Your Turn: Higher education must address criticisms

As another academic year draws to a close, higher education is facing increasing criticism and scrutiny. 

Seemingly, little progress has been made in long-standing areas of concern.  

• Higher education is unaffordable for many. Over the last 20 years, average tuition and fees have increased by 170 percent at private universities and by 296 percent at public universities. 

• Too few who enroll finish. Six-year graduation rates are 58 percent for public four-year colleges and 65 percent for private four-year colleges.  

• For many, quality of education is not what it should be. Only 36 percent of the public and only one third of business leaders believe that college graduates are prepared for workplace success at their businesses.  

And over the last several years, new serious criticisms have arisen, two of which have received much media coverage and public attention.  

One involves sexual assault and harassment, an epidemic too often ignored or mishandled. A recent survey reports that one in five young women in college says they have been sexually violated.     

The other involves race. Racial incidents, administrative responses, and accusations of institutions turning a blind eye to their histories have rocked campuses. In turn these have led to further clashes about political correctness and freedom of speech.  

These criticisms — both old and new — need effective responses that go beyond rhetoric and public relations. The problems must be confronted then solved in a timely and efficient manner.   Bottom line is that higher education needs to get its act together.  But it is important that we not demonize its institutions or its people.

The anger and frustration caused by America’s deep political and cultural rifts too often lead to gross oversimplifications and generalizations. Immigrants are criminals. Muslims are terrorists. Corporations only benefit the rich. Government is incompetent. Conservatives are indifferent to the poor. Liberals believe in a welfare state. 

The criticisms of higher education are legitimate but it, like the larger world, cannot be labelled as simply good and bad. Much great work is taking place in higher education. Colleges and universities are also engines of equality, bearers of high standards and centers of intellectual and artistic excellence and innovation.

Twenty million students are in higher education; three million graduate every year. The number of students of all races and income levels has increased significantly, and the diversity of our system gives opportunities to students of all kinds. More than a million foreign students come to study here every year, and 35 of the world’s top 50 universities are American.

So what must higher education do as it moves into the future?  The answers are complex because of the variety of institutions, but some basic rules can be set.

• Higher education must more publicly acknowledge its weaknesses and take a more visible role in suggesting and implementing solutions.

• Higher education must develop stronger ties to other institutions that are working to solve society’s problems.

• Higher education must define its goals and willingly be held accountable.

• Higher education must adjust in providing more specialty elementary and secondary teachers to rural America.

• Higher education must have more creative and cooperative programs with progressive community colleges. And there are others.

It is time for all of our great institutions to acknowledge their responsibilities and join in swift action.

— Gene Budig is past president or chancellor of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a researcher and former vice president of the College Board in New York City.