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You Say You Want a (Learning) Revolution

The PEW Research Center rocked the higher education universe last year when it published the results of a survey titled Sharp Partisan Divisions in the Views of National Institutions (PDF). While the report looked at a variety of institutions, including the news media and religious organizations, colleges and universities drew the most explosive response. The survey results indicated that, while 55 percent of the public saw the positive effects of colleges and universities, 58 percent of the Republicans polled reported that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the United States. Immediately, institutional leaders, politicians, scholars and policy advocates chose sides and took up arms. The revolution had begun.

The second annual report from New America, Varying Degrees 2018 , was released last week. The report supports what multiple papers and opinion pieces posited; the chief concern for everyone in this battle is the cost of higher education.

Everyone agrees that higher education offers both social and economic benefits, though the definition of those benefits vary depending upon the breakdown of the various demographic groups. Dependencies, such as economic class and race, can have significant effects on the value proposition. Two recent articles in the New York Times, College Does Help the Poor and College May Not Be Worth It Anymore offer two very different perspectives on this particular issue.

As the lyrics from the Beatles song says, “We all want to change the world.” One major agreement between the Varying Degrees 2018 respondents is that they want change in higher education. Only one in four of the respondents indicated that higher education is fine the way it is. In addition to financial affordability, they expressed concern as to whether or not the outcomes of higher education deliver on its promises. While 80 percent of survey participants agreed that there are more opportunities for people who pursue post-secondary education, there was less agreement on the actual return on investment of a college education. The survey results indicated general agreement among the respondents that people with bachelor’s degrees are paid more for the same job than those people who do not have a bachelor’s degree. Respondents disagreed on the value proposition of education inside of the classroom versus educational learning amassed through experiences outside of the educational institutions. There was no clear winner in this skirmish as 47 percent of respondents indicated that experiences outside of the classroom were more valued while 35 present valuing classroom knowledge and 16 percent indicating both types of learning were equally valued.

From CAEL’s perspective, college level learning is valuable, whether it is delivered by an instructor in a traditional classroom or offered online, or that the learning is derived from life and work experiences. It is up to colleges and universities to rigorously assess that learning and grant students credit for their prior learning.

The Beatles song included the line, “We'd all love to see the plan.” It is clear that Americans see higher education as a means to an end. The disagreements between the political parties, generations and races are relatively insignificant when viewed through the lens of a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, Independent Task Force Report No.76, The Work Ahead. One of the seven recommendations is that the United States “should set and meet a goal of bringing postsecondary education within the reach of all Americans and linking education more closely to employment outcomes.” The Independent Task Force report agrees with the research offered in Varying Degrees 2018. The US needs to improve affordability and access to postsecondary education and encourage lifelong learning. These are the changes we want to see and we need to start doing what we can to make them a reality.


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