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Differing Points of View
Academic, business and government leaders agree, and disagree, about higher education


LEADERS OF AMERICAN business, government and higher education believe that a strong college and university system is vital to the nation's future, but they also think too many of today's college students are poorly prepared and are not motivated.

These findings emerged from a survey of 601 professors, college officials and leaders of business and government that was conducted for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education by Public Agenda, an independent, non-profit public opinion research firm.

The survey found several areas of agreement among these leaders from various fields -- that America has the best higher education system in the world, that postsecondary education of high quality is vital to America's economic well-being, and that no qualified and motivated student should be denied a college education for economic or other reasons.

But the survey also found important areas of disagreement between educators and leaders in other fields.

Business leaders tend to think colleges and universities are run inefficiently and would benefit from the kind of cost-cutting and downsizing that has characterized many American corporations in recent years. Not surprisingly, professors and college administrators disagree.

Who Should Pay for Rising College Costs?
Business executives would like to see students and their families pay more of the rising cost of higher education, while educators believe more financial support should come from the state and federal governments.

While all agreed that thinking and communication skills are important, educational leaders said students should receive solid instruction in such subjects as history, literature, philosophy and the arts -- while business executives were more interested in specific job skills and were less concerned about the liberal arts.

The business leaders also think too much professorial time is spent on research, not enough on teaching, and that tenure is of dubious value -- opinions that professors and educational leaders do not share.

Business executives also tend to think racial balance should evolve naturally on American campuses, while leaders in government and education are more inclined to use affirmative action and other aggressive policies to solve the problem of underrepresentation.

John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and author of the survey report, warned that these disagreements could be harmful to American colleges and universities.

"If these disputes remain unresolved, higher education will certainly face severe problems as it tries to navigate a future that nearly everyone agrees will be difficult," Immerwahr wrote. "Clearly, higher education is going to be dependent on the support of the larger community, and it is not clear how forthcoming that support will be if a group as important as the business community continues to harbor deep doubts about such basic questions as how well higher education is administered or how effectively it performs its teaching mission."

One point of agreement among all the leadership groups was that too many students are taking remedial classes in college because of poor preparation. Recent studies have found that about 30 percent of college freshmen are enrolled in at least one remedial class.

Asked to select from a list of 16 possible problems facing higher education, survey respondents chose this as the most important -- 88 percent thought the need for remediation was either a "very serious" or a "somewhat serious" problem.

Seventy-six percent of the respondents said unprepared students should not be admitted to college at all, while 54 percent said they should be allowed to attend only two-year colleges. Only 19 percent said they should be admitted to four-year institutions and provided with remedial classes.

Two out of three respondents blame the public schools for not preparing students adequately for college. More than 90 percent think there should be closer collaboration between K-12 schools and higher education.

Higher Education has a lot to learn from private industry
There was also general agreement that many students lack motivation and probably shouldn't be in college at all. Sixty percent of the business executives agreed that "many young people are wasting time and money in college because they don't know what else to do." Curiously, 50 percent of faculty members agreed with that statement.

If students who are thought to be ill-prepared and weakly motivated are not permitted to enroll in colleges, the result is not likely to be the increase in college-trained workers and citizens that these same leaders believe to be vitally important, the report noted.

But the opinions of business executives veer away from those of government and education leaders on questions of management efficiency and who should pay for rising college costs.

About half of the professors, college administrators and government leaders surveyed think taxpayers should pay more because society as a whole benefits from a well-educated citizenry, while only 30 percent of business leaders believe that.

Sixty-two percent of business leaders said students and their families should pay more, since they reap most of the benefits of a college education, but only 34 percent of faculty members, 35 percent of college administrators and 39 percent of government officials agreed with that statement.

Leaders from the different groups disagreed sharply about the desirability of introducing business management practices into higher education.

Eighty-three percent of business executives believe that colleges and universities must become leaner and more efficient, just as business and government have done in recent years. Sixty-six percent of education leaders agreed with that statement, but only 40 percent of faculty members thought that was a good idea.

One business leader said, in a follow-up interview, "What is the biggest weakness of higher education in America today? In my judgment it is that we are not providing education in a cost-effective way. We have built up this excellent system, but the unit costs have gone up while the unit costs of almost everything else have gone down."

But an interviewee from the academic world had a different view: "A significant increase in the efficiency of higher education is just not possible. For example, it takes the same number of hours to perform a Mozart symphony today as it did when Mozart wrote that symphony. In the same way, it takes the same amount of hours to handle teacher-student contact as it always has."

-- William Trombley

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