By Doug Ward

Financing public higher education has grown increasingly challenging, with state funding for research universities declining by an average of 28 percent since 2003. What were once state-supported institutions have in many cases become quasi-private institutions to which states provide some money but still want full control.

To shore up their budgets, state colleges and universities have increased the proportion of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher rates of tuition. In fact, 43 state flagship universities had fewer in-state students in their freshman class in 2014 than they did in 2004. And out-of-state students made up more than half of the freshman class at 10 of those institutions, the Washington Post reports.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Alabama reported the biggest swing from in-state to out-of-state recruits, with out-of-state students now making up 64 percent of the freshman class. The Post says the percentage of in-state students in the freshman class has dropped by more than 20 points at Missouri, South Carolina, Oregon, Arkansas, University of California-Berkeley, Idaho State, and UCLA. Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Washington reported declines of more than 15 percentage points.

The University of Kansas had a slight increase in the percentage of out-of-state freshman between 2004 and 2014. In 2004, 29 percent of incoming freshmen were from out of state, according to university statistics. By 2014, that was about 33 percent. I say “about” because the Post’s analysis says that out-of-state students made of 37 percent of the freshman class of 2014, and federal data (which is based on university reports) says that 34 percent were from out of state.

10 ways to fail when creating an online program

Joshua Kim of Dartmouth offers an excellent list of potential pitfalls in the development of online programs.  All are worth a look, but two stood out to me, largely because they apply to all courses and degrees, online or not.

  • If You Don’t Put Student Learning At the Heart of Your Online Program, You Will Fail
  • If You Don’t View the Creation Of Your Online Program As A Disciplined Experiment, You Will Fail

You’ll find the full list of 10 at Inside Higher Ed.

What is the future of higher education?

The Atlantic asked seven leaders from various areas of higher education to list reasons for hope and reasons for despair in 2016. Their responses run the gamut from the challenges of technology to the rising cost of college to the growing importance of creativity and ingenuity. A response from the author William Deresiewicz struck me as particularly timely and cogent.

Asked about his biggest concern in higher education, he replied:

The continued dominance of a narrowly “practical” approach at all levels. This is the attitude that says that the exclusive purpose of education is to prepare workers for the labor force. It shows up, among other places, in the overwhelming focus on math and reading in K-12 and the fetishization of STEM fields and universal disparagement of the liberal arts in college. It also underlies the continuing privatization of public education through the promotion of charter schools and other aspects of the “reform” agenda as well as the ongoing defunding of state universities—the idea being that if education serves the purposes of the market, it should be under the control of the market.

Deresiewicz said he saw “a gathering resistance to this mentality,” though, adding: “Students (and their parents) are getting tired of being treated like revenue streams and exploitable resources. But whether we will gather sufficient political strength to oust the entrenched interests on the other side is still a very open question.”

KU’s chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, was among the leaders who provided responses to The Atlantic. She offered measured, thoughtful responses, saying:

While I don’t find much that causes me to despair, I do have concerns about the way we invest in our future. If public funding for universities continues to decline, we will need to find different ways to support the way we educate our future leaders and the way we discover new things in our country. So many of our great societal and technological advances happen because of universities, and we need to make sure to protect these efforts from harm.

Asked about a reason for hope, she replied:

I am inspired by the enthusiasm and intellectual capacity of our next generation of leaders. I interact with students each day, which is a great joy. Our students are intellectually curious, and they pursue interesting goals. They’re building faster race cars and more sustainable buildings. They’re looking for cures to the latest diseases. They’re already finding ways to do all these things better than their elders. And they’re also ensuring that we stay focused on issues like economic disparity and racial inequity. The problems of our society will not be getting any easier during the next 50 years, but I’m glad we will have the young people I engage with today to help try to solve them.

Briefly …

Kenneth Bernstein, a recently retired high school teacher, warns college instructors that even advanced placement classes have done little to help the critical thinking of college-bound students. … The Chronicle of Higher Education and Education Week have both make successful and profitable shifts to digital as their print subscriptions have declined, Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute writes. … The entertainment industry has entered the MOOC business in the form of MasterClass, which sells online courses with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman (acting), Serena Williams (tennis) and Usher (performing) for $90 each. The creator of MasterClass, New Enterprise Associates, recently raised $15 million in capital from, among others, Robert Downey Jr. and Usher, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

In one of my favorite poems, Taylor Mali mocks sloppy writing, juvenile articulation, and the general inability to put together words in a meaningful way. That poem, “Totally like whatever, you know?,” was brought to life by Ronnie Bruce’s  animation (below), providing even more punch to Mali’s magnificent ending:

Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,

it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.

