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By Frank Fernandez, The Pennsylvania State
one generation regards as only a makeshift approximation to the realization of
a principle, the next generation honors as the nearest possible approximation
to that principle, and the next worships as the principle itself. It takes scarcely three generations for the
apotheosis. The grandson accepts his
grandfather’s hesitating experiment as an integral part of the fixed
constitution of nature.”
Woodrow Wilson (1887, p. 209)
When we look around us, we
take for granted the battles fought by previous generations. As Woodrow Wilson wrote, cautious gains
become ubiquitous with time. Women’s
suffrage, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, Title IX and female
sports—each of these was once a radical proposition, vehemently opposed. Why does affirmative action buck this
trend? Why is it that instead of growing
more sacred with time, affirmative action is repeatedly attacked (first in Bakke, then Grutter, and now Fisher—not
to mention state bans such as California’s Proposition 209 and Michigan’s
Proposal 2)? America is still plagued with inequality and intolerance, but the
question remains, why have some efforts toward equality been more accepted than
selective admissions processes were created as a means for exclusion (see
Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden
History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton). Americans’ demand for access to higher
education grew faster than colleges and universities could bear, so more and
more colleges formalized selective admissions procedures. This has led to what David Labaree has
characterized as the Groucho Marx complex; like Marx, many prospective students
“don’t want to belong to any club [university] that would accept me [them] as
one of its members.” (In the recent Fisher v. University of Texas case,
Abigail Noel Fisher was unsatisfied with her acceptance to Louisiana State
University.) Part of the problem is that
because of competitive admissions processes, some people see affirmative action
as rigging a zero-sum game.
Still, this doesn’t fully
answer why affirmative action has not been enshrined as a hallowed American
institution. We love when men like
Barack Obama and Ted Cruz live out the American dream, rising from humble beginnings
to attend some of the nation’s most selective universities and become leaders
of society; however, we vacillate in our commitment to policies that can make
real-life Horatio Alger stories more a rule than an exception.
We know that values can
change over time otherwise there would never be social progress. But we don’t often think about what makes
some values stronger than others. Burton
Clark’s writing offers a way to think through this problem. Clark argues that social values are
precarious when they are not articulated in stakeholders’ goals or
standards. He also finds that values are
precarious when they are seen as belonging to smaller groups and are not
accepted by the larger “host” population.
values, then, are those that are clearly defined in behavior and strongly
established in the minds of many. Such
values literally take care of themselves.
Precarious values, on the other hand, need deliberately intentioned
agents, for they must be normatively defined, or socially established, or both.
The overwhelming consensus of
social science research* shows that affirmative action has social and academic
benefits for majority students—the classmates of minority students. Although affirmative action has many
intentional agents, I would argue that the idea that affirmative action
benefits everyone has not been “strongly established in the minds of
Moving forward we must continue
to normatively define and socially establish support for affirmative
action. We must continue to find—and
more importantly publicize—evidence that shows the benefits of affirmative
action. Too often, evaluation metrics do
not account for ethnic or socioeconomic diversity in university
admissions. Diversity is not, but could
easily be, included in the U.S. News and
World Report’s rankings and other popular sources that are accessible to
students and their parents (and valued by institutions). Special efforts should be taken in “new
destination” states and areas that are becoming more ethnically diverse so that
they do not adopt reactionary affirmative action bans as others have before
It has been said that “the
arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There was a day when women were not allowed
in the academy, but two centuries later women outnumber men in American higher
education. I am optimistic that
America’s colleges and universities will be diverse and dynamic learning
environments, but only if we are defenders of diversity and strengthen the
precarious value of affirmative action.
Frank Fernandez is a PhD Candidate in
Higher Education and Research Assistant at Penn State's Center for the
Study of Higher Education.
*For summaries of social
science research see:
Brief for American Social
Science Researchers as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondents, Fisher v.
