There has been much recent discussion about higher education reform. Some of it was generated by the Texas accountability proposals that Gov. Rick Scott has distributed to prospective university trustees in Florida. These and other ideas for holding universities accountable follow the January publication by the University of Chicago Press of the book Academically Adrift.
The authors, respected University of Virginia professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, followed 2,300 students at a broad range of universities and colleges from 2005 to 2009. The study produced some disturbing results:
• 45 percent of students made little significant gain in skills relating to critical thinking, complex reasoning and communication during the first two years in college. After completing four years, 36 percent still had not improved those skills.
• The average time spent by students actually studying has decreased by more than 50 percent since the 1960s. Thirty-two percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week. Half don't take a single course that requires them to write more than 20 pages during a semester.
• Students spend, on average, only 12 to 14 hours a week studying, much of it in groups, which the research showed was not as effective as studying alone.
The Texas proposals address some of these issues by measuring undergraduate teaching performance and requiring results-based contracts between the colleges and students to measure the quality of their education. Furthermore, teaching would play a more significant role in the granting of tenure.
In Florida, we can always improve the quality of higher education, but in one way, our universities are ahead of the curve. In 2004 the Board of Governors, which has responsibility for managing our university system, adopted a requirement that every student have an academic learning compact with his or her undergraduate degree program.
The purpose of the compact is to ensure that all graduates have completed a program with clearly articulated core-learning expectations in their courses as well as skills in communication and critical thinking. Universities have to assess students to make sure these goals are achieved, and professors have to show that they use the assessments and course evaluations to continually improve programs.
Research showing the impact these compacts have had since they have been required would be useful to show how well we are doing compared to other states.
Based on the results of the University of Virginia professors' studies, many more universities need to implement this kind of accountability. But when deciding what reforms should be implemented, we need to recognize that our unique compacts and other reform measures instituted by the Board of Governors may make Florida different. Any future reform needs to be based upon what is already being done in each state.
Florida State University president Eric Barron recently urged his board to look at Gov. Scott's interest in higher education accountability as a "remarkable gift." "If you use it to improve what your programs are like, it adds a level of efficiency," Barron said.
In preparing students to succeed in our increasingly competitive world, we have to help them get the best possible benefit from their time in college.
Steve Uhlfelder, former chairman of Florida Board of Regents and the Fulbright Scholarship Board, was also a member of the board of trustees for Florida State University and a member of the Board of Governors.