Midwest Conference on the Work of the Spellings Commission
on the Future of Higher Education
Remarks by President Richard F. Wilson
March 24, 2006
I would like to preface my remarks with an observation about the juxtaposition of
two national efforts focused on the future of higher education, one entitled the Solutions
Campaign and sponsored by the American Council on Education and the other, a special
Futures Commission appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. As I understand
these two initiatives, I find it ironic that the Solutions Campaign is focused, in
large measure, on informing the American public about the societal benefits of higher
education. The Spellings Commission, on the other hand, is challenging higher education
to demonstrate for the American public what those benefits are. One of these initiatives
assumes we know what the benefits are and need to do a better job of communicating
them to various publics. The other raises questions about the benefits and the associated
costs. Many of us in this room have lamented in recent years that higher education
was not part of the national agenda. We have been lobbying for more attention; now
we have that attention as well as some anxieties about the implications.
I will turn now to the focus of this panel discussion: whether the current goals
of higher education are appropriate and achievable. The first difficulty that I have
with this question is the implicit assumption that the goals for higher education
are well-defined and broadly accepted. The fact is that there are a few goals like
the development of critical thinking skills and effective communication skills that
one might assume are embraced by all colleges and universities. Once you move beyond
this small set, however, the goals become more institution or sector specific and
frequently emerge in response to local, state, or national needs. Most colleges and
universities vary considerably in their commitment to such goals as civic leadership,
global citizenship, public engagement, diversity, environmental sustainability, social
justice, economic development, workforce development, and artistic expression.
This lack of uniformity is actually the strength of the system of higher education
in this country. Such institutional diversity not only provides options for students
but also provides a competitive environment that is healthy for the system.
My own sense is that some of the goals of higher education today relate to enduring
values, ones that have served this country well over a long period of time, while
others reflect emerging values tied to particular needs of society at a point in time.
I would place critical thinking skills in the former category and environmental sustainability
in the latter. Thus, I am reluctant to embrace the idea that there is a common set
of goals for all of higher education. We may have a few goals in common, but it would
be a mistake to judge our effectiveness on those goals alone.
Having said that, I do believe it is important for institutions to assess progress
in achieving the goals they have established for themselves and to make that information
available to various constituencies. At Illinois Wesleyan, we have an active assessment
program and have used surveys extensively, e.g., Entering Students, End of First Year,
and Student Engagement. We also are participating in CAE’s College Learning Assessment,
a national effort comparing freshman and senior performance on such key dimensions
as critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication.
One principle that has served us well has been to rely on multiple measures and to
compare ourselves, whenever possible, against our own historical performance and against
several national normative groups, e.g., aspirational peers and all liberal arts colleges.
Too much reliance on any single measure will often result in misleading or inaccurate
conclusions. The literature on assessment is filled with examples of misguided efforts
that attribute causality where only correlation exists.
In building assessment programs, there is a natural tendency to move rather quickly
to testing. Now, I am not opposed to testing, but I am opposed to testing as the
only basis for judgments about value. Such judgments have always been important but
have taken on added importance as college costs have risen and increased attention
has been given to program effectiveness.
For me, efforts to assess progress in achieving the goals of higher education require
much thought and attention and considerable flexibility in approach. To jump quickly
to standardized tests as the primary solution trivializes the process and may lead
to unintended and counterproductive results, e.g, teaching to the test and ranking
institutions based on test results (which will reward those institutions who enroll
the best students, not necessarily those who make the most difference). In assessing
all matters of importance to colleges and universities, we must turn to analyses that
are just as sophisticated as the goals we are trying to assess.