University of Texas, 570 U.S. ___(2013) (no. 11-345). Retrieved from https://www.utexas.edu/vp/irla/Documents/ACR%20American%20Social%20Science%20Researchers.pdf
Brief for Civil Rights
Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondents,
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (no. 12-682). Retrieved from
Garces, L. M. Social science
research and the courts: Informing post-Grutter
v. Bollinger developments in higher education cases. Educational Policy, 27(4), 591-614. Retrieved from http://epx.sagepub.com/content/27/4/591.full.pdf
Clark, B. (2008). On Higher
Education: Selected Writings: 1956-2006. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Wilson, W. (1887). The study
of administration. Political science quarterly, 2(2), 197-222.
By Justin Ortagus, The Pennsylvania State University
President Obama recently unveiled a plan
that would tie federal aid to a college ratings system. The fact sheet provided by the
White House outlines the general plan to rate higher education institutions
based on the following performance measures:
(number of students receiving Pell grants)
(average tuition, scholarships, and student loan debt)
Outcomes (graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced
degrees of graduates)
Although it’s far too early to
label Obama’s college ratings proposal a patent failure or success, one fact is
unavoidable: the magic is in the metrics.
In order to add insight and explicate concerns pertaining to the college
ratings system, I will examine select challenges through the lens of a used car
Perceptions of Prestige
Why does a BMW typically cost
more than a Toyota? Consumers pay a
premium for the perception of prestige. Since
most people don’t profess to be automotive experts, we often rely on the
sticker price to serve as an informal indicator of a car’s quality. Colleges and universities work in a similar
way. Even if an institution’s U.S. News & World Report ranking drops, its
tuition usually increases for the same reason consumers pay a premium for
luxury cars: the price of a product is viewed as an informal indicator of its
quality. To lower tuition would be to
signify a drop in academic quality. Since
Obama’s college ratings system is intended to assess value and inform policy,
it should be distinct from U.S. News
& World Report’s rankings. Despite
claims to the contrary, the general college ratings plan proposed by the White
House has metrics that overlap with U.S.
News & World Report’s rankings data and could serve to offer further
advantages for already advantaged institutions.
Sticker Price vs. Net Price
Each college or university, much
like a used car, has a sticker price. When
consumers enter a used car lot, they often negotiate the sticker price and end
up paying a net amount much lower than the advertised price. For low-income students, tuition represents a
sticker price that should mean little when considering the net cost of higher
education. Specifically, elite higher
education institutions with large endowments would be able to offer more
generous student aid packages in order to skim from the highest achieving low-income
students and subsequently improve their college rating.
The manner by which the college
ratings plan evaluates affordability has yet to be explained in detail, but
distinctions between sticker price and net price complicate the issue and make
it increasingly difficult to evaluate institutions with wide variations in the
size of their endowment. Although the college
ratings system is advertised as a boost to higher education institutions
willing to promote innovation or cut the price of tuition, decreases in state
funding have forced many effective non-elites to rely upon tuition in order to
survive. The (yet-to-be-released) details
of these data are paramount in determining the effectiveness of the college
structure of a used car salesman incentivizes the optimization of net profit by
any means necessary. Since the
customer’s best interest is not aligned with the salesman’s ability to acquire resources,
deceptive practices often occur. Undesirable
behaviors are typically explained by the reward structures in place. A variety of reward systems have been found
to incentivize certain behaviors despite hoping for an alternative
behavior. In higher education, high stakes college rankings
offer incentive for colleges and universities to provide misleading data in
order to improve their annual ranking. For
instance, Emory University recently disclosed its consistent misreporting of
institutional data. In hopes of achieving a higher ranking, the
admissions and institutional research offices at Emory exaggerated the average
SAT and ACT scores of its students. Additionally,
several law schools have faced legal action in response to misleading claims
related to graduates’ job placement, average student debt, and average salary.
The reasoning for altered data is
simple: higher education institutions in question are dependent on the
resources associated with improved performance.
