Frank Bruni on American Higher Education’s Identity Crisis!

Dear Commons Community,

Frank Bruni examines issues such as graduation, standards, employment, and costs facing American higher education in his New York Times column today.  He approaches the issues with balance but picks and chooses his facts and surveys.

On global competitiveness:

“…one of the most important issues in American life right now is higher education’s identity crisis, its soul-searching about what it should accomplish, whom it should serve and how it must or mustn’t be tweaked. Our global competitiveness is likely to depend on how we answer these questions.

And if you think we’re suitably competitive as is, then consider another survey, published last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It measured the skills of Americans from the ages of 16 to 65 and found that they by and large lacked the mathematical and technological know-how, along with the literacy, of their counterparts in Japan and Northern European countries.”

The OECD is a respectable organization but one with a definite bent to commerce and global business interests.  Bruni could have also quoted The (British) Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2013-14 which were released two weeks age and gave American higher education its highest rankings.

On college affordability:

“The escalation of tuition, the crippling rise of student debt and a persistently high jobless rate over recent years have rightly prompted educators, politicians and other policy makers to float and implement methods to make college less financially onerous, in part by collapsing the time it takes for students to get their degrees.”

College affordability and student debt is mainly an issue for students who attend private and for-profit colleges.  The public higher education systems and the community colleges that enroll the majority of students, continue to be affordable and do not leave students with crushing debt.  It also needs to be mentioned that much of the increase in tuition at public colleges over the past decade have resulted from university budget cutbacks on the part of states strangled by a weak economy and not by colleges expanding facilities, programs, or services.


“Some states and educators see the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a terrific way to enroll more young people in college at a more affordable price, but there’s little if any evidence so far that this approach is optimal, especially for the students stretching the furthest to incorporate higher education into their lives.”

Bruni is right on here but he could also have mentioned that the MOOC phenomenon was generated mostly by commercial interests and the media and not by the majority of colleges and universities and certainly not those in the public sector.

Bruni’s conclusion:

“We’re in a tricky, troubling spot. At a time when our nation’s ability to tackle complicated policy problems is seriously in doubt, we must pull off a delicate balancing act. We must make college practical but not excessively so, lower its price without lowering its standards and increase the number of diplomas attained without diminishing not only their currency in the job market but also the fitness of the country’s work force in a cutthroat world.”

I agree!



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