(EDWARDSVILLE, Ill.) The fate of higher education rests in the hands of university and college administrators, K-12 educators and parents of potential college students, according to Robert Zemsky, who recently served on a U.S. Department of Education task force and who will be speaking at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Jan. 1.
He will speak at 7 p.m. that Wednesday in SIUE’s Meridian Ballroom as part of the University’s year-long 50th Anniversary Celebration. His talk, “Dancing with Change and Other Strategies for Transforming American Higher Education,” will discuss the findings of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings Commission Report, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of Higher Education,” and why he believes the report fell short of its mission.
“What the Commission provided was an important set of clues as to why higher education seems so impervious to change and what an enlightened public might do to enable reform and encourage transformation,” Zemsky explained in a recent interview. “The trouble with the recommendations of the Spellings Commission is that they are very general and they never say who’s going to do what.”
Zemsky, a professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and founding director of Penn's Institute for Research on Higher Education, also is chair of The Learning Alliance for Higher Education, an experiment in bringing strategic expertise to university and college presidents.
With a bachelor’s from Whittier College and a doctorate in history from Yale, Zemsky’s areas of expertise include higher education and policy reform, missions and markets of higher education and college choice. He is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Post-Doctoral Social Science Research Council Fellow in Linguistics and later chair of that council’s Committee on Social Science Personnel. In 1998 he received a Doctor of Humane Letters (Hon.) at Towson University.
“We need a ‘system-changing’ strategy, Zemsky said. “In the past, a few institutions would lead the way and the rest would follow, but it turns out no one follows anymore. Now, everyone wants to stay in the middle of the pack; make sure you’re above average with your peer schools. It’s created a logjam and what we need is ‘dislodging’ events that will shake up the entire system.”
Zemsky agreed that his Jan. 16 appearance at SIUE will appeal to more than higher education administrators. He encourages K-12 educators and administrators to attend as well as parents of potential college students.
He proposes at least two solutions. “I would like to see a total change in federal financial aid to higher ed.,” he said. “We spend some $190 billion annually in federal financial aid. Let’s divide up that money and give every sixth grader in America a 529 (tax deferred savings) plan. It would not be more expensive then what we do now and we could replace federal aid.” Zemsky said this plan would also encourage children and parents to begin considering college early on and preparing for that outcome.
The Commission report found higher education has become complacent, refusing to change and eventually has taken a back seat to higher education systems in other countries. The Commission points out that graduates in other nations have become superior to their counterparts in the United States.
“Unacceptable numbers of (US) college graduates enter the workforce without the skills employers say they need in an economy where … knowledge matters more than ever,” the report finds.
Although he signed off on the report, Zemsky and a few of the commission members have said that the report did not go far enough. “There were a lot of feel-good points, but no real solutions to some very real problems,” Zemsky said. “The chairman of the Spellings Commission believed you had to vilify higher education to get them to change but that won’t work. If you want change you have to work toward it and not throw bricks.
”The other dimension is to recognize that big changes must occur in middle school and high school. We can talk all we want about change in higher education, but if they aren’t coupled with big changes in essentially what is the supply chain, nothing’s going to happen because we have a market economy with student consumers who aren’t smart shoppers.
“If you’re going to have change in a market economy you need smart shoppers,” Zemsky said.
He used the analogy of the U.S automobile market in the 1950s. “We would go down to the local dealership and buy whatever Uncle Harry was selling that week. American automakers were more interested in changing styles, enlarging the fins. Then, along came the Japanese with alternate engineering and they moved ahead in global market share.
“By the 1970s, with the help of Consumer Reports and Consumers Union, we finally learned how to become smart shoppers for automobiles. It took awhile, but we learned. You’ll need that kind of education to begin as early as grade school and middle school to effect change in higher education.”
If higher education does nothing, Zemsky predicts that in 25 to 50 years, there will be 60 or so of the biggest schools operating the same as they are today, while smaller schools would become “for-profit” institutions. “Many colleges and universities will become like the mom and pop hardware stores who couldn’t survive the arrival of the big box stores,” Zemsky explained.
“The small stores became part of the TrueValue chain and they now offer very specific products at reasonable prices but there’s nothing unique about any of the stores,” he said.
“In presenting my own answers to these questions what I hope to offer is an invitation to dance with change, to engage in a measured process of reform and rejuvenation that will secure for American higher education the same prominence and dependability in the future that it has enjoyed over the past five decades and more.”
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is proud to celebrate its 50th Anniversary and first half century of excellence. The University has grown from 1,776 students in 1957 to nearly 13,500 students today. SIUE is a catalyst for the cultural and intellectual vitality and economic development of Southwestern Illinois and the greater St. Louis region.