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Milken Institute Panel Discussion - The Future of Higher Education in America

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2013 Milken Institute Panel Discussion - The Future of Higher Education in America

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Last updated on January 4th 2014

This youtube video, "The Future of Higher Education in America",, 1 hr, 16 min, 19 sec, has a panel discussion on the subject-title and seems to have been done sometime in early 2013. So this panel discussion gives a fairly current picture of USA higher education.

The panel discussion was hosted by Milken Institute. From its wiki,, "The Milken Institute is an independent economic think tank based in Santa Monica, California that publishes research and hosts conferences that apply market-based principles and financial innovations to a variety of societal issues in the US and internationally."

The youtube page description has the following:

Student debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark in 2012 and now is the second-largest category of household debt behind mortgages. Default rates exceed those of credit cards, and college tuition and fees have been rising even faster than health care costs. At the same time, employers are seeing a mismatch between their needs and the qualifications of those in the labor pool. This incongruity threatens to derail productivity and economic growth, raising serious questions about national competitiveness. Given this backdrop, how can the American higher education model fulfill the learning, affordability and job-preparation needs of students? What role can colleges and universities, online technology and government play in setting higher education on the best possible course?


The moderator of the panel is John Nelson, Managing Director, Public Finance Group, Moody's Investors Service [He has a background in economic analysis of educational institutions.]

The speakers/panelists are:

William Bennett, Former U.S. Secretary of Education; Author, "Is College Worth It?", From his wiki, "William John "Bill" Bennett (born July 31, 1943) is an American conservative pundit, politician, and political theorist. He served as United States Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush. In 2000, he co-founded K12, a for-profit online education corporation which is publicly traded."

Steven Knapp, President, The George Washington University,, From GWU wiki,, "The George Washington University (GW, GWU, or George Washington) is a comprehensive private, coeducational research university located in the United States' capital, Washington, D.C."

Daphne Koller, Co-Founder, Coursera Inc.,, From her wiki, "Daphne Koller (born 27 August, 1968) is an Israeli-American Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University and a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. She's also one of the founders of Coursera, an online education platform. Her general research area is artificial intelligence and its applications in the biomedical sciences.". From the Coursera wiki,, "Coursera is a for-profit educational technology company offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University. Coursera works with universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science, and other areas."

Patricia McWade, Dean of Student Financial Services, Georgetown University, From its wiki,, "Georgetown University is a private research university in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1789, it is the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States."

Anthony Miller, Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer, U.S. Department of Education. From his wiki,, "Anthony Wilder "Tony" Miller is the United States Deputy Secretary of Education, confirmed on July 24, 2009 to replace Raymond Simon, who resigned from this Office on January 20, 2009." [BTW the current Secretary of Education of the US is Arne Duncan,]


This seems to be quite an appropriate and high-profile group (in US higher education field) who seem to have good knowledge of the current situation and challenges in US higher education.

I have put down, usually in brief, some of the points touched by this panel discussion as a comment on the youtube page under my name. The comment was made today, 28th December 2013. I think it would be useful for readers interested in this topic to view these points/notes (posted as a comment).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Decline in USA Higher Education - PBS Documentary dated 2005; What about Indian Higher Education?

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A few days ago I saw a very informative, comprehensive and thought-provoking Public Broadcasting Service (PBS),, documentary video, "DECLINING BY DEGREES: HIGHER EDUCATION AT RISK", about USA higher education which is dated 2005. The corresponding DVD sales item entry on states, "Declining by Degrees blows higher education's cover, showing that the multi-billion dollar enterprise of higher education has gone astray."

I am quite sure that Indian higher education (academia) would also be having some of the problems that are shown in this documentary about US higher education. Therefore, in my humble opinion, viewing the documentary and/or reading the transcript of the documentary may be of immense benefit to Indian higher education (academic) policy makers and administrators.

The documentary is available on youtube here:, 1 hr, 56 min, 02 sec. A good transcript of the documentary is available here: (53 pages). The time markers given below are with respect to the youtube video mentioned earlier and the transcript page markers are with respect to the just mentioned *good* transcript.

Some of the higher education institutions that figure in the documentary are Western Kentucky University -, University of Arizona -, Amherst College (Massachusetts) - and Community College of Denver - There are discussions with students as well as their parents. And discussions with faculty, university presidents and other university/academic leaders.

