No Undergrad Left Behind?

A new initiative recently reported in APLU, “Project Degree Completion,” intends to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to 3.8 million by 2025 (that’s an increase from 14.6 million awarded in 2011 to 18.4 million in 2025).  Almost 500 public colleges and universities have signed on to the plan.

In addition to increasing the number of degrees awarded, the plan also aims at keeping tuition costs under control despite recent trends in state funding and the uncertainties ahead with a dysfunctional Congress, looming debt ceiling, and sequestration hanging over future federal funding like the Sword of Damocles (imagine Congress idly enjoying the good life and passing the buck on accountability and spending while the sharp blade of pending budget cuts hangs by a single hair over the chamber….).  [Don’t be fooled by those who say that sequestration may not be so bad.  While some programs may be exempt, by in large, the majority of federally funded programs will be cut by a standard percentage – an that includes federally funded research.  It may be the slap in the face that we need to improve the Nation’s financial track record, but slapping, as a general rule, is not a pleasant experience for the entity on the receiving end.  In this case, we are literally slapping ourselves, so everyone’s going to feel it.  I just spent the last 6 months at the Office of Management and Budget working on a portion of the 2014 Budget, so my perspective is somewhat recent.]

I have nothing against setting goals that increase this country’s academic standing, number of college graduates, or overall competitive posture in the world economy.  We need to improve.  Badly.  Unfortunately, I am also cynical of anything that doesn’t come with a well structured implementation plan, necessary resources, leadership commitment, and alternative approaches to ensure successful execution.  I’ve seen too many noble gestures at the federal level fall apart due to lack of planning and lack of detail.  Maybe it’s too early to criticize.  Maybe a plan exists, or is under development.  Maybe there’s a well thought out set of principles, criteria, and consistent goals and objectives.  But my cynicism leads me to believe that the details will be worked out later, and that each university and college will end up developing its own set of standards – which may or may not produce the desired end result in 2025.

The current commitment that parties have agreed to is somewhat general, and in my opinion, may not take the current fiscal and systemic educational situations into full account.  According to APLU, ‘The commitment asserts that “states must provide sufficient appropriations to support students and the discovery of new knowledge,” while the federal government must maintain its “commitment to student financial aid; support for research and innovation; and encouragement of states to continue their support for public colleges and universities.”  The commitment also stresses that public colleges and universities must be “more innovative in the performance of their essential roles.”’  I have many questions regarding how “innovation” will be used to reach the goal.  I wonder if it’s meant to be used as a means of off-setting lack of funding and essential resources, as opposed to embarking on a much needed transformation in innovation across the academic community at all levels (a topic for a future blog post).

After the debacle and subsequent demise of, “No Child Left Behind,” we need to ask the hard questions and we should expect a well constructed and transparent plan that tells us how we get from point A to point B without sacrificing quality and integrity just to end up playing a numbers game based on statistics alone (meaningless statistics in this case).  In order to meet the goals of Project Degree Completion, the academic community is going to have to address the sins of the past over the last decade or more in public elementary and secondary schooling in addition to its public colleges and universities.  If it’s just a another numbers game, we’re all in trouble and we really have succumbed to the concept of education in this country as fast food.  In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, “we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”  Sadly, I think that may be one of the most accurate and depressing descriptions of our current education system.

I would love to see the U.S. rise in world-wide standings from #14 to one of the top five countries in terms of the overall percentage of the population with a college education. I just hope we’ve learned from the past, and that we are prepared for the very serious challenge ahead and the necessary resources needed to ensure that we fix what is most certainly broken – education in the U.S..  We’ve been gambling with the nation’s future for a long time and our education system has become a large part of the depreciating collateral backing each escalating bet.  It’s time ante up all around.  I hope this initiative is a step in the right direction.




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