools has not been a primary factor in either our economic woes or our successes. There are many more important and proximate causes for our economic performance such as technology, management, and government regulatory and monetary policy. Emphasizing the economic role of colleges and universities and asking, as the Spellings Commission does, that higher education “serve the educational needs of a knowledge economy,” overstates the economic impact of education and misstates the role of colleges and universities.....

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