“Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

“Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk” is a two hour PBS documentary that outlines pressing concerns about Higher Education in the United States.  The host talks to various students, faculty members and administrators at four (4) different higher education institutions to get an understanding of what happens to students between admission and graduation.

The documentary outlines that some of the many challenges facing colleges and universities today which range from, the expectation to always retain students for the financial benefit, students dropping out because they are not being challenged, to a cultural mindset of not taking the time to read.  With more than 14 Million students at 4200 colleges and Universities, questions are being asked about the quality of teaching and learning, retention and graduation rates and the skills of the students who earn their degrees.

The issues raised are all critical ones and definitely would not be a surprise to anyone involved in higher education.  Students enroll in a higher education institution for many reasons, from being the first family member to attend college and the associated pressure to succeed, to college is a place to express new-found freedom.  As with anything in life, you get out what you put in, so the onus of the decline of higher education is multifaceted.  As stated in the documentary, the culture as displayed in the media, encourages that you don’t have to read to earn significant money and improve your quality of life.  More emphasis is often placed on the star athletes and athletic programs which can garner more income than on a well-rounded and inspired student. As the documentary states a professor would have to do additional work, that is research, if they wish to have a pay raise.  They are also being told that they need to be innovative and challenge the students. All this, they are asked to do, with a majority student population who would rather scrape by, pillage off other achieving students than read in an effort to be more educated.  Since the majority of the students, approach college as a fun time of newfound freedom, they are more often willing to do just the minimum, while they professors are expected to give high or passing grades in an effort to fulfill other administrative financial demands.  This cycle introduces a” minimal work for high rewards” mindset. These highlighted problems cannot be ignored as it is later transferred into the work environment and society as a whole

The documentary shows the extreme happening in several categories, a more comprehensive view was needed to capture what really takes place in our higher education systems.  The recurring argument seems to be a contradiction between the role of schools to provide quality education and the practice that focus on quantitative means to measure success.  It is very easy to report numbers enrolled, retained, and graduated as an interpretation of intended outcomes.  This practice requires little effort, and no reflection, although it is rewarded as institutions compete for public funds, grants and revenues.

When discussing financial aid, the documentary speculates that higher education institutions give too much merit based aid. This argument reduces the quality of the students’ academic achievement that they have earned.  It also gives a negative illustration of low-income students, assuming that they do not have the academic fortitude or wherewith to gain merit scholarships. 

Ms. Lisa Couturier, a higher education consultant, outlines that the higher education systems need to be changed, stating that they are not satisfied with the level of skills that graduates are showing.  The first hand discussion with, students, teachers, and administrators gives us an insight into the problems and challenges facing Higher Education.  Higher Education is about preparing for the future in an effort to be a functional element in society.  However, the US universities in today’s culture is based on a business model to garner more income for the university and not on an educational arena of higher learning.

George Kuh, the director of a national survey for college students, estimates that 20% of students just drift through their college years.  A large number of students are enrolled, stay enrolled and graduate from colleges without putting in any effort into their studies.  They just “sleepwalk” through college.   I have personally experienced this “sleep walking” phenomenon in the workplace. Often times these sleepwalker students who barely made the grade to graduate, become employees who don’t strive to do well in work projects or assignments; they prefer to have someone else do the work for them.  They just scrape by within the work environment, want everything to happen very quickly, lack the discipline to see a project to the end.  The interesting thing here, is not that these employees (former sleep walker student) don’t have the mental capability, as they do, is that their “mental education muscle” was not trained during the college years.

Teachers face different problems that can compromise the quality of the teaching and learning experiences.  One problem reported is that rewards aren’t given out based on teaching.  Brian Strow, an economics professor, outlines that there is a lot of pressure from the college administration for him to be engaged in more research.  If he wants a raise that is what he has to do. 

In a particular segment of the documentary, the commentator’s portrayal of college professors, as not caring about their students and focusing only on tenure and research is not totally true.  It seems as if only the most extreme examples were depicted in this documentary, because if the interviewer truly spent two years on these campuses he must of witnessed other examples of faculty who expressed an interest in their students and were still able to complete quality research.

The documentary also highlights the impact of financial forces on higher education.  As Government support for public universities are disappearing, this creates a financial stress which students have to manage.  Students, teachers and administrators have to deal with this loss of funding the best way they can.  This decrease in public and government’s financial commitment goes against the social contract which was entered into some sixty years ago to ensure access to colleges for all despite family income. 

