Reform in 2015: our hopes for the new year

As 2015 approaches, we offer our hopes for higher education reform. Some changes will require action by university stakeholders, and others will require a “hands off” approach. Here’s hoping that the new year brings improvement upon the status quo. 

George Leef

I hope 2015 is the year America finally dumps racial preferences to bring about “diversity.”

Since the 1970s, colleges and universities have been using preferences in student admissions because their leaders have bought into the idea that, as Harvard’s Derek Bok once said, “It just won’t do to have an all white university.” What he means is that it won’t do to have a student body chosen only on academic merit because it would have “too many” white and Asian students and not “enough” students from “diverse” backgrounds.

This policy has caused many schools to reject high-scoring, scholastically motivated students to make room for weaker, less motivated students whose ancestry puts them into an “underrepresented” category.  

The bad outcomes of doing that are becoming clear. We know that many of the “beneficiaries” of preferences would have been better off at a different college where they’d have been better matched. 

And there is also legal trouble for preferences. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Fisher v. Texas made it clear that the justices are unwilling to breezily accept the pat defenses for preferences, which is to say, discrimination based on race, that it formerly did. Fisher will almost certainly return to the Court following the Fifth Circuit’s weak effort at employing “strict scrutiny” over the Texas policy. 

The next decision about preferences (Fisher or some other case) might be the one where favoritism for some Americans and against others is finally declared illegal.

Harry Painter 

I hope that politicians wise up and leave higher education alone.  

A recent study shows that the number of students enrolling in college has gone down every year for the past three years. Advocates for increasing college enrollment might take this as a discouraging sign, but they shouldn’t. That more students are choosing not to go to college does not necessarily signal a crisis of access. It might just mean that college is increasingly expensive and the return on investment is decreasing, and students are smarting to that.  

Numerous reports and commentaries have popped up this year insisting that the numbers show college is still a good investment. That may be true of today’s statistics and projections, but all investments are risks, and students are not fools for coming to conclusions contrary to the calculations of the well-meaning forecasters. 

On the other hand, some go too far in the other direction. Just because some students choose apprenticeships or vocational jobs over the four-year liberal arts route does not mean we should tell everyone to skip college. Nor should the government implement policies encouraging this by creating unnecessary and costly state apprenticeship programs, for example.  

There probably are too many people in college, which is the result of easy federal loans, subsidies, and other economic manipulations that have made earning a degree a requirement for even unskilled jobs. Politicians and access advocates should instead let students decide for themselves whether college is the right path. 

Jenna Ashley Robinson

I hope that Western Governors University will come to North Carolina.

Of course, in order for that to happen, North Carolina legislators must pave the way. They can do so by copying what’s been done in Indiana. In 2010, Indiana created WGU-Indiana, a private, non-profit institution formally established by the state in partnership with WGU. North Carolina should follow suit.

Western Governors University would be a boon for North Carolina students, particularly adult learners and returning veterans. By sticking to teaching (no research or service), WGU keeps tuition low. At WGU, each term lasts six months. The more courses a student completes each term, the more affordable his or her degree becomes. And students receive “competency units” instead of credit hours, which means that they can get credit for information they already know without putting in extra “seat time.”

WGU also delivers high-quality education in high-demand fields such as business and education. WGU’s teacher education program, for instance, was ranked first in the nation by the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2014.

The Pope Center wrote a lengthy review of WGU here

Jesse Saffron

I hope that teacher preparation improves.

In the last couple of years, more than 30 states have enacted laws and created regulations aimed at improving K-12 teacher quality. North Carolina, for instance, mandates that elementary school teacher candidates understand how to provide effective reading instruction before entering the classroom.

But one of the biggest proponents of teacher education reform, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), believes much more needs to be done in North Carolina and across the country. 

Last June, NCTQ released the 2014 Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs. The Review is a strong indictment America’s teacher preparation programs, which are referred to as an “industry of mediocrity.” 

According to NCTQ, of the 1,612 elementary and secondary education programs that it ranked, only 107 (less than 7 percent) were given the “Top Ranked” designation. Out of the 47 programs ranked in North Carolina, for example, only three were “Top Ranked,” and 24 were so bad that they didn’t receive a numerical rank. 

The biggest problems with teacher education programs, and the reasons for the dismal rankings, according to NCTQ, are low admissions standards (most programs choose from the bottom half of the college student population), inadequate content preparation (teachers aren’t mastering the subjects they teach), and substandard in-class teacher preparation (clinical training for college students is often lackluster). 

This year, education programs in North Carolina and the rest of the country should take a close look at NCTQ’s report and start addressing their deficiencies in a meaningful way. 

Jay Schalin

I hope that in 2015 the Republican-dominated North Carolina legislature does not ignore the UNC system as it has done in recent years. 

Legislators have made sensible moves in other areas, especially K-12 education. But there is so much opportunity for reform in the university system. Legislators could start with transparency; last year, a provision in the budget that called for all department-level expenditures to be placed online for public display was removed at the eleventh hour (not just for the universities, but all state agencies). There is almost no single act the legislature could do that would better ensure good, efficient government than to enact another such provision. Also helpful would be a measure to place all course syllabi online.

It would also be good to see an improvement in UNC system governance through the creation of an executive director for the Board of Governors. Currently, the system administration is able to manipulate the board by controlling the information the board receives. An executive director under the direction of the board would enable board members to gain access to information they are not currently provided and without which they cannot make good decisions. 

There are many other possible reforms. One is to adjust legislated faculty workloads at the large research schools. Another is to reverse negative actions taken by the UNC system to counteract declining enrollments at several schools, such as the creation of a pilot program that lowers system-wide admissions standards for three historically black universities.

Jane S. Shaw 

I hope that UNC-Chapel Hill is serious about continuing to reduce its “chancellor’s admits.” 

Also called “special admits,” these students don’t meet minimal system-wide requirements for admission and must be approved by a special committee. Reports are that the number of such admits at UNC-Chapel Hill was at one time as high as 40 a year. In the fall of 2013, the number was 5.

But that small number is somewhat misleading. The minimum admissions standard for the SAT is only 800—the average SAT score for freshmen entering UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 was 1304, more than 500 points higher. The average SAT score of entering football players was 1058 that year. This is well above the system minimum, but far below the UNC-Chapel Hill average. It’s unlikely that a student with such a score could succeed there.

The difficulties facing such students led to the scheme of “paper classes” in the African and Afro-American Studies Department. As discussed in numerous reports, those “no show” classes kept students eligible for sports.

While many ideas have been proposed for eliminating academic scandals of this sort (Jenna Ashley Robinson outlines some here), most skirt the key issue: students who are unprepared or unqualified should not attend UNC-Chapel Hill, whether they play sports or not.

Those students would have challenges under any circumstances, but when they practice and play for 40 hours a week, their chances of truly learning approach nil. That has to change if the academic reputation of UNC-Chapel Hill is to be restored.