By: Kim DeCoste Issue: Resource Management Section: Opinion
There is little doubt that the future of children in the United States and around the world is one of the most pressing “resource” questions we must address. Educating and nurturing young minds so that we cultivate future leaders, workers, thinkers and citizens is essential to sustaining the nation and the planet. That is not a hyperbole.
Never mind chauvinistic concerns, though some people approach the issue that way. Focus instead on the idea that if we do not determine where our children’s education ranks on the long list of priorities, it will be too late for many of them to recover easily. Perhaps it is already happening. When focusing on the United States, an interesting paradigm emerges. It’s not entirely clear when and how this started, but young Americans are losing the competitive edge—right here in this country, and in the universities.
Current data substantiates the fact that a large percentage of students in our universities are international students. So, on the one hand American universities are attractive to foreign students—which is a good thing. But on the other hand, we face the issue that we are educating foreign students and then either letting them go back or in some cases forcing them to return to their home countries and not benefitting from the wisdom and knowledge they gained here, a point we highlighted in our October 2011 story “The Broken System of Immigration.”
The Institute of International Education (www.iie.org) reported last year that though international student enrollment only rose “modestly” at an overall rate of three percent in the previous academic year, it was driven, for example by a 30 percent increase in Chinese student enrollment to a total of nearly 128,000 or more than 18 percent of the total international student population. Then, consider the two percent increase in Indian students last year (total of 105,000), which represents 15 percent of all international students in U.S. higher education you get a better picture. States most impacted by foreign students are California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois. Another consideration is that these international students are some of the best and brightest in their own countries. They endure a lifestyle of academic rigor unfamiliar to most American students—so when they arrive here, naturally, most are smart and motivated. And, they are raising the bar or changing the academic curve, even for entrance to college, in those states specifically. It has become harder for American students in those states to get into their state universities than for those in other parts of the country and the world.
“The United States continues to host more international students than any other country in the world,” according to Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education. “Active engagement between U.S. and international students in American classrooms provides students with valuable skills that will enable them to collaborate across cultures and borders to address shared global challenges in the years ahead.” Of course, we absolutely want to see future generations collaborate, as Mr. Goodman suggests, but increasingly we worry that the American students will come up short. Is that really possible in the long term?
Certainly there is increased pressure on U.S. public colleges and universities to do more with less. How can they compete? Underfunded by many states, they have become creative in raising funds. Alumni, generous donors, foundations and other private sector benefactors provide capital improvements and other university projects. The pressure on institutions of higher learning to continue to contribute in a meaningful way through their research and writing has increased exponentially, as tuition continues to rise. They are competing for the best students, the best athletes, the best professors, and the highest achieving academic and thought leaders. And with international students, they are competing for students who are not only bright, but who are also fully funded at the “published rate.” International tuition is much higher than state tuition, and it is in the schools’ financial interests to enroll them.
Another consideration: There is also a significant trend in proprietary—private, for profit—universities to accept international students if these students have the financial resources to pay for their education out-of-pocket. Many of these open enrollment institutions allow any person who can provide proof of high school equivalency completion and a functional knowledge of English to enroll in the university. The school’s position is that the institution is filling a need—in this case a business need—for international students to get educated in the United States. They are regionally accredited, which makes them legitimate institutions of learning, and they are often better able to help foreign students make their way through the programs because the for-profit institutions are revenue driven, so they do go out of their way in many cases to help students succeed. They are also not constrained by the funding issues that hamper traditionally funded schools. They can be quite flexible with faculty who are mostly adjuncts—employed elsewhere and “teaching on the side.” There is no tenure. No big pensions. No faculty housing. No need to publish or do research. These colleges and universities, some would argue, are very pragmatic. They just teach.
For profit vs. not-for-profit institutions is a very hot topic. Currently there is rigorous debate about the way the for-profit schools recruit and draw funding through the federal government’s financial aid programs for U.S. students. There have been challenges to the use of GI Bill funding for former military students, and there have been challenges on the basis of resulting “gainful employment” to the work these institutions do. On the one hand, they are serving a demographic that would otherwise likely not be supported in a traditional setting. Open enrollment means there really are few if any roadblocks (such as admission requirements) to enrollment. Proof of high school education, sometimes a writing sample, transcripts, English proficiency and sometimes a background check are all that is usually needed. So, on the one hand, the for-profit schools have leveled the playing field—anyone can go to college now. On the other hand, is going to college enough to be successful in these competitive times?