Most of the examples in the documentary show students as not being academically committed, seeing college as a social outlet.  However, there are students who view college seriously and study many hours for their classes.  This example shows how only the extreme cases were displayed in the documentary without giving an accurate view of college. 

The portrayal of athletics was skewed, narrow and incomplete.  The documentary did not even bother to give the academic progress of the athletes.  If an accurate view of college life is to be obtain, more time would have to be devoted to showing average college students instead of trying to find extreme negative examples of college life.

Are the examples in the documentary true? Yes, like with everything in life there are two sides to every issue.  I admit that there is an issue with students learning, financial aid, and the balance between teaching and research.  However, I think that many colleges have demonstrated successfully how to provide the proper environment while encouraging their students to learn.

It is imperative if global success is needed in the future  to examine this situation now; waiting to see what will happen is not an option.  What the US society needs from higher education needs to be reassessed. Review of the existing model which universities are emulating is needed.   Is it a business model with the goal of finance gain or is it to produce students who can function effectively in the world as a whole, and compete on a global perspective? The onus is therefore on the stakeholders in education to conduct further assessment of this growing and very serious problem, with the aim of ameliorating the issues plaguing the education system. This will have to be dealt with on a phased basis as this did not happen overnight; therefore, there is no ‘quick fix’. Strategic and careful planning must be undertaken prior to the introduction of this reformation programme to ensure its success.

“Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

ETS Sees Big Jump in Number of GRE Tests Taken in India

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is an international assessment tool used for the matriculation of college students into post graduate programmes, primarily in the United States and European institutions.  This entrance examination is used and recognized by most post graduate institutions, and is facilitated by the Education Testing Service (ETS), a multi-million dollar non-profit organization, that has over 1000 test centres worldwide in more than 160 countries. The test is divided into three areas: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The test is administered online or via a paper component at a centre nearest you, with registration, materials and test results being provided in the same manner at an additional cost. The test which currently costs $205 US dollars can be taken multi times as sittings are provided in September, October and April every year.

The article “ETS Sees Big Jump in Number of GRE Tests Taken in India”  (February 2014) has demonstrated that the drive for higher education is on the rise as territories such as India see education as a way to cross over social boundaries dictated within their own society. Since 2010 the demand for opportunities for higher education has increased as GRE test takers have risen from 1% in 2009 to 22% in 2013.  At present India’s education system is the third largest in the world, after China and the United States.

So with such a highly regarded education system, why are so many Indian students looking to study overseas? Well like many Commonwealth economies, India has a high percentage of young educated adults who see the prospect of migrating into a first world country as a plus to help start their careers. The concept of the “grass looks greener on the other side”, coupled with the increased use of technology to advertise and market new and immerging degree programmes, have opened the flood gates for persons to look beyond their home country for higher education.

The economic factors however seem to be the biggest factors that plague up and coming young professionals, as graduates who look to invest in higher education face the realities of not being able to find sustainable and rewarding employment. Countries such as India, and in parallel Jamaica, suffer from a devaluating dollar, overcrowded cities, and limited job opportunities to fill the supply of a qualified work force. Has stated in the article Debbie Stewart, President of the Council of Graduate Schools (2014) reiterates that “People can say the Indian economy is in trouble, and therefore people are escaping and coming to the U.S. in large numbers.”

The pathway to applying for a graduate degree in the US and Europe are endless, but at what cost? As is documented in the article over 70% of India’s prospective graduate student population apply to various institutions. What the article did not project however was the cost attached to the sending of applications, requisition of transcripts, application for financial aid and the acquisition of student visas to study aboard. Notice this does not include the cost for tuition, airfare and room and board which vary greatly based on the conversion rate of currency in each country.

The increased push for graduate programs is not strange as persons in certain fields such as law, medicine and the social sciences are aware of the income employment challenges that face them, knowing quite well that an undergraduate first degree is not going to cut it. The attainment of upward mobility is, in most cases, placed in the sites of educational attainment.  Arguably as we profess our need for investing in higher education, the chances of seeing a return on your investment within a few years seems dismal with high unemployment rates and the increased automation of certain jobs. Hence the need to invest in higher education comes with the demand for higher levels of certification and the expansion of skills.

The premise of the article I believe is not necessarily based on the increased amount of GRE test takers in the last few years, but the indication of persons wanting to leave their home country to find a better life through the avenue of higher education, despite the rising costs. Some would argue that the migration of our best and brightest fuels brain drain and leaves our developing countries at a disadvantage. However modern day advantages to migration, such as remittances and the ability to open doors for others in the building of a healthy diaspora, may just be the thing to help us adequately prepare for future generations.

