Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education
reviewed by Sweeney Windchief - February 14, 2017
Title: Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education
Author(s): William G. Bowen & Michael S. McPherson
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691172102, Pages: 192, Year: 2016
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William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPhersons Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education provides an organized and easily perused academic contribution that examines higher education, primarily from an economic perspective. The book offers an agenda for modifying higher education as it moves into an uncertain future that is circumscribed by contemporary national needs. It calls for alternative methods in providing access to higher education, particularly for those who are economically disadvantaged.
This volume is divided into three parts: Prelude, Pressing National Needs, and An Agenda for Change. Part One grounds the reader in understanding why it is important to improve higher education from individual student, institutional, and national perspectives. It also describes how the text is organized around a conceptual framework. This part concludes by seeking answers to questions related to sustainability, equitable access, and allocating resources. Part Two evaluates pressing national needs. These include realizing higher levels of educational attainment, raising completion rates, shrinking students time-to-degree, achieving educational affordability, reinforcing the leadership capacities of institutional leadership, and reducing disparities by socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. Part Three guides readers to address these pressing needs by attending to governmental support, managing payments by individuals and student aid, increasing efficiency, considering the impact of high-profile college sports, adjusting employee roles by assembling a teaching corps, implementing technology to improve teaching quality, and supporting stronger leadership in unconventional ways. The organization of the book is a simple, yet powerfully accessible, way of providing necessary information.
In Part One, the return on investment in education is considered through both micro (individual) and macro (societal) paradigms. Bowen and McPherson delineate the difference between those who have completed a degree versus those who have the same amount of coursework, but do not have a degree. They also show some of the benefits of perseverance and sustainable support. This part also speaks to a system of paying for college that defines who is paying what for higher education across a generational spectrum. As the world becomes increasingly globalized in its economy and more internationalized in educating its citizenry, the sustainability of skill development will become even more difficult to assess.
In Part Two, Bowen and McPherson state that the U.S. has fallen behind its former global academic power status, particularly for 25- to 34-year olds during the period 2000 to 2013. It also considers what lessons can be learned from other countries. The authors advocate for evaluating the most important facts in the realm of education. They also discuss the impact of these facts on the U.S. and across the globe. It is encouraging that the authors consider the academic achievement of women and ethnic minorities. It is also important that the reality of economic fluidity and job market conditions be recognized. Part Two includes a section devoted to raising the college completion rate that differentiates between college enrollment and college completion.
Enrollment and completion are not the only concerns for higher education. Many ideas are skillfully articulated like where students complete an education, how they complete it, and the amount of student financial debt that is incurred. A heavy financial burden is arguably an obstacle to overcome in being accepted, enrolling, earning a degree, and even a long time after graduating. As a result, Bowen and McPherson point out that it is in the best interest of students to access the most prestigious institutions they can. They also have evaluated community college transfer data, expenditures per student, and time-to-degree data to make this point. The authors make this assertion to push back against a competing claim that America is currently low in social mobility and high in inequality measures when compared to its international peers.
Part Two includes discourse on the intricacies concerning the affordability of higher education. This includes understanding the difference between sticker price versus net price. It also details who gets what in terms of financial support. The authors argue this is an area that is so distorted that students with high socioeconomic status can be awarded funding they do not need. Furthermore, Bowen and McPherson look beyond the cost of higher education to consider the realistic fear of student debt. This is supported by the fact that graduates potential incomes are limited in certain disciplines and this crucial information is not communicated to students effectively.
The culmination of all of this discussion leads Bowen and McPherson to examine the idea of bolstering the capacity of institutional leaders. In the final section of Part Two, the authors critique the culture of higher educations leadership at the institutional level, particularly the leaders and faculty members who are reluctant to take risks. They argue that to meet national needs, leaders who are willing to take risks are needed, particularly in the areas of technology, resource allocation, teaching methods, and shared leadership. The authors then reposition themselves to come to terms with all of these issues in Part Three.