I have given below a few notes I made from the transcript (these are selective based on my concerns about Indian higher education/academia). These notes comprise of short description/summary of certain parts of the transcript and a few short extracts in quotes. [Please note that the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY license) does not apply to this post.] It also has a few comments from me within square brackets prefixed with Ravi.

John Merrow is the interviewer & narrator and is the education correspondent with PBS. He has a doctorate in Education and Social Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education -

[Video - Around 00:03:45, Transcript - Page 2]
"68 PERCENT OF TODAY’S COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE WORKING AT LEAST 15 HOURS A WEEK. 20 PERCENT HOLD DOWN FULL TIME JOBS WHILE TRYING TO BE FULL TIME STUDENTS" [Ravi: This is reflective of the high cost of higher education in the USA. I think, at least some sections of, Indian higher education seem to be on a similar path of high cost.]


[Video - Around 00:04:49, Transcript - Page 3]
Lara Couturier from the Futures Project, Brown University -, talks about reports from business leaders asking for better skills to be imparted by higher education.

Richard Hersh, a former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Trinity College -, mentions that it (lesser skills) impacts defense, economics, people becoming taxpayers etc.

Kay McClenney from the Community College Leadership Program, University of Texas at Austin -, talks about the American public not having much information about what happens in higher education and so not having concerns about it, besides its cost. Lara Couturier has a similar opinion.

[Ravi: I think the above part is true of the Indian situation as well. "From the standpoint of student learning", most Indians don't really have any information about what really happens in Indian academia.]


[Video - , Transcript - Page 5]
The transcript mentions that Grade Inflation (giving good grades more easily than appropriate) is not a new problem.

[Video - Around 00:10:56, Transcript - Page 5]

Richard Hersh confirms that there is a "huge amount of grade inflation".


[Video - Around 00:11:33, Transcript - Page 6]
William Pritchard who teaches English literature at Amherst College, Massachusetts -, tells John Merrow about leniency in giving grades.


[Video - Around 00:12:08, Transcript - Page 7]
John Merrow discusses the need for retaining students with Prof. Strow who teaches Economics at Western Kentucky University, and Gary Ransdell, president of Western Kentucky University -


[Video - Around 00:15:36, Transcript - Page 8]
Huge classes with 150 to 200 people makes economic sense says Peter Likins, President of University of Arizona -, but students and experts are not happy with it.

[Video - Around 00:19:15, Transcript - Page 10]

A student is unhappy with large classes of 150 people and with instructors being more interested in research and felt that she was not being challenged. She later takes an introductory course in planetary science where she gets to interact individually with a professor who was team leader of a NASA mission, and gets inspired by him. The student finishes her graduation and goes on to graduate school at UCLA to study space and planetary physics.

The documentary then deals with attitude issues of students - partying, not spending enough time studying, working/beating the academic system (passing, sometimes with decent grades, without proper study - sleep walking through college), some students not being worried about poor grades/GPA, students not doing reading work assigned to them before coming to class etc.


[Video - Around 00:34:37, Transcript - Page 17]

John Merrow plays the devil's advocate and tells Paulette Kurzer, a professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona, that professors are boring and don't bring classes to life due to which students do not get interested. Kurzer deftly handles it and talks about challenges in handling a class with 230 students; about not being able to check frequently whether students have understood the lecture.


[Video - Around 00:41:39, Transcript - Page 19]
Tom Fleming, an Associate Astronomer and Senior Lecturer at the University of Arizona, talks about facing the fact that he has 135 students some of whom may not have learned/studied well in high school, and that he cannot change history. Instead he tells them that he will them their money's worth.

[Ravi: I think such teachers should be role models for higher education.]


[Video - Around 00:44:03, Transcript - Page 20]
Lee Shulman from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, comments positively on Tom Fleming's way of making classes interesting using technological and teaching resources.


[Video - Around 00:44:41, Transcript - Page 21]
Tom Fleming talks about how he taught during his initial years as a teacher which had students being more passive. He states that he and all his colleagues in the astronomy department were trained to be researchers and not teachers. Later he got a week of teacher training from the University Teaching Center of the University of Arizona. He also got a laptop on which he could experiment with teaching techniques.

