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Posted at 2:31 PM ET, 02/26/2011

Fixing higher ed: Catholic University's Brennan

By Daniel de Vise

In an article published Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine, I offer eight suggestions to "fix" higher education. After reading the article, you can rank the ideas in a poll, which you will find farther down on this blog.

For the article, 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. Here is the ninth, from James F. Brennan, provost of Catholic University. brennan1.jpg

Preamble. American higher education sets the world's standards and provides a model of success based upon innovation, which probably can be traced to the truly visionary Morrill Act of 1862 setting up the land-grant universities with their mission of outreach and community service. Nevertheless, no organization can remain static and survive, and universities are no different. To this end, we offer two suggestions.

Fix 1: Stick to quality. Although the boom of the for-profits in higher education may have peaked, especially following the recent congressional inquiry into student loan practices, their financial success make them a tempting target to emulate. The attraction seems to have grown as the endowments and state subsidies of many universities have shrunk. Indeed, some of the most prestigious universities have jumped into the for-profit arena with both feet to grab a share of this lucrative marketplace, and have scored some success -- Cornell University's eCornell, for example.

At the same time, the quality of higher education is threatened by the pervasive dumbing down of education at all levels in America. The recent conclusions of a study of math achievement in primary education are particularly disturbing. And the consequences of these educational deficiencies have been framed as an issue of national security. So, a conflict arises between the attraction of new revenue from audiences currently tapped by the for-profit sector and the imperative to maintain standards necessary to sustain the American competitive edge among the world's economic powers.

Ultimately, it's short-sighted to dilute the standards of American higher education by playing to the lowest common denominator to reach a broader audience. There are important ways to reach out and make the benefits of higher education available to a broad audience, but it does nobody any good to dilute the product to such an extent that the benefits are diminished.

Fix 2: Go global -- seriously. The economic meltdown of the past two years affirmed the mantra of educators, politicians and sociologists -- namely, our success is tied to cultivating international connections that are personal and durable. If universities are to prepare their graduates to compete effectively in the workplace of the 21st century, they are well advised to provide opportunities to learn how to navigate the international economy.

Of course, universities have been boasting of exactly those opportunities for many years, usually through study abroad and other cultural immersion experiences in foreign cultures. However, in reality many of these experiences tend to be rather cushy programs, such as many of those in Western Europe, where universities house their students in American oases, where they have scarcely more contact with the "natives" than a tourist would. Thus, students come away with an appreciation of fine Tuscan wine, Parisian fashion and London accents. In other words, the experience, while pleasant, user-friendly and generally safe, is not academically serious.

The key to a serious opportunity to immerse students in other cultures comes through language. When students are forced to navigate in another language, they become more self-confident and gain a deep-rooted understanding of what it means to think in a way that is other-than-American. This kind of cultural experience, then, is profound and leads to insight. Anybody who has benefited from this level of immersion comes away a changed person. But universities need to build upon a better foreign language base than our current, inadequate pedagogy provides. That, of course, is another story.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 26, 2011; 2:31 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Admissions, Finance, For-profit colleges, Technology  | Tags:  Washington Post fixing higher ed, fixing higher ed CUA Brennan, fixing higher education, higher ed Washington Post magazine  
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