Scanning the Environment
AAHE's president reports on trends in higher education
By Yolanda T. Moses

From the June 2001 AAHE Bulletin


One of the most rewarding aspects of being president of the American Association for Higher Education is the opportunity to take the pulse of higher education. Over these first nine months I have had scores of conversations with college and university presidents, provosts, deans, faculty members, student affairs leaders, and students. I have also spoken with program officers, peers and colleagues in other higher education associations, policy leaders, corporate and foundation CEOs, and community leaders.

It is clear from these conversations that American higher education institutions are in the throes of major transformational change. Major issues such as the shifting demographics of who goes to college, or policy debates over whether SAT scores should determine who is selected by elite institutions can make the nightly news. But behind these larger national issues are individuals working to improve their classrooms and campuses to maximize the learning potential of and to serve the most diverse group of students to ever attend America’s colleges and universities.

I would like to share with you some of the trends that emerged in these rich conversations that I’ve had:

  • The new national imperative for universal higher education

  • Sustaining transformational change

  • Faculty: the changing of the guard

  • Accountability

  • The role of technology in higher education

  • Research, praxis, and policy implications for all of the above

The New National Imperative for Universal Higher Education
Not since the G.I. Bill in the late 1940s has there been more national focus on the importance of postsecondary education for all Americans. But as America goes to college, issues of cost, preparation, access, articulation (from kindergarten through an undergraduate degree), and retention continue to loom large. As the president of one foundation stated, “Access for all Americans as a concept is more important now than ever before.” He went on to describe how important it will be to highlight for the general public the array of diverse higher education options, from community colleges and liberal arts colleges, to public comprehensive and for-profit institutions. Many people with whom I spoke echoed the importance of informing all Americans — not just young students and parents — about the many options that are available for postsecondary education.

Equally important is to give all institutions the resources they need to provide a wide range of courses and services to the broad array of students who are seeking higher education opportunities. Many people noted the importance of stronger retention programs in these efforts. Every sector of higher education and every institution type has an important role to play. As one admissions officer at an elite university noted, “It used to be the norm for students who attended our institution to enroll, attend full-time, and graduate in four years. That is not the norm for [our institution] anymore.”

Even though the 1990s saw the push for institutions to work across the divides of academic affairs and student affairs, many say that we still do not go far enough to change the institution to meet the needs of students. One foundation officer put it this way, “The research that we did over a decade ago told us what we needed to do on campuses to create environments where diverse students could succeed.” There is a frustration that too many institutions have not changed. Those that have changed know the rewards but face new challenges.

Sustaining Transformational Change
During my presidency at the City College of New York from 1993 to 1999 we were one of the 26 institutions involved in the American Council on Education’s Kellogg-funded initiative on transformational change. Our institution focused on “Creating a Student-Centered Learning Environment.” By the end of the three-year project we had made great strides. We put policies into action and the core group of faculty members, administrators, and students involved in the project worked well together. But when the project ended, we each realized that we had only just begun the process of institutionalizing the values of student-centered learning.

The difficulty of sustaining transformational change is a consistent theme addressed among the people with whom I have spoken. I have contacted leaders who were taking initiative by promoting practices such as developing new accountability models for assessing students, faculty members, and institutional quality as well as practices addressing the value of cultural diversity across the campus. One provost noted, “It is not enough to declare that you want change, or even to put the plans in place. There must be structures in place to promote, sustain, and reward these changes.” An astute faculty leader offered, “We don’t really know how to organize to do this work, and to keep it going. These new initiatives call for new models, and new ways of doing our jobs.” Such conversations indicate that there is a desire, even among veteran change agents, for greater assistance in both conceptualizing and implementing new leadership and capacity-building models.

Faculty: The Changing of the Guard
There is considerable talk across the national higher education landscape regarding the opportunities and the challenges associated with the predicted retirement of 50 percent of our senior faculty within the next 10 years.

In their plenary session at the 2001 Conference on Faculty Roles & Rewards, Jack Schuster, professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University, and Martin Finkelstein, professor of higher education, Seton Hall University, gave us one piece of good news — that the new faculty is increasingly more diverse. The not-so-good news is that fewer new hires are being made on the tenure track. In addition, one has to question whether there will be enough full-time faculty to provide for the needs of the new students of this new century.

