Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Developments in Higher Education

There is a news service called Inside Higher Education which is very good. For years the sector has had something called The Chronicle of Higher Education which is our supposed "trade" paper but in recent years it has been taken up in selling ads for positions and in political correctness which has diminished its utility. The founders of Inside Higher Education came from the Chronicle. But their attention to finding stories which are current and interesting puts them in a different league.

In this morning's news digest there were two very interesting stories. First, about James Madison University and the orange band initiative. James Madison has instituted this new program for students to be able to signal to other students that they are prepared to engage in civil dialogue. What a wonderful idea, a tag to indicate civility. Universities should be places where those kinds of deep discussions are common. But in today's overheated environment, that is not the norm. The idea should spread. Think of the possibilities! On political talk shows people show up with orange ribbons or bands and then begin the kind of discussions about the key issues of the day instead of shouting matches. Politicians in even numbered falls don an orange band to show that they are serious about the jobs they are running for instead of simply trying to pander to part of the electorate.

The second story is a bit more troubling. The Alliance for Excellent Education has published a report of the costs of remedial education in community colleges across the country. Their estimate, $1.4 billion. The Alliance's estimates do not include the costs associated with remedial courses or work in four year institutions so the authors think the number is conservative. One validation of the estimate came from an official in Alabama who did their own statewide estimate and came up with a figure which was twice the size of the Alliance estimate for their state - so the total number could be considerably higher. Assume for a moment that the total size of the enterprise as a part of the American economy is in the range of $30-40 billion, even a doubling of the estimate for these programs does not seem unreasonable. Sure it is easy to blame K-12 education - and there should be some blame. But the costs of remediation also include the discontinuities of people who make changes in their plans (for example a person who is 30 and decides to change careers and needs to go back for some basics). The strength of the American higher education system is its ultimate flexibility. Regardless, it is interesting to have an estimate of that part of the system.

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