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University president calls on higher education to clean up its act

As Purdue University enters the new calendar year, President Mitch Daniels is being frank with the institution’s stakeholders.

In his Annual Open Letter to the People of Purdue, Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana, writes his university faces decisions that “involve substantial risk of either misjudgment or outright failure.”

While Daniels’ letter is addressed to those at Purdue, it touches on issues faced at a number of public and private universities. In part, the challenges include increasing public skepticism toward higher education and declining academic standards.

On the former, Daniels writes:

Not so long ago, there was essentially zero risk in public higher education. Dollars flowed in steadily growing amounts from state treasuries, and were augmented by an apparently limitless ability to raise tuition and fees every year. No one questioned the value of a college diploma, nor whether too many young people were pursuing one.

That’s all over. During 2016, the skeptical trends of recent years intensified. Almost half of Americans now doubt that a higher education is a good investment, and nearly 60% say a college education is no longer necessary to a person’s success.[i] Escalating costs are the main driver of these concerns: 75 to 90% of freshmen nationally say that cost was a major factor in their college choice, and one-quarter to one-third said they could not afford their first choice.[ii] 44% of U.S. citizens label colleges “wasteful and inefficient.”[iii]

That skepticism comes about as alternatives to the traditional college experience have expanded. They include massive open online courses, virtual certificates and badges and internally taught classes provided by corporations, Daniels writes.

Daniels is not a newcomer to addressing these issues. He has previously discussed the need for his university “to pass the pajamas test”: to continue selling the traditional residential college experience amidst the burgeoning alternatives.

Then there’s the task of combating the dip in academic rigor, which Daniels says scholars and employers have “detected” over recent decades.

Maybe most concerning, average grades across U.S. institutions have climbed to levels where it is impossible to tell which students are truly outstanding or well prepared. The average term GPA at many private universities such as Vassar and Swarthmore is approaching 3.60. At public schools like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia it is around 3.35.

Daniels mentions the proliferation of classes with little difficulty or usefulness, courses many college students would likely refer to as “blow off classes.”

Examples listed by Daniels include “Witchcraft and Possession,” “Ice Cream 101,” and “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl.”

Read his full letter.

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