March 22, 2018

Higher Ed in State of Flux for the Fall | From the Bell Tower

steven-bell-newswireThe need for greater accountability in higher education is back in the spotlight, and this time the major advocate calling for it is President Obama. A new plan for rating colleges and connecting it to financial aid allotments is sure to put higher ed administrators on edge.

If late August found you still in vacation mode, or deeply immersed in preparing for the fall semester, you may have had less time to pay attention to the latest developments in higher education. It’s been a somewhat quiet summer, with the news being mostly about massive open online courses (MOOCs). What else is new? Are they the future of higher education? Yes—that week. Next week, a new report showed that students performed worse in a MOOC than in traditional classrooms. Academics, having lost some confidence in MOOCs, turned to creating other alternatives that were not quite traditional higher ed. Then a new report showed that MOOCs are doing better than we thought.

Academic librarians have been participating from the sidelines, or completely off the field, trying to figure out where they fit into the new world of mass online learning. Are we best configured to help faculty design an information component of their MOOCs? Is serving as copyright consultants the best we can offer? What about helping students navigate the research environment, and can we offer MOOC attendees the same level of access to resources that we offer on-site students or those working online? If conference presentations, webinars, and papers are any indicators, MOOCs are at least good for giving librarians something new to ponder, as they currently have many more questions than answers.

More Remediation Ahead

High school students’ state of preparation for college is an ongoing challenge for all but the elite and selective institutions. A new report titled “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013” considers the scores of the 54 percent of 2013 high school graduates—about 1.8 million people—who took the ACT. It is discouraging. Newly released results from the latest ACT scores revealed that only 25 percent of test takers were adequately prepared for college in all four areas of English, math, reading, and science. Nearly three in ten test takers, or 28 percent, failed to meet any of the benchmarks in the four core subjects. In each area, perhaps 40 percent to 50 percent were prepared, but with only a quarter of students prepared in all four areas, we have much work to do. It’s bad news for colleges and universities that already spend too much time and effort on remedial courses. If what’s happening in many urban school districts like Philadelphia is an example, this situation is going to get much worse before it gets better.

Better, But Assault Not Over Yet

It would certainly help if public higher education received more funding, but with the last several years of cuts adding up to an assault on public higher education, there was little chance of that happening. Now there may be some cause for optimism. According to a survey of state funding for higher education, for the first time in recent memory the average increase in state funding rose by three percent. While some states received double-digit increases after multiple years of cuts, this was balanced by states that continued to make cuts. For example, while Massachusetts increased its funding for public institutions by 16 percent, Louisiana decreased its budget by 17 percent. So while it’s a mixed bag, depending on the state, the overall trend was a reversal. Perhaps it is too soon to conclude that the assault on public higher education is over, but states may finally be realizing the dangers of cutting to the bone.

A New Type of College Rating

Perhaps the biggest August news in higher education, certainly if measured by media attention, was President Obama’s college road trip, which he used to promote his plans to make higher education more affordable and accountable. At the core of the plan is the creation of a new type of system for rating colleges and universities on metrics such as tuition, graduation rates, debt, earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. How well colleges perform in these ratings would then be tied to federal funding for financial aid. Nearly everyone questioned what it all meant, from debating whether such a plan could even work to comparing it to everything from Obamacare to No Child Left Behind.

How We Can Help

While these developments are of interest to academic librarians who follow the industry news, to most, these items are of little consequence. I would agree that on the surface there’s little we can do from our positions in the library to have an impact on some of these issues. Then again, when I read this quote from an average set of American parents on sending their child to my university or yours, I think differently:

This spring, Ms. Pray and her husband, both high school teachers, agreed to let their son Corey attend Boston University. “It’s outrageous, the dollar amount for the average family,” Ms. Pray said. “But when you see your kid get that passionate about something, you want to make it happen.” The Prays have refinanced their house. They expect to postpone their retirement. They’ve told Corey that they will cover his first two semesters, but after that he might have to come back home and attend the University at Buffalo, which would save the family tens of thousands of dollars.

We do our best each day to make our libraries work for college students, but we may rarely—in interacting with students—think much about the sacrifices individual families make to send their children to our campuses. If the Obama administration is successful in implementing some form of new rankings that tie our institutions’ funding for financial aid to performance, perhaps academic librarians could do more than watch from the sidelines. The ranking formula won’t directly involve library-based metrics, but when it comes to grades, graduation rates, and helping students be more prepared for competitive job interviews, academic librarians can make a difference. It’s been an interesting August for sure, but the fall may lead to even more conflict and change. Paying attention now may help us to determine how we can best use our talents and resources to give our institutions an advantage in a new landscape of college ratings, with big stakes on the line.


Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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