September 27, 2020

Report shows ‘erosion of trust’ in higher education

Faculty, staff, and administrators met Nov. 15 for the second of two open public forums hosted by Beth Paul, interim provost, to discuss the Spellings Report, a comprehensive federal study about the current state of higher education. Conversation focused on how to respond to the report, how to improve access for minorities, and how to justify rising costs to the public.

“There is a lot that’s provocative in this report,” Paul said. She said the report could be characterized as a symptom of a broader “erosion of trust” in higher education.

The Spellings Report, formally called “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” was produced by a commission of eighteen professors, administrators, and private executives. 62 pages long, it covers what the members saw as the four challenges facing U.S. higher education: accessibility, affordability, quality, and accountability.

Glenn Steinberg, professor of English, said that higher education had to take the lead in transparency. If colleges and universities were the first to propose standards for increased transparency and took steps to implement those standards, they might be able to avoid one-size-fits-all standards from the federal government.

“I’m afraid that many will react defensively (to the report),” Steinberg said.

Matt Golden, director of communications and public relations, took issue with the characterization of eroding public trust in higher education.

“People don’t think we’re scandal-ridden or irresponsible,” Golden said.

Instead, Golden said, the problem was with state legislators who have limited resources.

“It becomes something of a public relations battle,” Golden said.

Harold Eickhoff, former College president, said that the public had trouble understanding what it was college educators did. He told a personal story of how his mother asked every summer, “Now that school’s out, what are you going to do?”

“Either we reduce costs or we justify the costs (to the public),” Eickhoff said.

Marilyn Bowers, a nurse with Health Services, said she wasn’t sure that tuition moneys were being well-spent. While performance of college students has remained stagnant, costs continue to rise.

“I don’t know we’re getting the results with the money we’re spending,” Bowers said.

One way to involve the community and justify costs, Brenda Leake, an associate professor of elementary/early childhood education, said, was to get community members who don’t send students to the College involved in college life.

“We have this huge facility that goes largely unused on weekends,” Leake said. She suggested that the College use these unused resources to run community events, like computer education.

Another topic discussed at the forum was how to get students from the poorest groups of society into college, and how to keep them there.

Larry Gage, director of psychological counseling services, said he was stunned by a chart on page 10 of the report, which showed that it would take 83% of the income of a family in the lowest 20% of earners to send their child to a private four-year college without grant and aid. Even after aid, it comes to 60%.

“How are people going to get into the door and how are they going to stay there?” Gage asked, relating that two of his current counseling clients were struggling with possibly transferring due to the financial burden of college.

For those in the bottom quartile, Ellie Forgarty, associate provost, responded, there was a “participation barrier, not an access barrier” for college. Lower quartile families don’t know how the college process works, and colleges need to reach out to help prepare those groups, such as connecting with guidance counselors.

Jim Norfleet, vice president of Student Life, said that colleges needed to look beyond high schools for help, where counselors may not be interested in preparing minorities for college. Norfleet said a colleague when he was getting his PhD related that black churches, for example, were more involved in getting black students prepared for college than their high schools, and financially supported them while in high school.

While the report raised many questions, there are apparently few easy answers for higher education battling rising costs and reduced funding.

“We need to give fresh thought,” to the problem of higher education, Paul said.

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