Factors Affecting the Future of Higher Education: Quality of Learning

December 14, 2012

Dr. Fred Saba

Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.
Founder and Editor, Distance-Educator.com

Cole (2009) in a comprehensive book titled The great American university stated that:

American society today is not preparing enough of its talented students for work in fields that will be critical for the growth of knowledge in science and engineering; nor is it adequately preparing those who will become lawyers, businessmen, members of the Congress, or members of the judiciary by giving them the tools they will need to deal intelligently with decisions related to science and technology that will be critical to the nation’s future. As our dependency on science and technology grows, our literacy diminishes.” (pp. 453).

He further compared the US dependency on importing talented workers from abroad, especially in the area of technology, to her reliance on foreign oil and predicted that as universities and businesses in other countries become more attractive to new talent, the US will not be able to count on attracting talented individual from all over the world which served her well in the 20th century.

Describing the “failure of higher education” Keeling and Hersh (2012) stated that

Most students graduate from college without having experienced higher learning at all—They gain (but quickly forget) factual knowledge, become adept at giving back rehearsed answers on exams, and eventually, sporting inflated grade-point averages, find their way into line and shake hands with the president at commencement.” (pp. 9)

In fact, Arum and Roska (2011) found that “gains in student performance are disturbingly low; a pattern of limited learning is prevalent on contemporary college campuses.” (pp.30) Asserting that both institutions as well as students attending them are “academically adrift,” the researchers provided multiple examples to support their claim. Focusing on critical thinking skills, the authors stated that:

“From their freshman entrance to the end of their sophomore year, students in our sample on average have improved these skills, as measured by the CLA [Collegiate Learning Assessment], by only 0.18 standard deviation. This translates into a seven percentile point gain, meaning that an average-scoring student in the fall of 2005 would score seven percentile points higher in the spring of 2007. Stated differently, freshmen who enter higher education at the 50th percentile would reach a level equivalent to the 57th percentile of an incoming freshman class by the end of their sophomore year.” (pp.35).

The university has evolved and grown over the years reflecting a seemingly endless number of variables which have defined and set the course of its evolution.

Despite the fact that Bok (2006), President of Harvard University from 1971 to 1991, titled his critique of higher education Our Underachieving Colleges, he believed that the critics of higher education today are harsh and are comparing the state of contemporary university with an arbitrary golden era that at the least differ for each commentator, and at the most may never have exited historically. The university has evolved and grown over the years reflecting a seemingly endless number of variables which have defined and set the course of its evolution. In Bok’s view, the university has become a multiversity in which, similar to any other major enterprise, there are often conflicting objectives. For example, while the primary objective of most students might be learning, the most important goal for the faculty, at least in research universities, is generating new knowledge and not necessarily contributing to the learning of students directly. Further, as the university has evolved and has become a resource to many other institutions in society, it is often not clear what is its overall purpose. In fact Bok did not believe that the university must necessarily have a single purpose as it is difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at a unified goal in each institution given the fact that faculty cherish their academic freedom and exercise it by defining their own professional path to intellectual growth in their chosen disciplines. Bok illustrated this fact by giving examples in basic areas of studies, such as, English. While the faculty in the department of literature arts may think that the primary purpose of teaching the English language is preparing students to become postmodern analyzers of classical literature for a radical transformation of society, managers in corporations that hire graduates of the university, may believe that the primary purpose of the department of literature arts should be teaching undergraduate students the English grammar and how to write clearly!

In a recent report issued by the National Governors Association, Sparks and Waits (2011) stated:

“Currently, businesses and states are not getting the talent they want—and students and job seekers are not getting the jobs they want. There are problems with quality. For instance, employers responding to a recent survey estimated that 40 percent of college graduates available to them do not have the necessary applied skills required to meet their needs.  Almost one-third of U.S. manufacturing companies say they are suffering from some level of skills shortages.  There are also problems with quantity. In the health sector, for instance, there is a shortage of nurses. Of the 50 states, 46 face nursing shortages, ranging from a shortage of 200 nurses in Alabama to a shortage of 47,600 in California in 2010.6 Even though shortages exist in such well-paying jobs as nurses and manufacturing, over 30 percent of American college graduates between the ages of 25 and 29 are currently working in low-skilled jobs.” (pp. 8)

There may be disagreement among the leading critics of higher education about the quality of learning in colleges and universities and the conditions for underperformance of students. What critics agree on, however, is that most students reach college under conditions that are not ideal for their success.


Arum, R., & Roska, J., (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning and college campuses. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

Bok, D. C. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cole, J. R. (2009). The great American university. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Keeling, R. P. & Hersh, R. H. (2011). We’re losing our minds: Rethinking American higher education. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sparks, E., & Waits, M. J. (2011). Degrees for what jobs?: Raising expectations fro universities and colleges in a global economy. Washington, DC: The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.