Spellings Report outlines challenges for College

Faculty and administrators gathered to discuss the impact of the Spellings Report, a Department of Education report on the state of higher education in the United States, in the New Library auditorium on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The discussion, led by interim provost Beth Paul, revolved around how the College should respond to the report and how the College can meet some of the report’s challenges.

The Spellings Report, formally called “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” was produced by a commission of 18 professors, administrators and private executives. The 62-page report covers what the members saw as the four challenges facing U.S. higher education: accessibility, affordability, quality and accountability.

The Nov. 7 meeting focused on the same issues. Paul said she wanted the discussion not to just revolve around the report, but to be placed in a “state context,” given the recent cuts to New Jersey higher education.

“How can we at (the College) help the public understand the value of higher education?” Sharon Sherman, professor of elementary and early childhood education, said. “(State legislators) don’t understand what goes into (teaching) creative people who serve the community.”

Sherman said that when she called legislatures during the summer’s budget battle, their staffs were mostly interested in education for professions, like nursing and business, not liberal learning.

Several staff members said they saw a problem in communication with the public. They said that the information that supported the value of higher education was out there, but was not being communicated well.

David Prensky, director of the Bonner Center, a program that promotes community-engaged learning, said that the problem wasn’t just a lack of effective marketing by colleges.

“If (the public) saw all of what we do here, they wouldn’t like it,” Prensky said. “The report is a symptom of greater dissatisfaction with higher education.”

As the legislature controls the purse-strings, Prensky said that the College had to respond to the legislature’s concerns. The College needs to adopt at least some of the suggestions the report makes.

“We need to respond in a way that shows we listened,” Prensky said.

The Spellings Report suggests that colleges work harder to partner with high schools to ensure a seamless transition between high school and college. Colleges should also implement cost-cutting measures to increase productivity and simplify the financial aid process, the report said.

“Colleges and universities must become more transparent about cost, price, student success outcomes, and must willing to share this information with students and families,” the report said.

The report was criticized as trying to impose on higher education the same data-driven, uniform system that has been placed on high schools.

“This is the higher education version of No Child Left Behind,” Sherman said, referring to the act signed into law by President Bush. The act requires that standardized testing be implemented in lower grades and that statistically proven practices be used in teaching.

The “consumer model” of education where students are only going to college to get a job after college was criticized.

“It’s a crazy relationship that the public has with us,” Michael Robertson, professor of English, said.

While parents often criticize colleges overall, he said that professors receive a lot of respect on an individual level.

Paul agreed that while the dominant mindset is that the workforce wants narrowly specialized workers, the reality is that corporations want broadly educated and skilled students coming out of colleges.

Despite their varying views, the meeting’s attendees agreed that engaging the public on the issues in higher education raised by the Spellings Report was vital.

“We need to reach out and talk about these things,” Deborah Knox, associate professor of computer science, said. “If we don’t, we’re just talking to ourselves.”