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Taking Off on Higher Education

The focus of education reform is expanding to cover the nation’s colleges and universities. A new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provides an excellent takeoff point for debate on making a good system better. The report points to strong areas of achievement on the nation’s campuses. But it also voices alarm about a lack of civic involvement in an age of self-interest, about the rising dependence on loans to finance students’ educations, and about the decline in some minority enrollments.

“Despite its high quality, American higher education must be even more effective if it is to meet the needs of this country in the decade ahead,” the report concludes.

The report was written by Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.

One challenge is the altered role of the United States in the world economy. The report urges American universities to help develop new technologies as well as conduct basic research.

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Even more urgent, according to the study, is the need “to restore to higher education its original purpose of preparing graduates for a life of involved and committed citizenship.” The nation’s schools must educate young people to understand the complex issues ahead for the country in such areas as national defense, pollution control, genetic engineering, domestic and global economics and crime prevention, the report says. To do that, the country needs more teachers and should establish public-service fellowships to encourage people to teach in inner-city schools or to help meet demands for mathematics and science teachers.

In addition, the report calls for more student aid in return for community service. In general the report found that “the rapidly increasing dependence on loans as means of financing students is alarming and must end.” Students feel too much pressure to find well-paying jobs immediately on college graduation to pay back their mounting debt.

The report calls for maintaining loan programs--but at lower levels and by shifting to more work / study grants as well as restoring the GI Bill for military service.

Cuts in student aid have contributed to the leveling off of minority enrollments in the last decade, the report found. After increases in the early 1970s, minority enrollments reached a plateau. Black enrollments have even fallen since 1975, even though blacks make up a larger share of all 18-year-olds now. Latino enrollments grew slightly, but less than the Latinos’ share of that age group. Fewer blacks and Latinos are earning bachelors’ degrees now as well.

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But the aid cuts are not the only factor contributing to unsatisfactory minority enrollments. Federal enforcement of anti-discrimination laws has been lax. And recruitment, despite many improvements, still may not be as creative as it needs to be. The report urges development of a fund to award grants to universities to help them create ties with public schools to identify and encourage minority youngsters to consider college and to prepare for it adequately. The report cites the minority engineering program at California State University at Northridge as a successful effort.

Turning to education programs themselves, the report found that “much of the attention of policy-makers--and students--focuses on technical expertise necessary for today’s careers.” Not enough attention goes into developing creativity or encouraging students to take intellectual risks. The report argues that one way to combat the tendency toward rigid teaching methods on college campuses--methods that stifle initiative--is to allow students to have a more active role in their own education, both through requiring greater class participation and through internships in the community.

The education experts who looked at higher education found a continuing need for federal involvement. Earlier reports reached the same conclusion. This new report urges federal financial support for basic research and student aid. It also urges the government to support innovative programs to improve teaching. And it advocates other programs to improve access to higher education, vital to success and the fulfillment of personal and national goals.

But the task will not be easy, the report notes, because, after 40 years of bipartisan support for federal programs supporting broader participation in higher education, federal policies now no longer encourage college attendance.

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