How Do We Fix Higher Education?

In this month’s issue, Boston magazine senior editor Janelle Nanos reports on the precarious state of the American higher education system and even returns to her alma mater to ask some serious questions (see: Is College Over?).

As part of our look at how the system could be veering off course, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in offer their solutions for what’s ailing the system.

The Contributors

lee cubaUnderstand That College Isn’t High School
by Lee Cuba
Sociology professor, Wellesley College


paula krebsThink in Reverse
by Paula M. Krebs
English professor, Wheaton College


jal mehtaImprove University Teaching

by Jal Mehta
Assistant professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education


naomi schaefer rileyEliminate Tenure

by Naomi Schaefer Riley
Author, journalist


tony wagnerLearn to Innovate

by Tony Wagner
Innovation Education Fellow, Harvard University

  • |Milan Moravec

    Californians are second class when applying to University of California Berkeley. Cal chancellor Birgeneau displaces qualified for public university education at Cal Californians with $50,600 Foreign and out of state students.

    A higher education fix is necessary at University of California Berkeley

  • Joe Beckmann

    The suggestions by this panel only confirms your and your guests’ isolation from real-world solutions. First, it is supremely self-involved regarding higher ed, and ignores most innovations since, oh, around 1958 or so! While it may be true that academics talk largely to themselves about themselves, their institutions do, most definitely, change, since their kids change. Change, in fact, is the constant, and curriculum, “standards,” and tradition – the key vehicles to deliver skills to cause further change – were never as stable as their practitioners presume. The five contributors to Boston Magazine’s Boston Roundtable (itself a compound solipsism, if ever there were one!) each misunderstand their topic in remarkably parallel fashion (perhaps a Boston Magazine Editor’s decision, perhaps itself symptomatic of the problem of which the Roundtable itself complains).

    Lee Cuba ignores that “high school” itself isn’t all sports and parties, and pretends that students in college “aren’t ready,” or “misunderstand,” or, more benignly but just as wrongheadedly, just don’t know how good college is! He ignores the fact that Benson Snyder’s book on just those problems was first published in 1970, and that, in spite of colleges, things change. He describes those changes as if they were new – that students ignore their interests and follow fixed sequences, that they prioritize grades over engagement, or that they ignore the networks possible with faculty and peers as critical to both education and growth. All that is crap, except, of course, among those students from those schools that the same magazine – the very same issue – proclaim “the best.” In the largely white, elite secondary school world those themes are overwhelmingly obvious. Snyder thought they were stupid 40 years ago. They were, and they are. So who is Cuba talking to: the same parents who fought the same impulses over a generation before!

    But Lee Cuba isn’t the only one who ignores real-world kids moving into unreal colleges. Paula Krebs ignores the arrogance of 4 year schools in assimilating 2 year college graduates, and presumes – like the high schools once did, and the 2 years still do – that “they’re not ready,” and that such readiness requires “recovery courses” to “capture lost sequences” in a grand scheme of introductory, intermediate, and advanced course work. Again, crap. And this is even inconsistent with Cuba, in the same issue – courses for interest have always drawn bright students, while courses in sequence satisfy dull faculty. Good grief, I graduated in 1965 and knew that then! It’s only the sweet white things these colleges now court who know so little and remain so vulnerable that they can’t argue very persuasively that most of the “intermediate” coursework is time filling for mid-level faculty to build enough credibility for tenure! “Think in Reverse” is hard for institutions who ACT in reverse!

    Tony Wagner ignores the wisdom of his own students in dismissing the rituals of class and affected learning in traditional courses. Students always learn more from each other than they do from the faculty, and regularly challenge that faculty to “catch up” to ideas ranging from Facebook to Civil Rights! That’s really just the way it is and has always been. Ironically, when I turned Harvard down in 1970, it was none other than Sandy Jencks, then in the Ed School, who righteously claimed that their students were the best, even if or when their faculty may have gaps. In those days I chose a faculty title for my ed degree at UMass, rather than comply with the politesse of Harvard, who, it seems still captures the rather rancid cream of those same high schools.

    The ray of hope Jal Mehta offers, that universities may yet improve themselves, seems relatively dim in the bleak environment of this panel of less than luminous insights. In urging universities to improve their teaching he might look at some that actually do and have made dramatic improvements, and contrast the arrogance of a fading elite to the brilliance of spots like Olin or Simons Rock Colleges, where curriculum innovation reflects higher levels of student engagement. But no, like the rest of his panel, he submits to the barriers of the higher ed culture itself, “to preserve tradition” over the opportunity to change that tradition.

    And, finally, Naomi Riley’s rant against tenure pretends to be a call for innovation, and a challenge to a traditional cost structure, but, in fact, would undermine one of the most critical cultural contributions of postsecondary tradition – “Academic Freedom” which is, in fact, one of the very few traditions most important to defining universities themselves. Given the politics of states like Texas, it makes me gag that “progressives” should ignore this, most critical of all traditions, to promote their own promotions!

    No, this is a very, very bad range of an extraordinarily arrogant, isolated, and – in spite of institutional credibility – ignorant recommendations.