Higher education's undercurrents

Set against the backdrop of swirling presidential-campaign politics, American higher education at the turn of the second millennium was marked by court decisions, technological advances, and individual achievement.

It was a year in which the profound and mundane elbowed one another in the academic arena - and stealth trends flowed beneath choppy waters.

When Boston University pressed tenured professors to spend more time on campus, for instance, it was just the latest, yet most "out there" example of universities pushing to boost efficiency, some observers said.

Yet the deeper current propelling BU and others to search for higher productivity seems to be, in part, the waning hegemony of the four-year campus. Alternative certifications, corporate education, and online for-profit universities are all gobbling market share from traditional colleges and universities. Competition is growing. Fast.

It was a year when it seemed for the first time that online upstarts like Jones International University or Cardean University could actually make good on the promise of supplanting a campus-based college education.

"With new technology on the Web, students will obtain degrees all over the world," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "If you asked me who my biggest competition is, I'm less worried about Harvard and Yale and more about huge publishers like McGraw-Hill or Harcourt," which this year opened online "Harcourt University."

Less noticed, but sending shock waves through the nation's 600 or so selective colleges and universities, was a federal court ruling in December that the University of Michigan is allowed to weigh a person's race in making admissions decisions. The decision was seen as a huge victory for those who have said all along that affirmative action is needed to maintain diversity on campus.

But while it relieved some, the Michigan ruling was the flip side of previous court rulings in Texas. So the stage has been set for a potential US Supreme Court showdown in 2001 or soon thereafter over the use of race in college admissions, Dr. Levine and others say.

A still more-subtle indicator of powerful, unseen currents emerged in 2000 with the publication of "Colleges that Encourage Character Development" by the John Templeton Foundation.

The foundation's bid to identify the elusive quality of "character education" so often touted by schools reflects the rising desire of parents and prospective students to know a lot more about colleges than the size of the endowment or number of books in the library.

And just as Templeton tried to lift the veil on character, the first National Survey of Student Engagement put a spotlight on the quality of learning on campus by focusing on issues like how much time college students spend reading and writing. It revealed that institutions often ignored in big national rankings, such as Sweet Briar College in Virginia, were great places to learn.

In that same vein, the nation got its first-ever 50-state report card on higher education, which evaluated how well states are preparing people for attending college - making it affordable, increasing participation - and for completing college. It, too, took a novel approach that other rankings don't, to try to examine the impact of state policies on the quality of higher education.

What these three efforts indicate, some observers say, is that higher education will in coming years be under an ever-tighter microscope. State legislators, parents, and others will be examining what higher education does - and how well it does it, instead of just throwing money at it.

This is especially true as college costs reach unprecedented levels - and as it becomes increasingly difficult for those at the lowest economic strata to get a four-year degree in an economy that demands one.

"I think we're on a collision course moving financial aid away from need-based to higher-income families that don't need it," says Thomas Mortenson, publisher of Postsecondary Opportunity, a newsletter. "It's not available to people that need it ... and nobody's doing anything about it."

During their presidential campaigns, Vice President Al Gore and now-President-elect George W. Bush targeted most of their college-aid proposals to the middle class, for instance.

That emphasis could change this year if, as some expect, Mr. Bush expands college aid more for Hispanics and others on the low-income rungs trying to gain a foothold in higher education.

Yet perhaps the most reassuring event of 2000 appeared on the gradient of personal achievement, an event that seemed to prove higher education is still open to all, despite race and financial obstacles:

Ruth Simmons, one of 12 children born to Texas sharecroppers and a great-great granddaughter of slaves who had risen to become president of Smith College, found herself standing on an academic mountaintop. In November, she was appointed to be the 18th president of Brown University in Providence, R.I., making her the first African-American to head an Ivy League institution.

At a press conference she described attending segregated schools in Houston as her parents struggled to keep the family solvent. Her teachers there, she said, inspired her to achieve.

Later, she told the Monitor: "It's impossible to describe what it is these teachers gave me. The only thing I can say is that I understood, early on, that what education had given me was richer than anything anybody could ever give me in the form of material goods."

That realization, she says, is something she wants for other children.

"There are very few countries in the world where a kid who's poor can believe, by the time they're five years old, that they don't have to be mired in their circumstances for the rest of their lives. That's the power of this democracy, and that's the power of education."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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