I for one have constantly reflected on what are the gains to be gotten after spending two years and an enormous amount of my financial resources to invest in higher education. For many, it is a way of stepping out of the pack, enhancing my qualification to attain the “next big” opportunity that will come. Or perhaps it’s a sense of self-actualization, intrinsic motivation or a push and pull of my will that drives me to succeed. However in the end, will my investment really pay off? I’m sure that’s the gamble that most of the GRE test takers are willing to bank on so as to get the best results.

ETS Sees Big Jump in Number of GRE Tests Taken in India

Britain Experiments with GPA, but Critics Say It Won’t Be A Cure-All

Odette’s Blog

There have been several changes in the education sector globally and higher education is no exception to the different changes.  Grade Point Average (GPA) has been an issue for both students and teachers over the years which resulted in some students satisfied about the system while others dissatisfied.  GPA’s are important especially to students as it determines the type of degree that they obtain.  While this is advantageous to some students others feel like failures if they do  not obtain an upper class degree and often times the type of degree will influence if the students attend graduation or not.  Because of the different factors of the GPA system many countries are now facing GPA reform.   When we refer to reform in the educational realm we often times look at the written curriculum, but reform simple means making changes towards something.  This could be an institution or practice in order to improve it.  As such if a reform is not improving what existed before then it is futile.

Britain has been using a grading system for over 200 years and has now decided to adopt the American GPA system.  For Britain to be using one system over decades would imply that it must have been working well for majority of the participants.   However, changes are inevitable and as such will take place as the need arise. The grading system that Britain has been using deem rigorous by some professors and students.  The article “Britain Experiments GAP, but Critics Say It Won’t Be a Cure-All” by Lucy Hodges argues which of the system is better for students and outlines the effectiveness of the grading system as well as the GPA system.  The article outlines possible pitfalls of both system and recommendations are made for Brittan to use both degree classification and the GPA system.  This I think would cause possible misunderstanding for the 21 Universities in Britain.  Therefore, it is imperative that the universities across Britain should be standardized with regards to grading scheme.  If both systems are used in the universities then it would pose challenges as the students will not be properly evaluated and the degrees would not have the same measure/weight.   Hodges explained in the article that Britain universities award degrees into five distinctions: First class-honors; second-class upper level (referred to as 2.1); second class; lower (a 2.2); third class; pass with-out honors and fail.  Critics of the British system say it creates an artificial division between those with a 2.1 or higher, and those who achieve lower than a 2.1.

Critics of the grading system also complains that classification of the degrees have divided students into two camps – those with a 2.1 and above and those with a 2.2 and below.  Students in the latter category often feel they have failed, especially since employers often seek applicants with at least a 2.1.  Now I would agree that this system is rigorous, would it appear that persons with 2.2 and below might have difficulties obtaining a job because of the type of degree?  Having a first-class honors degree doesn’t suggest that one is more competent than a person who has obtained a second class which sometimes might be a .1 gap.  There are several factors that can cause a cap between a 2.1 and a 2.2 and employees need to look at possible factors before making such a crucial decision.  Of a fact every one prefers the cream of the crop, but certifications alone will not prove top scholars.  Employment should also base on competency, and not only the type of degree one obtain.  Robert Burgess, vice chancellor of the university of Leicester, who is supervising the GPA test run at the 21 British Universities that is about to implement the American GPA system stated: “ While we need accurate assessments, the very sharp divide that has developed between the two degree classes is not helpful,” (p.2).  Robert further added that grading reform needs to be a priority for higher education and that we need to do better for our students.

While some universities are for the change, others are opposing.  Oxford and Cambridge have opposed to the change as they deem a first-class degree from them is a social maker of significant achievement.  Michael Kelly, head of the modern languages at the University of Southampton  believes that the main arguments in favor of the GPA is that it would do away with the ‘cliff edges’ between degree classifications and give a smoother, more continuous scale, however he believes it actually introduces more “cliff edges”.  On the other hand, Terence Kealey, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham doubts that the GPA would do anything to alleviate grade inflation.  He added that GPA is fairer than traditional degree classifications as they contain more information and they abolish the near-arbitrary decisions between the classes of degree. He further stated that they do not address the major contemporary problem of degree inflation.

