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A model for other nations.

THE CURRENT DEBATES about higher education in Washington, D.C., are both healthy and daunting. As the Department of Education pushes for more federal intervention in accreditation of colleges and universities, mandated transferability of courses, and standardized measurable learning outcomes for all students, higher education faces the unprecedented threat of government intrusion into a system that provides more access and quality to more students than any in the world.

U.S. citizens believe that the federal departments guiding our domestic and foreign policies exist to serve the country. The U.S. State Department works to ensure safety for this nation and collaborates with other nation-states toward global security, We count on the Department of Justice to keep our courts strong. We have faith in the DOE to advocate for good education for our citizens and to monitor programs that increase access for all. Educators have been surprised in the past two years to hear deep skepticism from the DOE about the quality and integrity of higher education in the United States. Rather than advocate for our system of higher education that is widely regarded as the best in the world, DOE leaders have become its harshest critics.

Charles Miller, appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to lead the Spellings Commission, said last year that "American higher education is broken and can't be fixed." He also said federal financial aid programs should be "nuked." As president of an independent college and a participant in the finest system in the world, I find his observations unfitting and unfair.

U.S. higher education, with all its imperfections, remains a model for other nations. Unlike in most nations, where higher education is limited to students from the wealthiest families or students with the highest IQs, in this country, we

* Provide access to students with a wide range of abilities.

* Welcome students from all socioeconomic levels.

* Weave diversity into the fabric of our campuses so students are prepared to live and work in an increasingly global environment.

* Give academic freedom for course design and student evaluation to faculty members, who have rigorous disciplinary preparation.

* Measure student learning outcomes and make improvements based on what we learn.

* Offer students choices between public and private education, large and small schools, and community colleges, technical colleges, undergraduate colleges, and graduate universities.

* Govern IHEs through accreditation processes that respect institutions' distinctive missions and set high standards.

Is higher education in the United States perfect? Absolutely not. We stretch our operational funds to provide sufficient financial aid for students from poor families. We struggle to contain the rising costs of health insurance and increased demand for technology. We sometimes teach less effectively than we should and are sluggish in understanding the impact of technology on the learning process. We never, however, lose sight of the learning outcomes our students need to achieve.

Colleges and universities of all sizes and missions work hard to assess student learning. The tools vary from school to school and department to department, but all colleges and universities assess student learning. The question becomes more focused as the DOE contemplates requiring that schools use standardized measures of learning so the public can compare institutions based on those standardized test scores.

This kind of comparison does not consider the nature of the institution or the nature of the students who attend there. Some elite schools attract students from wealthy families who have had lifelong access to travel, tutors, cultural opportunities, and summer educational programs. Other schools serve sons and daughters of parents who never attended college. Still others serve prisoners and immigrants and students with learning disabilities.

How will nationally standardized test scores help the public compare these highly selective institutions with those that serve underprepared and underresourced students? The test scores will not be informative because of the confounding factors that affect the scores. What the public needs to know is how colleges and universities make student learning happen. Some students arrive at college already on third base. Others come up to bat with two strikes against them before they even face the pitcher.

The current system of regional accreditation acknowledges this reality: Assessment of student learning focuses on how much student learning improves during the time in college. Some students arrive at college more prepared and able than others, so our assessment should not measure just one common end result or score. The DOE can look to regional accreditation practices for useful assessment of student learning, already in use for decades.

Further, regional and disciplinary accrediting agencies are themselves involved with continuous self-improvement. They retain high standards while building new standards that take into account the powerful role of technology and e-learning. High standards now guide accreditors' efforts to evaluate study abroad and its impact on student learning. These accrediting agencies continuously seek knowledge about student learning and hold colleges and universities to account for facilitating that learning. They do so without federal mandates.

Is higher education broken beyond repair? Is higher education in the United States so bad that the federal government should intervene? No! For the federal government to regulate directly the measurement of student learning and the transferability of course credits will seriously erode the long and effective history of self-regulation in higher education, a tradition that has worked extremely well for the past century.

I hope that federalization of higher education will not materialize, but we cannot be complacent. We must articulate our belief in the integrity of higher education--of our own institutions and the shared enterprise--to those who have influence in Congress. We must be clear in messages to the Department of Education and to the public that ours is an imperfect, ever improving system--one that remains committed to high standards of self-regulation.

Each college and university in this nation embraces the freedom to create its own mission. We embrace the freedom to develop curricula to prepare our students for lives of responsible citizenship. We embrace the challenge to provide this education in an affordable way. We embrace the challenge to be accountable for our students' learning. In fact, we cherish it.

By Jo Young Switzer, president, Manchester College (Ind.).
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Title Annotation:THE State of HIGHER EDUCATION
Author:Switzer, Jo Young
Publication:University Business
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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