You have to speak with it, too.

Mali is a former teacher who often weaves the importance of education into his work. Sadly, education suffers from the same obfuscatory jargon that pervades most disciplines. Talking edu-babble among colleagues isn’t a bad thing on its own. The problem is that too many educators talk nothing but edu-babble – what Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report calls “argle bargle” – and impede their ability to persuade audiences that don’t.

To have any hope of improving education, Willen argues, we must learn to speak in clear, accessible language. And by “we,” she means not only educators and administrators but government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and anyone who advocates for education. 

“I’m more convinced than ever that we can’t improve U.S. education until we figure out how to talk and write clearly about it,” Willen writes. “I despair each time I get yet another impossible-to-decipher research report or press release, and cringe when educators use phrases like ‘human capital’ and ‘value propositions,’ not to mention those endless acronyms: RTI, PLC, SLT, IEP, PD and LMS.”

This isn’t a new problem (see “Generate! Blah, Blah,” for example), but Willen is right. If we want communicate – truly communicate – with those outside our small circle, we must be able to speak with clarity and conviction.

I’ve advocated that approach for years as an editor and blogger. More and more, though, I see my worlds of editing and education intersect. Education needs an editor’s sensibilities and articulation, and journalism needs educators’ demands for depth and context. We may be, as Mali says, “the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since … you know, a long, long time ago!” But someone still has to make sense of that inarticulation.

The perfect technology for escaping reality

A colleague shared this wonderful piece of satire: A faux ad for Alternative Viewpoint-Canceling Headphones, perfect for overly sensitive students, politicians of all stripes, and anyone who is simply tired of thinking. The video doesn’t provide a price, but I’m sure these marvels are expensive. Oh, and don’t miss the add-on bubble wrap.

Briefly …

The Learning Network blog of The New York Times recently published an excellent resource guide on plagiarism, including examples and ideas for class discussion. … The University of York in the U.K. received a barrage of criticism for a press release marking International Men’s Day, Times Higher Education reports. The university apologized in a post on its website. … NPR reports that a University of Colorado professor has found a way to get students to turn off their phones in class: give them participation points for doing so.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.


By Doug Ward

Most Americans still see a four-year degree as important, but it is not at the top of the list of things that will help someone achieve a successful career, a recent Heartland Monitor poll suggests.

In the poll, respondents ranked technology skills, an ability to work with diverse groups of people, keeping skills current, and having family connections above a four-year college degree.Graph showing poll responses about the importance of college from 1978 through 2015. The percentage of Americans describing a college education as “very important” peaked in 2010 before declining substantially. The decline looks much less dramatic, though, when the two “important” categories are combined.

They certainly didn’t dismiss a college education. More than half said a college degree was very important and 87 percent said it was either very or somewhat important. Those between age 18 and 29 ranked the importance of a degree slightly higher than those 30 and over (55 percent vs. 53 percent). Blacks and Hispanics looked at a degree more favorably than did whites.

The poll was sponsored by National Journal, Allstate and The Atlantic. In interpreting the results, the organizations said the responses about college were “a startling admission in the United States, where college has long been seen as a Holy Grail to the good life.”

Maybe. In context, though, it doesn’t look so startling.

I pieced together data from the Heartland poll and several polls conducted by Gallup for the scholarly organization Phi Delta Kappa. (Most of those are available through the database JStore.) Polls in 1978, 1983, 1985, 2010, 2013, and 2014 asked a question about the importance of college very similar to the one asked in the Heartland poll.

Most certainly, the percentage of Americans saying that a degree is very important has declined substantially since a peak of 75 percent in 2010. If the categories for “very important” and “somewhat” or “fairly” important are combined, though, the decline isn’t nearly so steep.

Those combined totals rose from 82 percent in 1978 to a peak of 96 percent in 2010 before declining to 87 percent in 2015.

In 2014, Gallup said the decline in the percentage of people who view a college degree as very important was surprising.

It is.

Most people still see a college degree as an important factor in achieving success on the job, yet they have also begun to look at other options, especially as a growing percentage of potential students delay their entrance to college for financial reasons.

Rather than stirring a panic for higher education, though, the polls add one more reason for colleges and universities to clean up their tarnished reputation.

The tech connection

Let’s dig a little deeper into the importance of technology skills.

In April, I wrote about a report from the Educational Testing Service that raised concerns about American millennials’ poor skills when compared with their counterparts around the world.