Higher education landscape is changing and what was of vital importance decades ago are now changing and moving towards the global sphere.  The degree classification as served its purpose and also the GPA system.  The replacement of the degree classification with GPA might have its drawbacks but it is also catering to the international arena where persons who were afraid to study in Britain because of their grading system, can now use the opportunity to do so as they now have the same system as America. Now what do you think? Is the degree classification rigors and unfair or it is preferred over the GPA system?

In conclusion, grading system serves as a tool for students and lecturers to assess each other from perspectives of development in the subject area and making lecturers feel confident that their students have understood the subject area.  However, there are instance where grade A or students with GPA highest or first class do not perform excellent on the job with GPA 2.1 and grade D student doing excellent on the job.  I strongly believe that without grading system there would be no quality of learning and efforts or experts within the higher education system.  Though the American system might be more liberal, it however shows that equal grading system of student obtaining A and students obtaining D are all competent in the subject and help erase the inferiority complex certain student might have in comparison to the British degree classification system.



Britain Experiments with GPA, but Critics Say It Won’t Be A Cure-All


Mickell’s Blog

The most important aspect of freedom of speech is freedom to learn, freedom to acquire knowledge and speak on, not only issues that directly affect the society in which we live, but on issues that stem far beyond our purview, no matter how unsettling or controversial they may be. Education, in whatever form, is a continuous dialogue, questions and answers that pursue every problem on the horizon. This is what education is, either we embrace it, criticize it or shy away from it. For me, this is the essence of academic freedom. Many scholars, such as George Robinson and Janice Moulton, define academic freedom as the freedom to teach and do research in any area without constraint, to discover and promulgate new ideas, no matter how controversial. Academic freedom, however, should not be limited to only educators. Students should also have the freedom to learn any subject without constraint, no matter how controversial it may be. However, like other accepted freedoms, academic freedom requires individuals, administrative authorities and governments to not only allow scholars to work without restraint, but also to prevent any interference with this freedom.

Way too often we see scholars being victimized and this freedom being snatched away. One such instance involved Dr. Ben Carson, a professor of neurosurgery at John Hopkins, who had to withdraw as commencement speaker for the medical school’s commencement, having come under pressure from students after he equated advocates of gay marriages with those who promoted bestiality and paedophilia during an appearance on Fox news. Another instance involved Matthew D. Green, a cryptology researcher at John Hopkins University, who was demanded by his faculty dean to take down the blog he wrote criticizing the National Security Agency for its aggressive surveillance strategies. All these instances clearly indicates that whomever the power that be, whether, government, administrative, general public, etc. does not expects these individual view about anything outside of narrow view of norm behaviours.

The very nature of academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views and ideas in speech, writing, and through electronic communication (tweets, posts on Facebook), both on and off campus without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise. Academic freedom is the right of  both students and faculty to study and do research on topics they choose and to draw what conclusions they find consistent with their research, though it does not prevent others from judging whether their work is valuable and their conclusions sound. To protect academic freedom, universities should oppose efforts by corporate or government sponsors and even the university itself to block dissemination of any research findings.

Colleges and universities are social places here a variety of competing claims to truth can be explored and tested, free from political interference. The lecturers who drive the construction of new knowledge and the process of education are highly trained professors and they, through an extensive process of review by professional peers, take responsibility as a community for the quality of their scholarship, teaching, and student learning. In any education of quality, students encounter an abundance of intellectual diversity, new knowledge, different perspectives, competing ideas, and alternative claims of truth. This intellectual diversity is experienced by some students as exciting and challenging, while others are confused and overwhelmed by the complexity. Academic freedom helps students develop the skills of analysis and critical inquiry, with particular emphasis on exploring and evaluating competing claims and different perspectives. With its emphasis on breadth of knowledge and sophisticated habits of the mind, academic freedom is the best and most powerful way to build students’ capacities to form their own judgments about complex or controversial questions.

As an educator, I personally yearn for this freedom. I yearn to explore unconventional yet effective teaching strategies which will stimulate the minds of my students to make them think outside of the box and develop reasoning abilities that will not only help them to solve the mathematics problems but to solve more pressing problems of society.  Like Matthew Green, I think we should be allowed to communicate about issues that are important. Thus, if we choose to communicate it in a letter to a newspaper or a journal article or Facebook or in a tweet, whatever the medium, that hould not matter. We should not allow ourselves to be muzzled or victimized.


