Cost of Education, Domestic, Education Quality, Elementary / Primary / Junior, Feature, For-Profit, High school / Secondary 2, Minorities, equity, and access, Not-for-Profit, Opinion, Policy, Private education, Public education, Recruitment, Required, Retention Rates, Students, University & College - Written by on Monday, October 17, 2011 18:33 - 0 Comments

California’s Dr. Michael W. Kirst: Is America’s University System Overrated?


by George Eastman House via Flickr under Creative Commons

By Paul Glader

BERLIN – Dr. Michael W. Kirst wonders if the whole American higher education system is a bit over-rated and in need of help.

“The idea that American higher education was the best in the world or one of the best?” said Dr. Kirst, a researcher affiliated with Stanford University and President of the State Board of Education for the State of California. “I don’t know if that was ever true because I don’t know if we have measured the whole thing.”

Dr. Kirst walked a small crowd of education wonks in Germany through his thoughts about American higher education Monday evening in Berlin at the Hertie School of Governance. He points out that few people are researching the problems and opportunities in higher education the way people are researching k-12 education in America.

One reason for the inflated view of the American university system, he says, is that faculty at U.S. colleges and universities have been allowed to engage in more research and less teaching. When this is the case, their research is cited more widely and it creates a notion that the universities are the best. Meanwhile, he points out, the universities are failing too many students and are not running efficiently.

The long-run question: “How do we educate a rising generation of students that is affordable, sustainable, and of measurable quality.” That’s the focus of his research with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He says research on higher education is woefully thin in the United States because outcome data is not standard the way it is for K-12 education results.

During his talk, he pointed to the triple-barrel problem of demographics, financial woes and quality issues that are afflicting many parts of the U.S. education system. Here are some highlights from his wide-ranging remarks:

  • 80% of secondary students in the U.S. want to attend college.
  • America is the only country in the world with more degrees going to people over 50 rather than under 25.
  • 45% of college students in California don’t finish their degrees. 76% of hispanic students don’t finish their degrees.
  • For lower-tier community and state colleges, “The finances are bad and are getting worse.”
  • “We can’t go on the way we’re going… More fundamental change is needed.”
  • 60% of community college students are in remedial education.
  • Nationally, 40% of student body in America is in community colleges.
  • “One challenge to productivity in America’s higher education system is when students take a course but don’t complete it.”
  • We are hiring more “adjunct faculty” around the country. “In California, we call them ‘freeway fliers,’ ” because they zip to different colleges teaching different courses throughout the week.
  • A new term: “Swirlers.” These are students who attend several different colleges during the course of their academic career. It’s increasingly important, Dr. Kirst says, for schools to allow credit to transfer between schools more easily.
  • A new term: “Stack-Up Degrees.” This is when a student combines courses from the Internet, a community college and a traditional college to earn a degree. California is trying to make it possible for people to earn degrees this way.
  • “Remedial education has not attracted our greatest faculty,” he said. Math, for example, “is often taught in a boring way.”
  • For-Profit schools are on the rise in California. 10% of students in California attend these programs. “The For-Profit sector in America is growing rapidly,” he says. While quality instruction in these programs is not certain, “they have very heavy analytics – computer based analytics – on their students.” They show some advances that public universities can learn from.
  • “The public benefits of higher education are less compelling now than before,” he said. “Policy leaders increasingly see education as an individual benefit.”
  • “We know in America an awful lot about K-12,” he said. “Largely, universities are black boxes.” Researchers know little about how money flows into classrooms. Researchers tend to know more about famous schools like Stanford, Berkeley and Yale and less about smaller, community colleges or state universities.
  • The public has a “general view that higher education in America is in good shape and K-12 schools are in trouble,” he said. “That doesn’t exactly seem the case.”
  • Community Colleges have 72% favorability ratings in America. 68% of Americans think university administrators are doing a good to excellent job.
  • “We do not have the kind of public support to make the kind of changes we need to make” to higher education, he said.
  • The “American Promise” of access to college as a way up in the world … finding a place for every student who wants to attend college, no longer seems true he says. “Access no longer seems to get you to go where you want to go,” he said.
  • “The public in America things problems in K-12 is the schools’ problem. They think problems in higher education are students problems. Too bad. You had your shot.”
  • Top schools like Stanford, Ivy Leagues and Liberal Arts campuses create the image that the U.S. is at the top of the heap educationally. But these schools represent 5% to 10% of all college students in America.
  • On the plan by the University of California to add online courses and sell them in China and elsewhere via a “9th campus” in the U.Cal system: “Berkeley faculty turned that down. It’s stillborn. They are still nibbling at the edges,” he said. “The diversity of institutions and competition may force faculty to” go with such programs in the future though. “If things keep going the way they are, maybe Cal will get that 9th campus.”
  • “There are good and bad For-Profit” colleges, he said. “It’s the wild west out there. Who regulates them? The Department of Consumer Affairs!” California, with 39 million people, is a big market for these schools.
  • “This is an infant industry going through transitions,” he said of for-profit colleges. “So we shouldn’t judge it too harshly… They’re turning out more graduates than community colleges.”
  • Focus on productivity in undergraduate education
  • Focus on those not succeeding today
  • Focus on new types of students
  • One idea is to reverse the trend of faculty engaging in research and force them to spend more time teaching.
  • Reverse student completion rates by paying colleges for specific outcomes – higher graduate rates. He says the states of Washington, Tennessee and Ohio are already experimenting with performance milestones.
  • Use technology to transform instruction with online learning and other methods.
  • Improve cohesion for part-time students. “We are putting them into groups and helping them” have more community with their fellow students.
  • Pruning Back Programs: He pointed to Gov. Rick Perry in Texas and the idea for “no-frills colleges” that have no football team or student center, just courses and degrees.
  • Reduce excess credits for degrees. “Many students have more credits than they need to graduate,” he said. “The U.S. has had a cultural tradition of not making up your mind of what to study until you are in college.” The state of California is trying to crack down on that.
  • Western Governor’s University – a coalition of states providing online education – is a key solution for educating affordably.
  • More uniformity across states for coursework and outcomes would help.
  • K12 should be more geared toward preparing people for college and less geared toward just getting people through high school.
You can follow more of Dr. Krist’s research and readings here:


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