A report by a group of CEOs offers its own evaluation of that and other data, saying that 58 percent of millennials lack the basic skills they need to solve problems with technology. This is even as millennials use digital media for 35 hours a week, on average, the report said.

The CEO group, which is called Change the Equation, says that this lack of technological know-how will diminish millennials’ job prospects, if it already hasn’t. Most millennials don’t seem to understand how their lack of skills is hurting them, the report said, although only 37 percent of employers say young workers are prepared to stay current with new technologies.

“We must make a point of incorporating technology into how students learn to tackle problems. This does not mean that every young person needs to become a computer scientist, though more certainly should. Instead, students must learn to realize the full potential of technology as a critical aid to human productivity and invention,” the report said.

I don’t dispute the importance of technological savviness. I push my students to use technology for problem-solving, and I emphasize the importance of digital literacy.

Technology isn’t magic, though. Yes, students need technological skills, but that means using hardware and software to solve problems, answer questions, test ideas, communicate solutions, build communities, and stretch our potential.

That all starts with critical thinking, which should be the primary focus of all education. We must incorporate technology into that process. Technology is simply a means to an end, though.

Briefly …

JStor, the online archive, has started a teaching newsletter aimed at helping instructors integrate JStor material into lesson plans. … Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University, warns universities against pursuing easy scapegoats in the quest to reduce sexual assault and sexual harassment. In an article for The Guardian, she says “we must avoid enabling institutions to blame particular students or activities for problems they themselves have had a hand in creating.”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

True learning has little to do with memorization.

Benjamin Bloom explained that with enduring clarity 60-plus years ago. His six-tiered taxonomy places rote recall of facts at the bottom of a hierarchical order, with real learning taking place on higher tiers when students apply, analyze, synthesize, and create.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Deep learning, project-based learning and a host of other high-impact approaches have provided evidence to back up Bloom’s thinking. A study from the Programme for International Student Assessment adds even more evidence. It found that students who memorized mathematics material performed worse than those who approached math as critical thinking, Jo Boaler writes for The Hechinger Report.

Boaler, a professor at Stanford, says the United States has among the highest percentage of students who approach math as memorization. That’s not surprising, she says, because the teaching of math in the U.S. stresses memorization and speed of calculation for standardized tests. That not only narrows thinking, she says, but creates barriers to students who don’t learn well with memorization. Approaching math as problem solving, modeling, and reasoning expands thinking and expands math’s appeal to students.

“We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math,” Boaler writes. “We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms.”

That’s good advice for all disciplines.

Need a professor to respond? Try a sticky note. Really.Yellow sticky note with Professor, please take care of this. The sticky note survey says you will.

Experiments by Randy Garner of Sam Houston University found that professors are twice as likely to respond when a request is accompanied by a personal message on a sticky note, Harvard Business Review reports.

Writing for the Review, Kevin Hogan speculates on the reasons this approach works: It’s hard to ignore. It’s personal. And it creates a bit of neon clutter that the brain wants taken care of.

I’ve always considered duct tape a magic solution to most problems. Looks as if I’ll have to expand my toolkit.

Looking at K-12 as the key to raising college graduate rates

Michael J. Petrilli makes a good case that college graduation rates aren’t likely to improve significantly until students come to college better prepared.

Writing for the Thomas B. Forham Institute, he cites statistics showing that the percentage of “college prepared” students (35 percent in 2005) nearly matched the graduation rate of those students eight years later. He says that indicates that most students who are well-prepared for college eventually graduate.

“But until we start making significant progress at the K12 level — and get many more students to the college-ready level before they land on campus — our dreams for significantly boosting the college completion numbers seem certain to be dashed,” Petrilli writes.

Briefly …

The percentage of students needing remedial math courses at Colorado colleges and universities has declined for three years in a row, Education News reports. Among students who started college in 2013, 34.2 percent needed remedial math, down from 40 percent in 2011. (Rates in other states vary widely.)  … Eduardo Porter of The New York Times asks whether the federal government shouldn’t get a share of profits from federally financed research ventures in academia. He cites Tesla, Google, GPS, and touch-screen technology as examples of projects that emerged from taxpayer-supported research. … Google has made recordings of its Education on Air event available for viewing. One caveat: All the sessions have separate links but are part of a single video file of more than five hours. That makes skipping among the sessions a challenge.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Higher education has an image problem. And a trust problem.