The book finishes by addressing the concerns offered in Part Two. Specifically, Bowen and McPherson propose insights that follow their previously discussed main ideas to implement change in higher education. These responses reach beyond oversimplified solutions that are formulated from hasty assumptions or narrow perspectives (e.g., higher education is static and its funding sources and structures are fixed). To confound these ideas, the authors briefly illuminate the different ways state funding and federal funding are awarded. They use credible data sources to demonstrate the shift of higher education income from state support to student tuition. The authors also offer guidance on developing useful strategies to implement change.
To create impactful change, leaders need to know the broader landscape of how decisions are made. Bowen and McPherson mention that the status quo is protected by the voting elites who make decisions in their own best interests. In discussing how money can be used to leverage institutional change, they offer one idea that is very powerful: the ability of the federal government to offer grants that are matched by institutions to improve issues of equity and access. This idea is by no means new. However, it can be particularly useful as part of the equation to create change. Another idea includes rethinking Federal Pell Grant awards. Specifically, Pell Grant support is not desirable in improving student enrollment, but it could improve learners success more generally. Additionally, increased fiscal efficiency is articulated and the authors believe the idea of administrative bloat is overstated.
One issue that is expanded upon in the book is the surplus of doctoral degrees being awarded. This notion is complicated by the innate need of institutions to compete with one another for prestige. There is also a financial interest in graduating students with terminal degrees, which particularly impacts underappreciated fields like the humanities and the social sciences. To combat this issue, Bowen and McPherson suggest limiting the size of doctoral programs, finding avenues of employment other than being tenured faculty members, and communicating clear pathways to students regarding program completion.
The issue of high-profile college sports is also discussed. This reveals obscure impacts as sports relate to the realities of leadership in higher education. This includes a shifting power dynamic when the lead athletic staffs salary, power, and influence overwhelm institutional academic leadership. Athletic programs that make enough money to remain sustainable are only a small fraction of the total population of these types of programs. This complicates institutional change by creating political and cultural pressure that can build over time.
On the purely academic side of campus, given the seemingly irreversible effect of the diminishing number of tenure-track faculty and the resulting increase of non-tenure track faculty, Bowen and McPherson differentiate college professors bifurcated responsibilities of conducting research and teaching. They advocate for professionalizing the college classroom teacher by promoting the development of a teaching corps. The authors provide suggestions on how to accomplish this in practice.
Bowen and McPherson advocate for improving educational technology. They recognize the effect that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have had on developing online education in recent years. MOOCs have changed the way we think about education, but are not a paradigmatic shift in practice. Given this qualification, online courses still demonstrate promise in improving efficiency and effectiveness in providing access to higher education.
In the closing segment of the book, the authors respond to the challenges leaders face by suggesting that colleges should consider non-traditional candidates to serve as college presidents. Providing training for policy makers like regents and trustees is also advised. Professionals and leaders are charged to steer clear of the business as usual tone that is so prevalent in higher education today. They are also warned against playing the ratings game (e.g., the annual U.S. News college ratings). Finally, to find and create college leaders, well-vetted partnerships are key.
Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education is a fundamental resource for educational leaders and policy makers. Nonetheless, the consideration of incentivizing change would be a welcome addition to the book. Bowen and McPhersons claims regarding incentivization are convincingly substantiated, but pragmatic incentives would be useful if colleges, their stakeholders, and their administrators are to enact a change agenda. This is especially true when this ethos is connected to finite resources (as understood by the elite) and insufficient resources (as understood by the disadvantaged). A discussion of the benefits of this incentivization agenda relating to diversity and inclusion would also be welcome. This should focus on historically underrepresented groups with students who are often inappropriately essentialized by terms like disadvantaged and are subsequently proxied by the term low socioeconomic status.
Finally, some discussion relating to student perspectives regarding the quality of their experiences could be offered. The shift of student populations to the contemporary attitude of Keeping up with the Kardashians from a Keeping up with the Joneses attitude manifests itself in a feeling of learner entitlement. This requires colleges to respond by providing housing, dining, and extracurricular or co-curricular activities (that have more influence than they should) that turn into a kind of customer service. This is not caused by higher education per se; rather it is the fault of mass media and advertising among other influences. Regardless, this change in attitude is a huge cost, both in terms of financial access and equitable access for students from historically underrepresented groups.