New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with ACE’s Molly Corbett Broad on Attainment

In April, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
The first installment of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; the second featured DiSalvio’s interview with and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; the third, DiSalvio’s interview with Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college.

In this installment of the series, DiSalvio speaks with American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world.

The context

The nation’s most visible and influential association representing the presidents of U.S. accredited, degree-granting private and public universities, the ACE remains consistently at the center of federal policy debates in areas critical to higher education.

With a focus on improving access and preparing every student to succeed, ACE convenes representatives from all sectors to collectively tackle the toughest higher education challenges and to address and resolve those issues that most affect access and student success. Among those issues are disparities in access, college completion, student preparation, financial aid, student debt loads, and higher education costs, as well as persistent gaps in access to and completion of higher education by minority groups.

Ongoing challenges remain in making higher education more accessible and attainable. Providing useful insights on the transformational potential MOOCs hold for higher education and how higher education will evolve in the U.S. over the next 20 years, Broad points to the efforts that ACE is making in developing the next generation of higher education leadership. 

The interview

DiSalvio: Although significant progress has been made over the past decade to put higher education within reach of all students, gaps remain in access to and graduation from college. President Obama has made college completion a cornerstone of both his higher education and economic platforms, with the goal of graduating the highest proportion of college students in the world by 2020. What role is ACE playing in responding to these gaps?

Broad: ACE has taken a leading role in advocating for and developing a variety of initiatives aimed at boosting college access and completion, including the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which issued its report in January. Raising the nation’s education attainment rate is deeply embedded in the DNA of ACE. It has played a central role in the mission of ACE from our very founding. We were created by the nation’s leaders in 1918 as soldiers were returning from World War I to a jobless economy. We were then called the Emergency Council on Education because raising the education attainment of those veterans was an economic imperative. Again in 1942, ACE was called upon to create the alternative high school credential, the GED, to raise education attainment opportunities for those returning soldiers from World War II who had dropped out of high school to join the armed services. So by passing the GED, those veterans became eligible for the GI Bill and they went on to college and became what we refer to as the “Greatest Generation.” Since 1945, ACE has evaluated military training and experiences to determine their eligibility for credit recommendations. Later, ACE’s credit recommendation programs were extended to the workplace and to major departments of government. So it seemed quite logical for us to help create the attainment commission following President Obama’s call to restore the nation’s higher education preeminence. We’re already helping 34 states to participate in the American College Application Campaign and have created a Center for Education Attainment and Innovation within ACE. One of the greatest strengths of American higher education is the rich diversity of institutional size and mission. Consequently, our community is taking many diverse approaches to raising education attainment and to boosting the number of Americans able to gain a college degree.

DiSalvio: ACE was among a group of higher education associations that convened a national Commission on Higher Education Attainment. In its Open Letter to College and University Leaders, a blueprint was developed for a campus-level college completion campaign that is designed to prevent students from falling by the wayside as they pursue a college degree. What areas of reform and possible strategies to advance the goal of increased attainment are addressed in this document?

Broad: The attainment commission’s open letter is intended as a call to the academy from the academy, to make retention and completion a critical campus priority and to stem the unacceptable loss of human potential represented by the numbers of students who never make it to graduation. The commission raised the issue of new reforms and those already underway and urged campus leaders to consider three main areas for reform: 1) changing the campus culture to focus more on retention; 2) improving cost effectiveness and quality; and 3) making better use of data.

There is a plethora of ways institutions can go about meeting attainment goals. The open letter outlined strategies that are simply examples to guide the attainment conversation on individual campuses. It begins with assigning ownership. Presidents and chancellors must clearly assign responsibility for enhancing student retention and graduation. We urge our colleagues to give retention and completion the same level of priority that campuses afford to the recruitment and selection process in admissions. We further urge our colleagues to create a student-centered culture to improve the academic experiences and ensure faculty see student completion as a central part of their responsibility. In this way, students who need help could get ready access to appropriate campus resources, including support services for the growing numbers of nontraditional students. We also encourage institutional leaders to give credits for prior learning.

DiSalvio: Ongoing challenges remain in making higher education more accessible especially among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. ACE maintains that removing barriers to college education requires elevating student preparation, continued investment in financial aid, and greater flexibility in course delivery. In what ways is ACE committed to removing these barriers in advancing the pursuit of equal access?