That should come as no surprise, given the drubbing that public colleges and universities have taken from state legislatures over the past few years. They have also taken criticism from federal policy makers – along with parents and students – about costs and transparency.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

The latest sign of flagging trust comes from a national poll from the Robert Morris University Polling Institute in Pittsburgh.

More than half of parents polled said colleges and universities weren’t staying current with the demands of the job market or maintaining strong relationships with employers. Jerry Lindsley, president of the Center for Research and Public Policy at Robert Morris, put that into some disturbing context. In a press release from the university, he said:

“Our corporate clients strive to attain overall satisfaction ratings in the high 80s. Even health insurance companies and most utilities receive positive ratings in the high 80s.”


Adding to the sting, the poll found that the number of Americans who rate the value of a bachelor’s degree in positive terms had dropped more than 23 points in the last 10 years, to 44.6 percent.

Not surprisingly, given the rising cost of college, Americans increasingly see a college degree in purely economic terms. An overwhelming 82 percent of those in the Robert Morris poll said job training and preparation at colleges and universities were more important than academic work.

Interestingly, students in the United Kingdom say much the same thing. In a recent poll there, students said that professional experience and training in teaching were more important in instructors than being an active researcher, The Guardian reports. Students who study more, have more contact hours with instructors, and take classes with 50 or fewer students are more satisfied with their education than other students are, the poll said.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, points out the danger of a narrow, consumerist view of education. College isn’t a commodity, he argues in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. Rather, it’s an awakening. “It’s a challenging engagement in which both parties have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized.”

You can’t just buy an education, walk off with it and plug it in. Students’ success depends in large part on the work they are willing to put into that education.

“The ultimate value of college,” Rawlings writes, “is the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge.”

He’s right. I’ve made that case myself. And yet those of us in higher education face an enormous challenge in making that case to students, parents and legislators who increasingly see education as a means to a very specific end, not as a process of mental development.

We have our work cut out for us.

Sage advice about non-traditional students

Jeff Fanter, vice president for enrollment, communications and marketing management at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, offered this excellent insight during an interview with The Evolllution:

“I firmly believe many non-traditional students come into the door of higher education with one foot outside the door at all times. If you give them a reason to take their other foot back outside the door and walk away they will.”

Briefly …

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, will explore the influence digital text formatting has on reading abilities in middle school students, The Journal reports. … Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Robert Reich argues that the United States needs to reinvent its entire education system. … Minnesota’s public colleges and universities will receive their full appropriation from the state legislature only if they meet several guidelines, including increasing graduation rates and job placement, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers excellent advice about what she calls “the teaching trap.”

By that, she means putting so much of yourself into your teaching that you have no time or energy for research, writing or life outside the office. She writes:Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

“If you find yourself coming to campus early and staying late, if you’re spending every weekend grading and preparing for the next week’s classes, if you’re answering student’s text messages into the wee hours of the night, if you’re sacrificing sleep and/or pulling all-nighters in order to get ready for the next day’s class meeting, and – as a result – you haven’t spent any time moving your research agenda forward or investing in your long-term success, then you may have fallen into the teaching trap.”

She provides several reasons this can happen but also offers ways of balancing academic life. Those include setting aside writing time every day, consulting with colleagues about how they handle their workloads, avoiding (a perfectionist tendency), and seeking advice from your school’s teaching center.

I’ll add my own plug for her last suggestion. CTE offers many programs, workshops, discussions and publications to help faculty members improve their teaching (which includes finding a healthy balance). We also visit classes and consult with individual faculty members and departments about specific problems.

Teaching can sometimes feel like an all-encompassing, individual profession. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, all teachers are part of a broader community. Recognizing that and then joining the community helps make us all better.

Table showing bachelor's degree outcomes by region, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey
From First Destinations for the College Class of 2014, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers:

Region makes a difference for recent grads

More than 65 percent of 2004 graduates from the Plains states and New England found full-time jobs within six months of leaving college, a new survey says.

Those percentages (Plains, 67.4 percent; New England, 66.1 percent) were the highest among all regions. Overall, 52.5 percent of 2004 graduates reported finding full-time jobs within six months of graduating.

More than 90 percent of students from colleges in those areas, along with those in the Great Lakes states, reported a positive “career outcome,” meaning they had found a job or were continuing their education six months after graduating, the survey said. That is far higher than other regions of the United States. Colleges from the Southeast reported the lowest percentage (67); the national average was 80 percent.

The survey found little difference among institutions in urban, suburban or rural areas. (It also broke down job status based on area of study, but that is too detailed to go into here.)