The Issues of Missouri: Budget Tiff Exposes Doubts About Competency-Based Education

Sherila’s  Blog

Competency-based Learning programs give colleges and universities the opportunity to target a new set of nontraditional students, such as adult learners that need flexibility in their course offerings and may not have the freedom or time to attend on-campus higher education courses. From a faculty perspective, professors can work with their students as a coach or mentor; professors can create personalized learning paths based on student assessments. This results in highly engaged educational scenarios where student coursework is personalized to meet their specific needs.

In the article “Missouri Budget Tiff exposes doubt about Competency based education” the author, Dan Berrett, scrutinizes the effectiveness of competency based education, its endorsement by bypartisan representatives and tertiary level educators and the dedication of legislatures in the State of Missouri to implement the issuing of financial aid to students who may opt to study in Competency Based Institutions rather than enrolling in traditional universities and colleges. Berrett construes that there is shift towards the embracing of Competency based education, which increases the number of adults awarded degrees and diplomas. Competencies in specialized areas are the focus of the courses and the discipline of the student influences the timeframe in which the certification is awarded.

The title of the article indicates a debate about the implementation of competency based education in Missouri. The arguments expressed denote this fact. State budget bills referring to the issuing of scholarships to students attending universities within the state of Missouri proliferate the undercurrent challenges. The bill indicates an economic protection, especially of the traditional universities that exist in the state referred to as “home grown institutions” (p.2) The Competency Based Education offered at Western Governors University is embraced by some states, including Missouri, as it offers students the opportunity to matriculate through curricula that measures mastery of specific disciplines or skills. The Western Governors University prides itself as an online university that prepares students for the skills necessary for the workplace. As indicated on its web page, Western Governors University offers workplace relevant skills that are recognized by “employers and academia” and flat rate charges for tuition as opposed to payment per credit. (WGU)

Two salient points in this article are the need for increased tertiary level graduates which competency based education offers and the need for the protection of traditional universities, hence the budget demands for scholarships within the boundaries of the state. With the endorsement of senators towards competency based education to increase the number of adults with tertiary level diplomas and degrees, one can assume that there is the need for more adults to gain tertiary level education. Is competency based education the more relevant mode for ensuring that this need is met, is the argument that would be foundational in this article?

Competency Based Education seems relevant for most adult student as it focuses on the skills necessary to complete graduate level studies which are demanded by workplaces. The article highlights Western Governor University which offers adults the opportunity to study without having to enter a formal classroom setting. The traditional mode of studying is frequently hampered due to family and work responsibilities and the distances persons have to travel to attend institutions which offer the particular degree or diploma to fit their professional career. The duration of studying at a University such as Western Governors varies while their content remains constant. At the traditional universities the duration of study is constant while their content varies.

Burke (1989) cites evidence of the move towards the implementation of Competency Based Education, dating back to the early twentieth century as shown on government papers. Burke refers to a study taken on by a task force in Britain that encourages the transition to Competency Based Education. Much of what is expressed in Burke’s book reflects the sentiments of Berrett’s article; the proposition of an educational model which provides access to learning through varied modes which can be made possible to all sectors of the population, especially for persons who have never participated in the formal system. Other discourses for the move towards Competency Based Learning programmes expresses the opportunities for Colleges and Universities to blend their programmes to facilitate “non-traditional” students, with the offering of their courses in a flexible manner (Education Week Article).

Traditional institutions in Missouri are challenged with the introduction of competency based education (p.2) and are endeavouring to ensure that their institutions continue to be funded by the financial aide offered to students in that state. There is mention of the opening of financial aide to fund Competency Based Education in the article. One can deduce from the discussion that the representatives are seeing the diversion of financial aide for students who prefer to ensue Competency based Education. The arguments set forth does express the need for greater debate or clarity as to the reasons for seeking to establish laws for financial aide to be given to students based on the quality of the education they obtain. This was evidenced in the statement of representative Stephen Webber who says “The purpose of these scholarships is to help people increase their skills or knowledge, not get them credit for something they already know” (p. 2). This statement led to a puzzling reaction from the vice president for public relations at Western Governors University who explained that although Prior Learning is an aspect of Competency Based Education, their course offerings do not reflect it.

Competency Based Education is relevant in today’s education. I strongly believe there is a need for it but it has its draw backs. It requires discipline from the learner. The leaner must be intrinsically motivated to ensure matriculation through the course. It will assist the working adult. Despite the positive views and facts about Competency based education, I do not view it as being relevant to suit my present studies. My course of study demands an atmosphere of physical socialization and structure that requires the direct attention of lecturers.



The Issues of Missouri: Budget Tiff Exposes Doubts About Competency-Based Education