4 Important Questions to Ask About Higher Education

When I read stories about which colleges spend the most revenue tuition on instruction, I am reminded of the lessons in reasoning and logical fallacies I used to share with my students.

One of the things I would always ask them was, “What is the underlying assumption behind that statement?”

One underlying assumption behind a headline about who spends the most tuition on instruction is that there is a necessary correlation between how much money is spent on instruction by a college and the actual quality of that instruction. Another assumption seems to be that the number of tuition dollars necessarily correlates to the knowledge acquisition of students.

The most problematic assumption, perhaps, is that there is some commonly held definition in higher education regarding what quality instruction and a good education actually mean.

In fact, there is no strong or consistent foundation for any of these assumptions. It’s not that spending more or fewer tuition dollars on instruction isn’t important. It may be. It’s simply that we lack the commonly held definitions and means of measurement necessary to make the claim.

Unfortunately, this is true about several fundamental assumptions related to higher education in general. We may have commonly held assumptions about what it is and its value, but those assumptions are not necessarily shared by institutions, faculty, and students across higher education.

With that in mind, here are four fundamental questions I think we should be asking about higher education.

1. What does it mean to provide an affordable college education?

This question has a variety of different answers within higher education. Some define affordability as students can receive a positive combination of scholarship, grant, and loan funding that will allow them to earn a degree, regardless of their socioeconomic status, without needing to pay a large sum of their own money during the process. Another common definition of affordability in higher education is offering tuition prices that reduce the total amount of student loans to manageable levels (to make post-graduation payback easier). Still another definition has to do with reducing the cost of learning materials such as textbooks.

I would argue that none of these definitions really aligns with the spirit of affordability.

I believe that affordability in higher education means that education should be truly affordable. Ideally, affordability means that education can be paid for without loans and without making unreasonable or unwise personal sacrifices. It also means affordable for everyone, beginning with low-income families and low-wage adult earners with high school degrees who have little hope of professional advancement or flourishing.

2. What does it mean to say that someone is delivering a good (quality) education?

Again, higher education offers a variety of answers to this question. Some would argue that a good education is simply one that helps a person obtain gainful employment. Others promote the value of a premium brand and the professional network that brand affords its students. Still, others talk about a good education in terms of the focus on students, referencing access to talented faculty, small class sizes, and hands-on and project-based learning.

Moving beyond these traditional assumptions and models, I would propose that we shift our focus to define a good or quality education in terms of the knowledge, skills, and competencies that students can actually demonstrate.

Given the rapidly shifting needs of today’s workplace, many companies are increasingly interested more in what someone can actually do as opposed provenance of their education or their degree. I believe we should be designing learning programs that guarantee both students and potential employers specific skills and levels of competence.

3. How should we be defining quality instruction?

Traditionally, we have defined instruction in terms of the instructor. We think in terms of their credentials, their research, their teaching experience, and their ability to “reach” students. We assume that there is a particular configuration of those qualifications that translates to quality instruction.

I believe we would be better served by shifting the definition of quality instruction to its measurable impact on students’ experience in a course. How much direct, personal contact did each student receive in the course (both form the instructor and from peers)? How quickly were students’ questions answered and were they answered in a way that helped the students move forward successfully? How far did students progress in their demonstrable knowledge, skills, and competencies as a result of the course?

In other words, our definition of quality instruction should correlate directly to our definition of quality education.

4. How can we make quality education equitable and accessible to everyone?

Not surprisingly, any discussion about equitable access to quality education in the U.S. begins with affordability. We cannot hope to reach underserved areas and populations without making postsecondary learning programs truly affordable for those populations.

In addition, we will need to shift our general access model from centripetal access (students go to the college or university)  to centrifugal distribution (higher education goes to the student). To reach everyone, we will need to take college education directly to underserved areas and populations. We will also need to deliver that education through local high school and make it available in flexible formats to address regional technology issues.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director

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