Graduates from private, nonprofit colleges and universities (58.5 percent) were far more likely to have found jobs than their counterparts in public institutions (48 percent), the survey said, and those with professional degrees were slightly more likely than those with liberal arts degrees to have found full-time jobs (58.7 percent vs. 53.8 percent). The survey’s authors say this is partly the result of student expectations: Those with professional degrees tend to focus on getting jobs; those with liberal arts degrees often go to graduate school.

What are we to make of the data? The report doesn’t really say, except to point out that more than 20 percent of graduates were “adrift” six months after they left college. I found the regional data especially interesting. I have ideas about that, but I won’t speculate without seeing further data.

The survey, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, contains data from more than 200 colleges and universities. Its creators say it is the first such survey to use a common methodology among all participants, and they told Inside Higher Ed that they hope it will create a baseline for future surveys of graduates.

Briefly …

In an article for Faculty Focus, Berlin Fang warns against becoming a “helicopter professor,” saying it is important to let students struggle with concepts and find answers on their own. … Heather Cox Richardson, a professor at Boston College, writes for Slate on what she calls Gov. Scott Walker’s new Wisconsin Experiment, putting it into the context of “eighty years of maligning universities as hotbeds of socialism in an attempt to undercut workers’ influence in government.” … Jill Barshay of the Hechinger Report says that student debt falls most heavily on three types of students: graduate students, students at for-profit colleges, and dropouts.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

No one disputes that college tuition has risen substantially over the past 20 years.

Ask why, though, and you’ll get vastly different answers.

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado, dismisses the idea that declining state subsidies have led to rising tuition. Instead, he writes, “the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.”

That partly depends on when you start measuring.

chart showing college costs from the 1960s to 2010s
Vox provides this chart as part of a larger package on college costs.

Adjusted for inflation, funding for higher education is 10 times higher than it was in the 1960s, Campos says. Some of that increase has been driven by a larger percentage of Americans going to college, he says, although tuition has risen even faster than legislative financing. He attributes much of the rise to the “constant expansion of university administration.”

Campos says an argument can be made for the increases in spending and the growth in administration, except for the skyrocketing salaries of top administrators. Ultimately, though, he argues, tuition increases aren’t tied to state cuts.

Tom Lindsay of Forbes cheers Campos’s argument, adding his own figures to back up those Campos provides. Lindsay says his own research about Texas shows “that a mild decrease in state funding … has been accompanied by a wild increase in university tuitions and fees.”

On the other side of the spending argument is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which focuses on how government policies affect low-income Americans. Its latest report shows that state spending on higher education has dropped more than 20 percent since 2007-08, with some states cutting more than 35 percent. Tuition has increased 29 percent during that time.

Some states have increased funding to higher education by an average of 3.9 percent over the past year, the center said, but 13 states have continued to cut.

So who’s right? All of the above, at least to an extent.

There’s no dispute that financing for public colleges and universities has risen considerably since the 1960s. Nor is there any dispute that education at all levels has taken substantial cuts in state financing since the 2008 recession.

Have tuition increases since 2008 been tied, at least in part, to declining state support? Of course they have. Do those state cuts fully explain the tuition increases? Definitely not. What about the longer term? That’s where Campos and Lindsay have a strong argument. Tuition rates grew enormously even as public spending on higher education rose from the 1960s to 2008.

Whatever your take on rising tuition and state cuts, those issues need to be framed in terms of bigger questions:

  • What type of public higher education system do we want?
  • How much are states and potential students willing to pay for the education those institutions deliver?
  • And how can we keep public education from becoming an elite-only opportunity? That is, how do we keep it truly public?

Those are the harder questions we have yet to answer satisfactorily.

That other big college expense

Discussions about rising tuition rates often overlook an even bigger expense for many families: room and board.

According to NPR, those costs are rising even faster than tuition rates.

It cites statistics from the College Board, saying that the cost of room and board at public universities has risen by more than 20 percent since 2009.

Among the drivers of cost, according to NPR: aging dorms that need to be replaced; student demand for gourmet menus and luxury rooms, along with universities trying to keep pace with one another in this area; use of higher-priced local food; and extended hours for dining halls.

It also points to another cause: As colleges and universities have been pressed to keep tuition increases down, some have pushed up the cost of student housing to help fill budget gaps.