Since Obama’s college ratings system could dictate federal aid and
indirectly affect enrollment patterns, it would have considerable power over
many higher education institutions. When
tied with critical resources, the power associated with a college ratings
system has the ability to force an institution to do something it wouldn’t do
under different circumstances. As a
result, regulation measures of reported institutional data are paramount when
considering future legislation pertaining to tying federal resources to college
The Task at Hand
Simply put, the devil is in the
details. Many would agree with those who
claim the current financial model in higher education is unsustainable, but
it’s important to think critically about challenges and implications associated
with metrics to be used when rating colleges and universities. While the promotion of innovation in higher
education appears to be a positive development, several questions related to federal
performance funding remain underdeveloped or completely unaddressed.
a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher Education Program at the Pennsylvania State University. He received his
B.A. in English and M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from the University
of Florida. Justin's
research interests revolve around issues
related to college rankings, online education, and the cost crisis in
. He currently works with Dr. John Cheslock and Dr. Fred Loomis as a
graduate assistant for Penn State's graduate certificate program
in Institutional Research.
By Shelley Errington Nicholson, University of Massachusetts at Amherst Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student is reviewed in an attempt
to synthesize themes relevant to higher education practitioners. This book review examines the
third volume dedicated to deconstructing the attitudes of a particular generation of college
students. This review highlights the author’s success in creating a readable and useful text for
working with current or previous generations of college students.
Shelly Errington Nicholson is currently a second year doctoral student in Educational Policy and Leadership at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Shelley has worked at several institutions including Rice University and the University of Edinburgh. Shelley is the co-editor of the text Empowering Women in Higher Education and Student Affairs: Theory, Research, Narratives and Practice from Feminist Perspectives.
[Click below to download a pdf of the full review]
Higher Education in Review (HER) invites submissions for content to be featured on the Higher Education in Review-Online (HER-O) website: www.higheredinreview.org
Proposed content should fall into one of two categories:
Book reviews should focus on books published in the past three years, which are relevant to higher education. (Reviews of older books may be accepted if the author can justify why a review in HER would be timely and a good fit for the journal.) Book reviews are important contributions to communities of scholars and practitioners in higher education. They inform readers about current advances in the field and encourage productive discourse.
Scholarly contributions that will be considered include: essays, thought pieces, editorials, discussions of current events, responses to other publications, and reflective pieces about professional experiences—either as researchers, academics, graduate students, or practitioners. These pieces are meant to facilitate discussion about societal and political issues in higher education.
Click here to download the full call for web submissions.
by Jessica Bennett,
Associate Editor for Digital Content
It seems to me that Coursera is everywhere in higher
education news and opinion pieces recently (see the embedded links throughout the piece), so I thought I’d use
the inaugural post of the Higher Education in Review News RoundUp to provide a
primer on Coursera, its Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and some of the
controversies and questions surrounding them..
Coursera, a self-labeled social entrepreneurial company,
seeks to provide course content from faculty at top universities to any and all
that are interested (see Coursera’s Vision). Additionally, its courses are designed around five pedagogical
foundations – the value of online learning, the role of homework to aid in knowledge retention and
learning, repeated opportunities to master content in assessments, the use of
peer evaluations in assessments to provide varied and quick feedback, and the
opportunity to actively engage material and each other online through multiple
formats (see Coursera’s Pedagogical Foundations). Coursera is free, and allows for varied levels of
engagement. Students who
participate fully in a course (completing all assignments and quizzes) may
receive documentation of participation from the faculty instructors.
All this sounds amazing. Take the best courses that elite institutions have to offer
and make them available to anyone, for free. Allow students to participate at
varying levels of intensity. Engage in asynchronous education that increases
flexibility for students. In fact, it sounds so amazing that as of early
August, Coursera reached a cumulative enrollment of over1 million students (see
The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman hails Coursera as the most important experiment in
higher education. Weissman argues
that the embrace of Coursera by elite institutions means
that, via institutional isomorphic mechanisms, others will quickly be following
suit. Coursera’s real
promise, he argues, lies in its ability to revolutionize the delivery of
lectures, by offering a well-designed, sleek platform that allow institutions
to side-step the costly creation of course-delivery user interfaces.
Leaders seem to be agreeing. In a recent interview with Inside HigherEd, University of Virginia President Theresa
Sullivan highlighted the benefits that a collaboration with Coursera provides
to professors on-Grounds. She
suggests that the participating institutions have found that their residential
students have an improved experience in both individual courses as well as the
dividends provided to those who care about learning about how students
learn. Coursera, she argues, is an
invaluable resource to those seeking to better understand student learning in
an online context.