The staff at the University Teaching Center mentions that some academics have told her that they would like to attend the teacher training workshops there but as the rewards are on the research side, they have to work on research

Tom Fleming's teaching skill is recognized by the university and he is paid to teach others his teaching techniques but he is not on the tenure track!
[Ravi: I find it truly shocking that excellence in teaching has less reward in US academia (no tenure) whereas excellence in research is very well rewarded (with tenure). Is it any wonder why teaching excellence has become unimportant in US higher education institutions? Very, very unfortunately I think Indian higher education is going down the same road - perhaps has already gone down that same road in some educational institutions. The people who suffer are the students and their parents as they do not get teachers who are focused on teaching them very well, and society at large as it does not get well skilled graduates and post-graduates from such higher education institutions.]

The scene shifts to Western Kentucky when Brian Strow wants tenure and raises, and for that his quality of teaching is not what matters but the research articles he publishes.

[Ravi: As simple as that! I thank Brian Strow for his honesty and courage to speak the truth.]


[Video - Around 00:49:33, Transcript - Page 23]
Lara Couturier says, "We need to elevate the status of teaching." And reward faculty for being good teachers instead of driving them to focus on publishing research papers.

[Ravi: There's the solution. But is US higher education exploring this solution? It seems that it is not. Why should Indian higher education fall into (or perhaps has already fallen into, in some places) the same trap as US higher education by focusing on research and making teaching an effectively unimportant part of an academic's career? (There don't seem to be any clear measures of teaching quality/effectiveness used by Indian academia - so the Indian academic would typically get a good rating on the teaching so long as there are limited student failures in the subjects he/she teaches)]


The documentary then covers the 'Living Learning Community' where students study together and have a better learning experience by doing so.


[Video - Around 00:56:33, Transcript - Page 27]
A student is shown struggling to do a full-time job (at a factory) and her studies. She talks about how she got into credit card debt to pay her study costs.

The documentary states that 65 percent of US college students go into debt for their studies. It states that things were different 60 years ago when the GI bill became law.

The GI bill's (introduced to help veterans of World War II) positive and transformative effect in opening up higher education to "ordinary Americans" is covered. Higher Education was supported by Federal and State funds and "BECAME THE HIGHWAY TO THE MIDDLE CLASS". America too prospered from millions receiving higher education.

But in the 80s the government funding to higher education reduced and low interest loans took their place. Rather than the earlier "social contract" where higher education being made available to many at mainly government cost, the individual was expected to pay for his/her higher education (with support via low interest loans).

[Ravi: This segment of the video and/or transcript seems to be an excellent overview of the economics side of US higher education right from the end of World War II. I think India too faces the individual student/parent paying vs. government-funded/government-subsidized higher education question including the vital social contract aspect of it.]


[Video - Around 01:04:32, Transcript - Page 30]

Amherst college, an elite college with a billion dollar endowment and only 1600 students, is covered. The detailed coverage includes small class sizes, dedicated and talented teachers/professors, limited teaching load of professors, good salary of professors, college giving financial aid to some less privileged (poor) students thereby having a mix of privileged and less privileged students etc.

[Ravi: The elite universities & colleges in the USA seem to be very, very well funded with huge endowments. They perhaps can excel in both teaching and research. It is the commoner universities and colleges which do not have billion dollar endowments who have to struggle with the problems covered in this documentary. But it is the latter who cater to the majority of (commoner) students. I think we have a similar situation in India where there are elite educational institutions who are very well funded (more by the government than by private donors, I believe) and who perhaps are well positioned to excel both in teaching and research. But the commoner/non-elite higher education institutions of India which cater to the majority of the tens of millions of higher education students in the country would perhaps be facing similar problems that the US commoner/non-elite higher education institutions face (as covered in this documentary).]


The scene shifts to Denver and a student who qualified to join NYU (New York University) but did not do so as she felt it unfair to burden her family with the high tuition costs of NYU (40,000 US $ a year for four years). She enrolled instead at her two year community college where tuition is only 2500 $ a year. From wikipedia,, "In the United States, community colleges (once commonly called junior colleges) are primarily two-year public institutions of higher education. After graduating from a community college, some students transfer to a university or liberal arts college for two to three years to complete a bachelor's degree, while others enter the workforce." Another student is also covered. Community colleges are discussed.


[Video - Around 01:17:36, Transcript - Page 36]

President Christine Johnson of the Community College of Denver (CCD) -, faces challenges as the state has reduced funding but enrollment has gone up. That results in cuts which are hard to make as it impacts individuals.

