A Tale of Two Systems

The nation is dependent upon its public higher education systems to educate and train millions of students. Approximately 70 percent of everyone who is enrolled in higher education today, about 14 million people, is studying in a community college, a four-year public colleges, or a public university. Our focus, however, is almost always upon the successes and failings of individual institutions, not their systems. Does anyone really know what public systems is really doing well? Or is failing?

Two recent articles highlight the challenge of systems thinking and thinking about systems. North Carolina’s community colleges were recently lauded for a massive curriculum project. The Code Green Super Curriculum Improvement Project provided a standardized core and curricula in a system with 58 colleges. The changes will lead to stronger courses, fewer unneeded courses, and competencies across institutions that should lead to better prepared students in certain technical fields. By all accounts, this was a massive cooperative effort.

Within the City University of New York, system-wide curriculum renewal has been significantly more challenging. The University’s central administration’s Pathways Project, a standardized set of general education requirements across 18 colleges, has been hotly contested by faculty, faculty organizations and the systems faculty union. A lawsuit was filed objecting to the plan and the CUNY system has been the focus of multiple accounts in the higher education press.

These contrasting stories, however, should not necessarily lead one to believe that CUNY is less effective a system than North Carolina’s. In fact, it’s surprisingly difficulty to decide what makes for an effective system and why. A few years ago Kevin Carey and Chad Aldeman authored a report for The Education Sector entitled Ready to Assemble: Grading State Higher Education Accountability Systems.  The authors worked from a straightforward assumption that to create systems that would facilitate student success, states had to have “smart, effective higher education accountability systems, modeled from the best practices of their peers” and to set goals for achievement. Accountability, however, does not necessarily guarantee success.

A different approach is taken by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, a subsidiary organization of the US Chamber of Commerce. ICW created an interactive map, subtitled “Leaders and Laggards,” drawing data from IPEDS, detailing state by state report cards on a variety of broad educational outcomes. Accountability is important, but so, too are graduation rates and meeting the market demand for educated employers.

The difficulty is very similar to that when evaluating the effectiveness of individual institutions. What is the mission and how is it being met? We rarely have clarity at the system level when it comes to mission. Assessing system effectiveness, accordingly, will remain a daunting task. And in the absence of meaning data or information, reputations will rise and fall on the basis of individual initiatives.

Not the most effective way to educate the majority of Americans.

David Potash


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