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Syllabus: Week of January 20

Published:  January 25, 2013
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President Barack Obama with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. What's on the agenda for higher education? Photo licensed CC by WisGuard Pics.

Syllabus: Week of January 20

Welcome to the Syllabus, a weekly guide that provides insight into what’s happening in higher education.


The Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour, Amy Laitinen
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Almost all colleges and universities use the credit hour to measure student progression. But these time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning. They were developed and widely adopted so that colleges and universities could participate in a free professor pension program administered by the Carnegie Foundation.  New America’s Amy Laitinen explains that the nation can no longer afford to use time to measure learning and instead should move toward assessing competencies. “Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard,” writes Laitinen, “However, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.” There are already some promising practices, like the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile and Tuning process, but changes to federal policy are needed to encourage wide adoption of these efforts by leveraging the government’s ability to use financial aid to pay for learning, not time.

Minding the Money, Allie Grasgreen
Inside Higher Ed

Although the recession technically ended more than three years ago, more students than ever before say the economy affected where they decided to go to college, according to an annual survey of freshmen that UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program released this week. Here are some of the other key findings: Close to 90 percent of college freshmen said they are attending college “to be able to get a better job,” about 84 percent think they will graduate in 4 years (though IPEDS data from the respondents’ institutions suggest only 41 percent will actually do so); and more students than ever before (17 percent) are living at home.

Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit, Tamar Lewin
New York Times

Dozens of public universities will offer a free Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) for credit in hope that those students who pass will sign up and pay for an online degree program. Schools participating include Arizona State University, the University of Cincinnati, and the entire University of Arkansas system. Is this the pathway to giving bona fide credit for MOOCs? Will students who decide against pursuing a degree at the university offering the course be able to take those credits elsewhere?


National Public Radio’s Michel Martin interviews John Silvanus Wilson, the new president of Morehouse, one of the most prestigious historically black colleges in the nation. Martin wants to know, “Do we still need HBCUs?” Wilson thinks so, but he will face an uphill battle at his own institution—as I reported here on Higher Ed Watch, Morehouse is in financial dire straits, as it has been balancing its budget with Parent PLUS loans.


At The Chronicle of Higher Education, New America’s Kevin Carey argues that President Obama has an opportunity to make a lasting mark on higher education, but “only if he’s willing to think more expansively than anyone before him about what higher education can be.” Carey suggests that President Obama should put the Pell Grant program on sound financial footing for the long term, strengthen Gainful Employment rules, and close loopholes with Income-Based Repayment and make it the default repayment option. As for “big-picture” changes, the administration’s second term plan should contain carrots and sticks that prevent continued state disinvestment from public institutions, conduct research about the return on investment for federal financial aid dollars, grant Title IV eligibility for nontraditional delivery models of higher education like MOOCs, and improve data collection and transparency.

Personally, I’d like to see a Morrill Act 2.0 for higher education, but I’m not sure what that would comprise. Probably some sort of carrot that would entice public institutions of higher education to stick to their missions instead of pursuing the higher education arms race. Or an incentive that causes states to flip the funding model, giving more funding to community colleges than the flagship. But how can policymakers provide incentives for this type of behavior?

Higher Ed Watch readers, what are your thoughts? What would Morrill 2.0 look like? What higher education issues should President Obama tackle in his second term and how? Comment below!



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