Chancellor's Recent Speeches

An Important Challenge to Higher Education
By Dr. Charles B. Reed

The report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education recognizes two significant realities: one, that American higher education must face many important issues in order to maintain global economic competitiveness; and two, that the value of higher education has never been greater in our society. For these reasons, American colleges and universities must learn to adapt accordingly.

The commission's initial draft directed a great deal of criticism at higher education, and many critics of the recommendations have focused on that rough draft as the foundation for their dissatisfaction with the commission's final results. However, it was always my hope that the commission would come forward with some "big ideas" to challenge higher education on a lot of entrenched issues. Fortunately, the recommendations address many of these important concerns and challenges.


First, the recommendations recognize that a new national commitment must be made to expanding access and student success, especially for underrepresented student populations. In fact, I believe this is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education today. The numbers of first-generation and under-represented minority students are growing too quickly for us to keep up with them through our traditional and somewhat passive recruitment methods. The commission is correct in saying that we need a commitment of state and possibly federal incentives to provide seamless educational programs between high schools, colleges, and universities. But universities themselves have to be willing to step outside their traditional comfort zones as well.

By way of example, the California State University's Early Assessment Program (an 11th-grade test tied to the California Standards Test that gives students an early signal about college readiness) has become a model for pre-college preparation and outreach. The CSU has also made waves with its "Super Sunday" college information sessions at African-American churches in Northern and Southern California, reaching more than 30,000 participants. These efforts demonstrate that going beyond the traditional "the door is open if you want to come in" attitude is an important step toward reaching students who might not otherwise get on the right track for college.

Financial Aid

Second, the recommendations advocate for a complete reform of the current financial aid system. The potential value of these recommendations is that future financial aid funding could be distributed based more on student needs than institutional needs. For example, published "net prices," (advocated as a tool for better consumer information in another recommendation), could be used instead of inflated "sticker prices" in financial aid programs to provide more resources to needy students attending lower cost institutions. This would force higher-cost institutions to rethink their reliance on inflated "sticker pricing," thus slowing the tuition and fee growth that is causing much public concern.

Beyond cost issues, one of the most important improvements in today's complex financial aid system would be the simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Time after time, the complexity of this form becomes a barrier for those students who are most in need of assistance. The commission rightly suggests that the application process can be substantially streamlined.

Learning Outcomes

Next, as the report points out, there are significant shortcomings in the current accreditation system at a time when there is growing public demand for increased accountability and transparency.

Accreditation could be improved if each university were required to concretely assess its own value-added contributions. One important effort on this front is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a national effort to assess the quality of undergraduate education by directly measuring student learning outcomes. The Council for Aid to Education (on whose board I serve) has created this performance-based assessment model to assess student ability and learning in critical thinking, writing, and synthesizing skills. The measures are focused on skills that students will need as they graduate and enter the work force, and will provide clear signals to students at much earlier points in their education. Any new measurement system that we undertake needs this kind of clarity and purpose-driven focus.


The commission also advocates a robust culture of transparency and accountability throughout higher education that would make widespread comparative information available. This would enhance institutional accountability as well as provide important decision-making information that does not exist for the general public today.

This directive is raising serious concerns among the accrediting bodies, private institutions, and many leading higher education organizations. However, if policy makers actually knew and compared average per student cost increases over the last two decades they would discover drastic differences and increasing disparities in efficiencies between universities. These kinds of comparisons would help the public have a better understanding of the value these institutions add through education.


On the subject of innovation, the commission rightly calls attention to the most glaring flaws of the traditional academic program - the fact that the physical plant is underused, and that the courses are frequently targeted only to full-time, site-based students. In fact, many institutions are still working on essentially the same schedule they used a century ago, with mid-week, mid-day, classroom-based instruction. How ironic that many universities study the science and art of innovation but still have not found a way to integrate it into their operations.

At a time when we are facing more competition than ever from for-profit institutions and abroad, it is time for us to learn from our colleagues who have found new ways to reach people and perform jobs more efficiently. Our curriculum also needs to reflect more of what is going on in the outside world, including team-building, interdisciplinary collaborations, and skilled communications.

Endnote: Support from Public Officials

Finally, there are a number of important recommendations for state and federal policymakers to consider, including more widespread use of educational technologies, relief from regulatory burdens, and a continued commitment to the support of public higher education. Even though universities may be on board for any number of changes, we cannot make these changes alone. We will need the strongest possible commitment from the legislators and policymakers who have the power to create an environment where students will flourish. It is my hope that these recommendations will not go unheeded.

Reed is chancellor of the 23-campus California State University system. He testified before the Commission on the Future of Higher Education in February.

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