After a discussion describing how difficult it may be to be accepted into graduate school, receive support from available professors, and finish one’s dissertation, a young graduate student attending one of AAHE’s strategic directions groups remarked, “If I cannot at least be guaranteed a tenure-track position after going through all of that work, perhaps I should go to law school?” Keeping talented young educators in higher education careers is one of many related topics AAHE’s Forum on Faculty Roles & Rewards regularly addresses.

The higher education community as a whole seems to have accepted accountability as a more positive concept. Based on my conversations, assessment is being seen more and more as a means to access larger issues of institutional purpose and to make progress toward those goals, rather than the narrower concept of assessment as a quality measurement at a fixed point in time. For example, several institutions in the Indiana University system are focusing attention on assessing student learning and creating environments in which this learning can flourish. Also, a select group of urban universities is pioneering electronic portfolios for institutional as well as individual accountability. I see people at all levels of the academy redefining accountability to fit their institutional purposes rather than taking their cues from external agencies. Regional accrediting agency leaders are generally pleased with this development, but see a great need to provide training for campus leaders as well as site visit experts.

Also involved in the process of determining accountability measures are other external stakeholders, including state higher education commissions and policy groups such as the National Center for Policy Studies, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, and the Council on Aid to Education. In determining policy related to campuses, policy organizations should look to universities to play more of a leadership role in linking successful campus models to the larger policy community.

For instance, faculty members and administrators can connect knowledge on student learning outcomes with external organizations to create a greater knowledge base for change. By the same token, conversations about higher education accountability at the federal and state levels in the future must include progressive and innovative campus leaders. My conversations highlight a growing awareness among people in the policy community and on campuses that they must learn how to talk across this divide. It is important to bridge this gap in the future in order to maximize effective accountability and assessment of student learning outcomes.

The Role of Technology in Higher Education
John Seely Brown challenges us in his book The Social Life of Information to harness technology to create communities of knowledge on campus, between campuses, and in the larger society. The people with whom I spoke (including Brown himself) on this subject are not certain what will be the ultimate impact of technology on teaching and learning. But one thing is sure: Everyone approaches this subject with extreme interest and imagination. One of the most personally heartening themes that emerged is the realization that technology is the means to an end, even if the end is still to be defined.

For example, at the February 2001 Conference on Faculty Roles & Rewards, which had the theme of “The Changing Professoriate: New Technologies, New Generation,” Steve Gilbert and Steve Ehrmann, president and vice president, respectively, of The TLT Group (an AAHE teaching, learning, and technology affiliate), both made the point that technology should be the vehicle through which faculty ultimately answer the following question: “What is it that I want students to know, and how can technology be used to enhance that goal?”

This theme is repeated continuously by AAHE members as a part of our strategic directions process, as we evaluate the impact of technology outreach and learning. The people I talked to see technology as a tool. But using any tool generally means that you will end up with a different product than what you started with. Some have described technology as a “transformative” tool. That is, once you use it to help you reconsider your current work — to enhance it and make it more effective — the work itself evolves to another level thanks to the power of the technology. So there is really a feedback loop operating that needs to be investigated and researched more thoroughly.

Research, Praxis, and Policy Implications
I hope that this whirlwind synopsis of my conversations has given you an indication of the range of issues that are on the minds of AAHE members and other higher education leaders. It is clear from these conversations that more research needs to be done to address the changes taking place in our higher education environment. I am excited that AAHE is a dynamic part of addressing these challenges. There is still some heavy lifting that needs to be done around changing institutional culture, including developing capabilities to accommodate for that change.

Over the next few years higher education institutions and associations including AAHE will have to establish and implement long-term research agendas to provide answers to institutional questions of effectiveness and change. In doing so, these organizations will provide the data needed to help institutions model best practices and educate the general public.

I and the AAHE staff believe that we all have a role to play in making our institutions of higher education stronger. AAHE stands ready to partner with institutions in this task. There is a shared vision about the importance of higher education to American society. In working together we can make that vision a reality — for our institutions and for our society.

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