Broad: Let me start with student preparation. ACE convened faculty groups from the learned societies to make recommendations on the various drafts of the Common Core standards, which will ensure high school graduates are college-ready. This, I believe, is truly an important effort and college teacher-preparation programs are now hard at work to incorporate these standards. We are seeing temptation to back away from the standards, but I believe that would be a great mistake. There is no better single strategy to improve college retention and completion than to have entering students who are well prepared to do college-level work. That is one place where ACE has invested a tremendous amount of time and effort.

I mentioned earlier that ACE was also the creator of the GED and it has been a part of our organization since 1942. In 2011, ACE and test developer Pearson VUE created a joint venture that will drive the future direction, design and delivery of the GED testing program. Beginning in January 2014, the GED test will be aligned with Common Core standards for high school graduation and offer additional learning resources and preparation materials in order to increase the number of adults who pass the GED test and go on to postsecondary education.

Another area where we are working on student preparation is our ACE College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT) and military and veterans programs that assist adult learners and student veterans in speeding their path to a degree.

ACE also plays a central role in advocating for a strong system of federal financial aid that helps extend access to higher education to all students. Our institutions, despite significant financial pressures, are working hard to hold down college costs and to provide generous financial aid to those in need. In partnership with a number of higher education associations, ACE works with the tax-writing committees of Congress in support of higher education tax provisions, including tax credits that support tuition, as well as several kinds of education saving programs and the tax deduction for charitable giving.

I also want to mention our work on the Fisher case heard recently by the Supreme Court. ACE filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas at Austin. ACE has long advocated for the ability of our institutions to consider race and ethnicity as one factor when constructing a diverse student body, one where individual talents and personal interests, background, academic skills, and geographic origin all can play a role.

DiSalvio: In what could be a major step toward bridging the gap between massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the college credit system, the ACE has reviewed and made credit recommendations for five Coursera MOOCs. If some colleges decide to grant credit for those courses, the council’s recommendations could go a long way toward helping students who complete MOOCs gain valuable college credits. How could this raise education attainment in the U.S. and around the world?

Broad: I believe MOOCs hold the promise of extending to students, including minority students and adult students around the world, greater access to high-quality education on their own timetable. We are seeing a growing number of post-traditional students enrolled in American higher education who are not full-time, first-time students coming to college right after high school.

The Coursera and Udacity MOOCs that we have recommended for credit are part of ACE’s overall MOOC evaluation and research initiative. This is a small but important part of ACE’s broader push to expand prior learning assessment. Of course, the decision to utilize MOOCs or accept those credits in transfer is one made by each institution on a case-by-case basis.

We have created a Presidential Innovation Lab that will offer opportunities for leaders in higher education, both those who are producers of MOOCs and those who are skeptics, to engage in some proactive thinking about this new learning space. We believe this effort will help us guide a national dialog about potential new models that can help close persistent attainment gaps not only among the young, but also among older students and low-income students. The outcome of the Presidential Innovation Lab will be shared widely with the ACE membership, the press and policymakers.

I also believe prior learning assessment is an area where we are seeing new ideas for raising education attainment. Many of our member institutions are asking questions about courses outside traditional degree programs—whether they can help raise completion, whether they can meet the college curricula and whether they can increase learning productivity. ACE is well positioned to help uncover those answers.

DiSalvio: The higher education landscape is transforming at a rapid pace. How will higher education evolve in the U.S. over the next 20 years? How will it affect higher education leadership and what can higher education leaders do to prepare for future challenges and opportunities?

Broad: Higher education has been an industry that for decades hasn’t seen much change in its delivery and its teaching methods. However, in recent years we have seen significant innovations. I believe there will continue to be more emphasis on the role of information technology and the cognitive sciences, as well as online learning.

Another trend in higher education is the graying of the presidency. Fifty-eight percent of college and university presidents in 2011 were 61 years of age or older. Over the coming years, we are going to see a significant turnover of college and university presidents. ACE is committed to developing the next generation of leaders who will take on those presidential positions and help sustain the preeminence of American higher education. Among the programs we offer are those for new presidents and new chief academic officers, the ACE Fellows Program, and an array of other leadership development activities.

We also should anticipate that higher education institutions will develop more flexible options for students looking to ease their path to degree completion and to gain credentials they can show employers. At the same time, new types of credentials appear to be emerging. Some call these “stackable credentials.” Digital badges for the completion of certain learning activities, credits for prior learning outside the classroom and portfolio reviews are good examples. Some of this involves helping students earn degrees and some may be helping students gain other kinds of new credentials beyond degrees that will help them in both employment and their career. These are just some of the pressures for change that we will see in the years ahead.


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