Maybe that is the underlying question. Is traditional college necessary? Or, would society be better served to focus on vocational education for some students? The American educational system is unique, based on the size of the country and the number of students served. In the U.S., the educational system purports to educate every student through grade 12 if they want to attend school. Unlike many countries who push all children through to a point and then distinguish educational tracks that will limit later options for them, Americans say no child will be left behind in the United States. But then, are we really doing them all a favor if the best we can offer is a mediocre education? The consensus seems to be that U.S. public education is in a crisis, both at the K-12 and higher education level. Arguably, an honest conversation about higher education must begin with an in-depth look at a child’s formative years and the rigor (or lack thereof) of instruction that a child receives before he/she enters college.
It is a fact that more time is being spent in the first year of college remediating freshmen. That means that parents and students are paying college tuition so that deficient enrollees can learn educational skills that should have been mastered in K-12 schools.
Further, with the economy as rocky as it has been, college enrollment is way up. More people are out of work, sometimes chronically, and they believe getting more education will help them. That might be true in some cases, but accruing debt while out of work is a risk. It’s important to note that some schools remind students that if they enroll and seek federal financial aid, they can also get a stipend through financial aid to cover cost of living expenses. There are many people in this country living off of unemployment or social security and a college stipend. Some are working on advanced degrees just to stay in school and keep the money coming. Never mind that they are doing nothing to make themselves more marketable on the employment front from a practical standpoint. Many do not work outside jobs; they become full-time students. They are not constrained by age, so they can be at entry level or post retirement levels of schooling. Is this what we want the American higher education system to look like?
Finally, we must look at the ultra-success stories. Yes, there are exceptions. But the truly incredible success stories are often told by people in the most dynamic and challenging industries who want to share their stories of academia. Oftentimes, their stories include tales of being struggling students and/or dropouts. An example is Dale Stephens, chief educational deviant and poster child for Generation Y, who at 19 years old states, “College isn’t just an idea or a website. It’s a movement. It’s a lifestyle. We believe that college isn’t the only path to success.” (www.UnCollege.org).
Dale’s website goes on to explain that he is not “against college” but that he and others are paying too much to learn too little. Stephens says, “Hacking your education means deciding how, when and what you want to learn. Hacking your education means bending institutions to your reality. Hacking your education means making the most of the best years of your life.” (Yes, we know some would say those college years were the best years of their lives! But we don’t think that is what he’s referring to here.) Maybe they’re right—for some kids.
There isn’t an easy answer to the questions surrounding this tricky topic, but we need to ask the question to American adults: How important is supporting public higher education to you?
I would speculate that the prevailing answer is that supporting education is very important.
The direction of education in the United States must be a collective decision. It’s not just about increasing education funding or raising taxes—it’s about a generation needing a direction in the education process for our country to remain competitive.
Yes, but we might need something more fundamental. We need them to focus on what they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. Then we need them to figure out the best path to their own vision of success, and then we need them to search for that success. As the Nike slogan says, “Just do it.”
Society needs to find a way to begin to talk about the “elephant” in the room with respect to public education: tenure in higher education as well as in K-12. What is the old adage? “If what you are doing isn’t working, stop doing it.” The system is limping along and it is not in the system’s best interest to fix itself. Like most things, change will be imposed from the outside by forces willing, or not, to continue to support—through funding or enrollment—the work being done. An example is what Geoffrey Canada is doing in Harlem, or what Michele Rhee at StudentsFirst. These people are using innovative strategies that need to be presented in a national conversation on education. These innovators want to see change in the way educational institutions conduct business.
Without a steady stream of funding, the colleges and universities will begin to disappear. It is already happening in some small rural areas—community colleges and land grant institutions in rural areas are really struggling due to a lack of funds. Problems are further exacerbated by lack of human resources or facilities and dwindling enrollment. At the end of many programs, there are not enough jobs available in many fields. This cycle can continue for some time to come.
So what can society do to fix the current education dilemma? U.S. citizens need to find a way to dissect this massive problem and start tackling it from multiple angles. Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves to find ways to make institutions be relevant and flexible in their approaches to education. We need to help institutions be relevant and nimble. Issues relating to international students must be addressed so that the collective best interest of the American public is met. A bigger picture must come into focus whereby the melting pot that is America can do right by international and “homegrown” students. Action must be taken quickly so as to bolster the American educational experience.
Every nine months or so, the next generation of leaders moves up a grade in school. They are inching toward their futures and we, as a society, have an obligation to help them see the world as it is, to help them imagine how it might be when they “arrive” at adulthood, and then make sure that they are educated in a practical way so they can accomplish what they set out to do, whatever that is. We can’t be certain what the future will bring, but we can still prepare them for the many possibilities and opportunities that may arise. They need imagination and skills. They need the confidence to believe they can make a difference. And they must have the flexibility to change when change is demanded. We need to lead by example.