Briefly …

U.S. college enrollment fell by about 200,000 between 2012-13 and 2013-14, The Hechinger Report says, and the proportion of students who moved immediately from high school to college dropped four percentage points between 2009 and 2013. More students are also enrolling part time, Hechinger says, and a slightly higher percentage of students are staying after their freshman year. … Penn State researchers will use Apple watches to interact with students in class, send notifications outside of class, and promote reflection on learning, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

I often roll my eyes at articles that take millennials to task for not measuring up to the standard of the day. All too often, baby boomers and those in generations before seem to wag their fingers at young people and spew out curmudgeonly laments that inevitably start with, “When I was your age …”

question on reading a chart from ETS survey
Sample questions, above and below, from the international survey of millennials’ skills

As I dug into a new report by the Educational Testing Service, though, I began to buy into the concerns it raises about the skills of American millennials when compared with those of their counterparts worldwide. (ETS creates the GRE and TOEFL tests, among others.) The new report, written by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, is called “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

Across the board, data from the study suggest that Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (things like using digital maps and calculating the price of tickets from a kiosk). This holds true for high school graduates and for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors write. “Now it is below even that.”

More education, fewer skills

The 82 million American millennials – those born after 1980 – have received more formal education than any previous generation, the authors write, yet their demonstration of skills in literacy and numeracy are middling at best. The U.S. is the wealthiest among 22 nations where the test was administered, but it is also “the most economically unequal.”

Given the poor performance of American millennials on these tests, the report says, we should “consider critically the value that higher education in the U.S. is contributing to the skills of our young adults,” adding: “For education to be a vehicle to future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities.”

One of the most interesting – and ominous – assertions the report makes is that the growing economic inequality in American society today is very likely to compound the disparity in skills. Students whose parents hold college degrees generally have greater skills in literacy and math than those whose parents have only high school diplomas. As the cost of college rises and economic inequality grows, those at the top will have great access to education and the opportunities it brings while those at the bottom will have fewer opportunities.

sample map from ETS survey“A very real danger lies in perpetuating a cycle where low skill levels, less income, and less access to quality education will beget a further entrenchment of deep inequality, with some segments of society more at risk than others,” the authors write.” This is the very opposite of what a meritocratic society purports to offer.”

For instance, scores of blacks and Hispanics were 15 to 24 percent below those of their white counterparts, depending upon the age group. As the report explains, though, whites and Asian-Americans still scored below the average for all those who took the tests internationally.

What can we do?

Tests of all kinds tend to do a much better job of measuring students’ ability to take tests than they do in measuring their ability to apply skills in a realistic setting. I’m also suspicious of “the sky is falling” reports about education. The sky has been falling since at least the 1970s. As I said earlier, though, I’ve had trouble finding fault with this study.

Perhaps the main weakness in the study is its lack of solutions. It makes a strong case that the skills of American millennials rank below those of their international counterparts. It doesn’t explain why or how to fix the problem, though. Here are some obvious ones:

De-emphasize standardized testing. Instead of fixating on standardized testing, give teachers the freedom to help students learn in meaningful ways. Many are doing that already with blended learning, project-based learning, team-based learning, and other methods. Until schools adopt a teacher evaluation system that uses standardized tests as a small part of a much larger portfolio, teachers will focus on test scores.

Make skills matter. Today’s academic culture promotes the idea of education as a product rather than a process of learning. Reversing that will require more meaningful demonstrations of skills over grades and a diploma. And until universities stop basing admissions decisions on standardized test scores, the ability to take those tests will matter far more than than more meaningful skills.

Emphasize active learning. As Maryellen Weimer writes in Faculty Focus: “We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking.” Active learning helps students gain crucial skills. Wide-scale of adoption of active learning is unlikely occur, though, until instructors are rewarded for taking risks.

Value teaching. Higher education still lacks a meaningful reward system for high-quality teaching. Until we change that, teaching will play a diminished role that results in diminished skills for students.

The problem is far more complex than any of those solutions, but those areas can at least provide an entry into a much-needed and, as the ETS report emphasizes, increasingly urgent problem.

Briefly …

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State, Pueblo, says that the university tenure system “is on life support” but deserves to be saved because it “is the best form of quality control that higher education has.” … The UK is struggling to recruit and retain teachers, investment in education has dropped, and student skills lag, The Guardian reports, saying, “Education has never mattered more, so why won’t the UK invest in it properly?” … Educause has joined other organizations in expressing concern about the discriminatory aspects of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act. In an email message, the organization’s president and CEO, Diana Oblinger, said Educause had been looking for alternative sites to Indianapolis for its October conference and had written a letter to Indiana’s governor. … Three white papers issued by the U.S. Senate “show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.