Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

May 31, 2011

Philanthropy key to fixing higher education

By Todd Cohen

Colleges and universities need to practice what they preach and claim to teach about the importance of preparing their students for a fiercely competitive global marketplace and information economy.

Bloated from fat times with a sense of entitlement, higher education is failing its customers, now that times have grown lean, by pampering and pandering to students while shamelessly chasing magazine rankings.

Administrators at colleges and universities pay lip service to innovation and change but seem incapable of making more than cosmetic touch-ups to their business model.

Holding that business model hostage are faculty who are hooked on a tenure system that enables them in resisting even the hint of change.

That business model also is held prey by an institutional culture of bureaucracy that is deeply entrenched and disturbingly insulated from the grim forces of today’s real-world marketplace.

The job of breaking up the massive gridlock that higher education has become ultimately may fall to its fundraisers and donors, players who actually can make a difference because they deal in a currency that carries a lot more weight than empty talk about change, innovation and engagement.

Two recent articles in The New York Times cast a harsh light on higher education’s flaws and failures.

In a May 14 opinion column, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, authors of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” say students are breezing through college without breaking a sweat, cracking open many books or improving their skills and smarts.

Because many schools count on students to evaluate teachers and courses, the article says, good assessments go to easy teachers, while those who actually enforce rigor are seeing declines in enrollment.

And because resources typically are based on enrollment, rigorous classes and programs are likely to be cancelled or shrunk.

Trustees, meanwhile, obsess over institutional rankings and fiscal concerns, and schools invest their big bucks into fancy facilities.

Where does that leave students?

The Times reported on May 18 that students with new college degrees are stumbling in today’s dismal marketplace.

“Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work,” the Times reported. “What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is ‘worth it’ after all.”

College and university administrators talk a lot about the need for innovation, entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, collaboration and community “engagement.”

In practice, however, they are cautious and timid, panicked by budget cuts yet still cowed by faculty for whom brutal competition in the collapsed economy is little more than something to study, measure and write about.

Fundraisers at colleges and universities can play a critical role in rescuing their institutions from their alternative universe and getting them back on track in the real world.

To do their job, fundraisers must understand the needs both of their institutions and their donors, and broker gifts that will address those needs while building relationships between the institutions and donors that will prosper and endure.

While some donors inherited their wealth, others built it by creating enterprises that succeeded because they met real needs in the marketplace and delivered services their customers wanted and valued.

Savvy development officers ought to be able to help donors see the value of investing in programs and initiatives to help colleges and universities adapt to and prepare students to cope with marketplace realities.

The 17-campus University of North Carolina system, for example, just has been awarded $3 million over three years by the Oak Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, to better address the needs of students who, while capable of successful college attendance and graduation, still struggle because they learn differently than other students.

The program, which UNC hopes to expand, initially will take effect at three of its campuses to support needs of students with “learning differences,” as well as the instructional-development needs of the faculty who teach them.

Despite its serious shortcomings, higher education in the U.S. remains the envy of the world, but U.S. competitiveness increasingly will depend on colleges and universities that can adapt to changing times, produce graduates who can cope with the demands of a complex world, and offer programs and services to address urgent social and global needs in the communities the schools serve.

Fundraisers and donors can and must serve as change agents to help colleges and universities adapt their business to a marketplace that demands innovation, not just in theory but in practice.


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