Other university presidents talk about the the state's financial support is eroding and how important fund raising has become for them. The tight funds situation leads to professors, even full professors, not being well paid is such universities and that is a source of "great discontent" to academics.


The documentary covers a part-time instructor (who in the past was a full time college professor) who teaches at three educational institutions (as I guess he needs the part-time salary from three places). Administrators talk about concerns related to using part-time instructors.

[Video - Around 01:24:06, Transcript - Page 39]


[Video - Around 01:25:39, Transcript - Page 40]

Western Kentucky also has a significant percentage of faculty as part-timers (42%). Western Kentucky's financial situation is covered where it becomes clear that the university has to generate significant revenue from sources other than state funding. Such stress results in tuition going up - 62% in four years at Western Kentucky.

Lara Couturier: "We're moving toward a system where the only people who will have access to a college education are those who can pay for it."

[Ravi: Numbers force facts into the open and then the facts cannot be swept under the carpet. The above numbers tell a compelling story of the decline in affordable and good/decent quality higher education in the USA. The vital question for Indian higher education policy makers and academic administrators may be - what can we do in India to avoid such a decline in affordable and good/decent quality higher education?]

Western Kentucky University staff/students are shown making calls to prospective students - marketing.


[Video - Around 01:27:45, Transcript - Page 41]

Higher education has become very competitive. Universities compete with each other to get paying customers (students). That means spending money on facilities that attract students. University presidents speak frankly about this very business-like competition.
[Ravi: One thing I really admire about some Americans is their ability to honestly state things as they are. These university presidents are talking like business CEOs! Perhaps that's what a US university president has to be nowadays. Will the equivalent for Indian higher education, the vice-chancellors, also have to become like business CEOs (or have some already become like business CEOs)?]


[Video - Around 01:32:12, Transcript - Page 42]
This section deals with rankings - UN News & World Report College Guide. There are various factors for ranking colleges but there is no measure of student learning. The speakers indicate that there has been no measure of student learning for 200 years of higher education and that it is "sort of the holy grail of higher education and accountability".

The rankings are said to be driving US higher education. [Ravi: That's the power of these university/college rankings & gradings (India has NAAC grading for institutions of higher education,, and perhaps some other grading/accreditation organization(s) too). Academic administrators have no choice but to treat them very seriously and make academic administrative decisions to help improve their ranking (or retain their good ranking).]

For getting good rankings universities need to attract bright students. So top high school performers are given "Merit Aid" by universities to attract them. One such student even says she is "making a profit off of coming" to university!
These "Merit Aid"/brilliant students also get special teaching and dorm facilities.


[Video - Around 01:38:24, Transcript - Page 45]
There is some discussion on whether "Merit Aid" is helping those who may not really need it and leaving behind those who need financial help.


[Video - Around 01:47:18, Transcript - Page 50]
Prior to this section there is coverage of lucrative sports (Basketball) contracts that University of Arizona gets due to its superb university basketball team and coach.

A significant portion of the budget of the University of Arizona is from outside contracts.


[Video - Around 01:50:59, Transcript - Page 51]

Before this section there is coverage of poor students who struggle to earn and study, and some of them drop out in the process.
There is talk of the social contract (in higher education) being broken

A graduation day ceremony with joyful students is shown.


[Video - Around 01:52:48, Transcript - Page 52]

Some troubling statistics are given. About half of those who start college don't graduate. And many of those who graduate become heavily indebted.

Then the following questions are raised:






[Ravi: All the questions above (five of them), in my humble opinion, are very, very relevant for Indian higher education today.]

Speakers say that the higher education system is at great risk.


[Ravi: "COLLEGES NEED TO PAY MORE ATTENTION TO TEACHING AND LEARNING" - I think that is totally, totally valid for Indian higher education. The obsession for research in some Indian higher education institutions (perhaps driven by the way university rankings/grading are done and the way research grant money is distributed by the government/UGC/other grant agencies to Indian universities) may be seriously dampening the motivation among Indian academics to be good teachers, and so Indian higher education institutions may well suffer/be already suffering the same fate as most of the US higher education institutions covered in this documentary.]

1 comment:

Ravi S. Iyer, December 27, 2013 at 4:05 PM

I sent a mail with content similar to the above to appropriate (Indian) central government ministry persons and central academic regulatory authorities on Dec. 25th 2013.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

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