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Posted at 5:37 PM ET, 02/19/2011

Fixing higher ed: Steven Knapp, GWU

By Daniel de Vise

knapp.jpgIn a forthcoming story for The Washington Post Magazine, I offer eight suggestions to "fix" higher education. I will host a brief online Q&A on the fixes at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Click here to pose a question in advance. There is even a poll, which you will find below this item on the blog.

For the story, I sought help from several great leaders and thinkers. Some submitted their own thoughts on how to improve higher education. I'm posting them this week and next. Here is the third of those submissions, from Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University.

Higher Education: Top Issues

1. U.S. Global Competitiveness

The keys to ensuring America's continued success in the global economy are developing a highly skilled and adaptable work force, fostering innovation, and building an international market for what America has to sell. Higher education is crucial to all three of those efforts but could do a better of job of furthering them.

Colleges and universities should work more closely with K-12 schools to ensure that students are ready for the advanced work that higher education demands. College courses need a stronger focus on developing the life-long habits of critical and innovative thinking and the familiarity with other cultures that will enable our graduates to thrive in the global marketplace and acquire new skills as the economy changes. And our government should lower the barriers that make it hard for talented and ambitious students to come to the United States and even harder for them to stay here after they graduate. International students broaden the educational experience of American students who study alongside them. Those who come and stay contribute directly to the growth of enterprise and the creation of jobs; those who return home help build markets for American products and bridges of understanding between their countries and ours. We benefit both ways.

2. Affordability

Education remains a labor-intensive business. Colleges and universities have not enjoyed the increased productivity that other industries have seen as a result of labor-saving technologies. Computers can enhance the learning experience, and they reduce dependence on the classroom per se, but they don't change the number of papers a teacher can read or reduce a student's need for critical feedback on her work. What can we do, then, to ensure that higher education is an affordable option for those who are ready and able to receive it? And how can we make sure they don't have to borrow so much that their future choices in life are constrained by the need to pay back college loans?

Those who have benefited from their own educations can help by giving to scholarship funds that will make sure others have the same opportunity. That will enable universities to continue their long-standing practice of providing need-based aid so that students from even the least affluent segments of society can attend college. Government can help by adopting a more careful and thoughtful approach to imposing reporting requirements and other "unfunded mandates" that compel universities to hire more non-teaching staff. And universities themselves can help by seeking innovative ways of reducing their business costs and focusing their expenditures on their academic missions. An additional approach we have taken at George Washington is to freeze tuition for returning undergraduates for up to five years, so they and their families will know from the start what they will have to spend and can plan accordingly.

3. Diversity and Inclusion

The demographic make-up of the United States is changing rapidly; on most accounts, by the middle of this century Americans of European descent will no longer be the majority. The success of the American economy depends on making sure that no talent is wasted. The success of American democracy depends on ensuring that all segments of American society have access to the institutions that prepare our citizens for leadership roles. And studying on a diverse campus helps our students develop the skills they need to live and work in an increasingly diverse society.

Institutions of higher learning should undertake systematic efforts to understand and address the reasons why young people from some segments of the American population encounter more obstacles than others to enrolling or remaining in college. We should strive to ensure that our faculties and administrations are broadly reflective of the diversity of American society. At George Washington, we have a council on diversity and inclusion that advises the administration on ways of ensuring that we provide a welcoming environment for people from all backgrounds. Finally, colleges and universities should work with K-12 schools on encouraging potential students and their families to see higher education as an achievable goal, especially if no one in the family has gone to college before.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 19, 2011; 5:37 PM ET
Categories:  Access, Administration, Aid, Attainment, Finance  | Tags:  Washington Post fixing higher education, Washington Post higher education fixes, fixing higher education, higher education reform  
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Next: Fixing higher ed: Andrew Gillen, Richard Vedder

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