- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The recent bankruptcy declaration by Kodak, one of the nation’s most trusted brands for consumers, which once held a market share in excess of 90 percent, is stunning. Kodak mistook America’s century-long love affair with its products as a sign of market permanency, missing the fact that camera phones, flip cameras and online sharing would erode its brand and render it irrelevant.

American higher education should take heed because it is facing a similar challenge, with implications far more important than the loss of a major corporation.

To ensure the nation’s long-term economic health, we need an ever-growing supply of college graduates. But right now, the nation’s colleges and universities are not inspiring the confidence and market responsiveness to make that a reality.

For proof, look at the growing questions about whether higher education has priced itself out of the emerging market for skills and knowledge. Or read the recent research questioning the learning outcomes of students. One widely cited study says far too many students are “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose.”

It’s also hard to dismiss the growing number of countries with college-attainment rates that far surpass our own, such as South Korea, where 63 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are graduates, compared to less than 40 percent of their American counterparts.

Higher education has served the country’s economic and social needs well for more than a century. In a recent Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll, the vast majority of Americans said they think getting a college degree is critical to their economic well-being. But a majority questioned whether colleges and universities were able to deliver job-relevant learning, and most questioned whether rising prices are sustainable.

So it’s clear that even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education is deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. That means colleges and universities must do all they can to keep and sustain the public’s confidence in higher education.

They can do that with the growing body of evidence from economists and labor experts. As many of these experts have stated, evidence shows conclusively that postsecondary education is vital to anyone who hopes to have and hold a good job in the 21st-century global economy.

One key step is for higher education to become responsive to the needs of all potential students, including the large number of underemployed adults who require new skills and training, first-generation students and returning veterans, among others.

We also need to transform what “quality” really means in higher education. In today’s society, the only definition of quality that makes sense is one based on what students actually learn and what they can do with the skills and knowledge they gain - in work and as citizens.

Colleges and universities also must focus on increasing higher education productivity - but not the kind that is about budget cutting to serve fewer students or about making individual institutions more selective. Instead, the true definition of productivity is one that offers a substantial increase in high-quality degree and certificate production at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for underserved populations.

Policymakers must work closely with employers and education leaders to develop student-centered strategies that increase productivity. Employers need to actively participate in the redesign of a new, student-centered higher education system and invest in their employees through tuition reimbursement, via apprenticeship programs and by assessing prior learning in work or the military.

Ultimately, though, higher education must take control of its own future. The world is indeed changing, rapidly, and colleges and universities must seize the moment to meet the rising demand for high-quality skills that are vital to our collective well-being as a nation. If they don’t, they, like Kodak, risk the chance of being gone in a flash.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president of Lumina Foundation.

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