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Panelists agree with report on higher education: Reform long overdue

As the desire and need for higher education increases in the United States, many students are not prepared to succeed in college and are misinformed about the role of college in their future. That trend indicates the importance of reform at all levels of education, two university presidents and several educators and administrators said at an event hosted by U-M.

Two years ago, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched an initiative to study higher education in the United States. A report issued by the organization, "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College," was the topic of a campus/community dialogue, "Education in the 21st Century," April 3 at the Michigan League.

The event, co-sponsored by AAC&U and the Presidents' Campaign for the Advancement of Liberal Learning, brought together U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan State University President Peter McPherson and four other panelists involved in many levels of education to discuss one of the report's main conclusions: Meaningful reform in higher education is long overdue.

An executive summary of the report calls for higher education to help college students become "intentional learners" who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources, and continue to learn throughout their lives. To thrive in a complex world, the report says, intentional learners should also become empowered, informed and responsible.

"Today, our nation cries out for educated and engaged citizens," said President Mary Sue Coleman. "This [report] clearly signals the need for our graduates to become involved in the great issues facing our nation, and the way our colleges and universities lay the groundwork for informed discussion."

The report, which states 75 percent of high school graduates get some postsecondary education within two years of receiving their diplomas, shows many students view college primarily as a springboard to employment, and that there is a disturbing misalignment between high school exit requirements and college entry expectations.

Carol Schneider, president of AAC&U, said only 63 percent of the general public thinks analytical and problem-solving skills are important outcomes of higher education, and 55 percent think writing and communications skills are important outcomes.

"Is there an employer out there that is looking for future employees that don't have analytical and problem-solving skills?" Schneider asked. "[Students'] understanding of what they need to accomplish [in college] and their preparations to succeed in college are far from what they need to be."

Schneider said students need to get away from the mentality of going from school to work to the bank, and that liberal arts classes are not something to "just get out of the way" before concentrating on a major.

Robert Bain, assistant professor of education, said problems came about when "matching the educational experience to the child became the progressive approach, not elevating the child to strong intellectual work."

Michigan State University President Peter McPherson said he sees many instances in which students are focused on what he called "an intensified reason people are coming to college–to get a job."

"We really have adjustments to make," McPherson said. "We have not fully adapted liberal arts education to the 21st century. Universities must think differently about what liberal education is without compromising our beliefs."

The report also concludes that achieving greater expectations will require concerted action among all stakeholders, and that learning-centered reform cannot be accomplished by the higher education sector alone.

"We need to look at the ways we educate and prepare our teachers and the system that ultimately brings us college-prepared students," said Howard Sims, CEO of Sims-Varner Associates, an architectural firm that designed the School of Social Work Building.

C. Robert Maxfield, superintendent of Farmington Public Schools, said, "We are at a crucial juncture in the American dream," and educators need to find ways to re-energize parents and close the gap between lower- and higher-achieving students.

The complete "Greater Expectations" report is available at http://www.greaterexpectations.org/.

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