So what does Coursera have to offer residential
students? By freeing class time
that might usually be taken up with introducing basic content material,
university instructors are free to introduce more discussion, group work, and
other proven learning-enhancing active learning activities. The idea of “flipping” the classroom is
growing in both the K-12 and higher education sectors, with some educators arguing that using class time for homework, problem solving, and
discussion, and home time for basic content delivery, is a better use of
What about non-residential students, or the million people
who have signed up for Coursera classes without being affiliated with one of
its content providing universities?
These students are eligible for a letter of certification, which could
possibly be used in an employment setting or other area to prove familiarity
with given content matter. However,
Coursera students do not receive credit for their participation (except perhaps
at the University of Washington). For
students seeking to learn for the sake of learning, this arrangement is likely
sufficient. However, despite its
promise of open access, the question remains whether MOOCs and the Coursera
format really offer a viable alternative.
Some have suggested that third party universities be used to credential
students taking Coursera courses –
getting a Harvard education with a Small State College diploma.
Inside HigherEd’s Carlo Salerno doubts that Coursera
and its ilk can properly provide what institutions of higher education and
their potential consumers (students) are seeking. Highlighting the role that prestige plays in Coursera’s
current model, he argues that institutions
will not be motivated to offer credit to students in these courses because the
open access prevents quality control of students, while students will be loathe
to pay for credits at third-party institutions if they are not receiving
credentials from the top tier institutions with which they are taking classes.
In addition, others raise the question of whether content
delivered to several thousand students by a single prestigious university
professor is really the equivalent of taking the course with that professor in
residence. The founders of Coursera suggest that, in effect, the essence of a Harvard or Stanford
education lie in the on-campus experience of interaction with those students
and faculty. Additionally,
while Coursera has developed a mechanism to allow quick feedback to all
students via a peer-evaluation system, some question whether the
feedback is sufficiently substantive or helpful.
Finally, with all the attention focused on the MOOC format,
some are perhaps painting too wide a stroke in discussing online learning. Mark Edmundson, professor at the
University of Virginia and frequent commentator on issues of learning in higher
education, delivers a scathing attack on online education – but seems to only
be describing MOOCs. See a fine
response to Edmundson from Joshua Kim here.
All this raises several questions that I’ll leave our
readers to ponder: If institutions like Virginia hope to learn from their
experiences with MOOCs, what should those lessons be given that most online
course delivery that results in income generation requires a more focused
approach (see Kim’s response, and Penn State’s World Campus as a specific
example)? How do sites
like Coursera fit into the debate about college access for all? What do Coursera and its students have
to tell us about the credentialing function arguments about higher
education? With this version of
online, private education sidestepping many of the critiques that institutions
such as the University of Phoenix face, how should this change our discussion
about online education in our higher ed programs?
An interesting piece in the Huffington Post about the purpose of higher education. For Jackie Jenkins-Smith, President of Wheelock College, that purpose is educational opportunity. It seems that the topic of higher education's purpose is constantly debated, and perhaps that is a good thing. Unquestionably the issue of educational opportunity is a part of this debate and Jenkins-Smith nicely points out that, "While there are no quick, simple solutions, part of the answer lies in understanding how current -- and future -- generations of college bound students will acquire usable knowledge and skills." As tuition costs rise, educational opportunity decreases- how should those of us working in higher education address this issue?
from the New York Times (free) poses some interesting questions about whether top colleges are doing enough to recruit low-income students. I'd invite any thoughts or opinions on the piece or whether all colleges should be doing more to combat the over representation of affluent students on our campuses.
The New York Times reported some results from an AAUP survey, including increases in professor pay, the gap between public and private universities in professor pay, and the continuing increase of non-tenure-track faculty hires. The article is here
article from The New Yorker (full version available through subscription or iPad app) discusses a number of shortcomings with the US News and World Report rankings of colleges and Universities. Though this issue has received a great deal of attention within the field of Higher Education throughout the years, such a high profile article (written by the popular Malcolm Gladwell) is interesting and timely. One can only wonder if we are approaching a "Tipping Point" (gratuitous Gladwell reference) that will spur real reform in rankings systems.