The Future of Higher Education
The U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, appointed a commission to conduct a year-long study of the current status of higher education. In 2006, the Spellings report was released and expressed a view that modern post-secondary education had become complacent. While the report acknowledges the impact that elementary and secondary education has upon the numbers of adult students, quoting a chancellor who called the twelfth grade a “vast wasteland”(17) , it expresses the committee’s consternation at the ineffectiveness of the financial aid process in the majority of colleges and universities and at the growing number of graduates who do not possess basic reading, writing, and mathematic skills both before and after completing their secondary coursework (“A Test of Leadership…”; 2006). The Spellings commission sets several goals, which include the establishment and maintenance of: a) a cutting-edge, world-class higher-education system, b) an accessible, lifelong system, c) higher-quality instruction with streamlined, low costs, and d) coursework for the rapid training of a variety of students (“A Test of Leadership…”, 2006). The Spellings commission’s final goal was described in greater detail:
“We want postsecondary institutions to adapt to a world altered by technology, changing demographics and globalization, in which the higher-education landscape includes new providers and new paradigms, from for-profit universities to distance learning” (p. xi).
A student’s ability to achieve academic success is largely dependent on other factors: student’s family structure, neighborhood conditions, education level of parents, spouse, and self, income level, etc. (Coleman et al, 1966). Adult learners still encounter a social hierarchy which often determines the likelihood of their attendance. Contrary to the racial distinctions of the past, recent demographic gaps have applied more to social and financial status (Ross-Gordon, 2002). The racial and financial composition of colleges and universities across America has changed very little, yet discussions with educators often reveal a perceptual shift in today’s student. According to Professor Richard James, the social positioning of students is becoming increasingly polarized and is combined with the lax expectations of the new adult student (2007). The families of the lowest income brackets potentially have the most to gain, but, as the number of grants steadily decreases and the number of loans increases, they are also less likely to pursue such a financial risk or must do so sometimes at the risk of their very health. This is particularly true of the most selective- and usually most expensive- colleges and universities, although Harvard University implemented a plan to exempt families from shouldering attendance costs when family income is less than $40,000 per annum (Ehrenberg, 2004).
Faculty members who promote autonomous learning environments emphasize the importance of finding resources to meet students’ needs. Positive attributes of autonomous learning environments include more free time for faculty to pay attention to what students are saying, more classroom time allocated for problem solving, more time to provide effective and timely feedback about work, more opportunities to identify unique student needs (Reeve & Jang, 2006). The optimization of this free time relieves some budgetary items and improves the rapidity and advancement which the DoE recommends. This is commonly acknowledged to be a global challenge of colleges and universities, and the Spellings commission report stressed this point heavily in their findings, emphasizing that the existing financial aid systems in America are often inadequate and confusing (“A TEST OF LEADERSHIP…”, 2006).
A large portion of adult students are financially strained during their studies. An Australian survey of students found that one in eight regularly went without food as a result of their commitment to higher education (James, 2007). In a conference, the representative from Cornell University pointed out that tuition has still consistently outreached inflation by about three percent, and the share of state budgetary allocations for higher education has reduced by over a thirty percent during the last thirty years (Ehrenberg, 2004).
In addition to the financial difficulties of paying for tuition and the other costs of attending college and working, the Spellings commission emphasized the growing numbers of Americans who are now returning to higher education, beginning anew, or simply taking continuing education courses. Today’s classroom is multi-generational, and students commonly differ in technological capabilities and in moral and social values- not to mention the diversity of life experiences. As one student aged eighty-one remarked, “We’re aging, but we’re not done yet” (“MAPPING NEW DIRECTIONS…”, 2008, p. 12).
Diversity and Timeliness
There is a significant need to embrace the diversity which the modern adult classroom has to offer- both for the faculty members and the students. The curriculum can be enriched and strengthened, and students can be active in their learning process in a way that affects a positive social change in their learning environment and curriculum. International students report that the use of teaching methods which are designed for a different learning style are too individualistic for non-fluent speakers who struggle with vocabulary, critical analyses, communication, and unintentional plagiarism. However, Stewart (2007) argues that this impediment is one of psychological readjustment and adaptability- where the students cannot acclimate to the lighter guidance of student-centered learning. Nonetheless, Stewart’s study was conducted at a university reporting a ninety-two percent completion rate for students abroad (Ware & Kitsantas, 2007). The learning community and the classroom in particular are environments which can be engineered to aid both teacher and student self-efficacy. Johnson-Bailey suggested that practitioners conduct a personal cultural investigation, grasp the social forces which affect the classroom, and evaluate the current curriculum’s effect on the equality of adult education (as cited by Ross-Gordon, 2002).