Kate Fawver’s Testimony at the U.S. Department of Education’s Hearing on President Obama’s Plan for Higher Education

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

California State University, Dominguez Hills

Good Morning: Thank you for holding this public forum. We are honored to have you on our campus.  My name is Kate Fawver and I am Professor and Chair of the Department of History here at CSU Dominguez Hills.  I come before you today speaking as faculty member and as a former student, who in 2003, graduated from the University of California Riverside with a PhD in History and $100,000 in student loans.  More than most, I recognize the enormous and immediate crisis in higher education – because I live there.

“Between 2008 and 2013, state funding for higher education as a percentage of state personal income declined by 22.6%.  States have cut their annual investment in higher education by nearly half since 1980 (February 2013 report from Postsecondary Education Opportunity).  As a consequence, institutions have both increased tuition and diverted funding from instruction, so that 75% of the faculty now work on temporary, low-wage contracts without benefits, which undermines their ability to serve students properly, especially economically disadvantaged first generation students, most of whom enter college underprepared.”1

In response to the crisis facing higher education, the federal government has proposed certain reforms.  Consisting of three key parts – Paying for Performance, Promoting Innovation and Competition, and Ensuring that Student Debt remains Affordable – the ultimate objective of the Department of Education’s plan is to guarantee access to higher education for working-class and middle-class students.  These objectives are laudable. A new college rating system that incorporates such value-added metrics as access, affordability, and student-based outcomes like graduation and transfer rates could potentially shine a national spotlight on colleges and universities like CSU Dominguez Hills–institutions that keep alive the promise of equal opportunity.  However, when one looks at the plan more closely, it becomes clear that the means proposed contradict rather than support this goal.

This plan accepts the continued defunding of American education, and recommends as a palliative a number of technology-based “silver bullet” solutions to educational institutions being asked to square circles.  I fear – and a growing body of experience and research give us all reason to fear – that so-called curricular innovations  like “three year accelerated degrees,” “massive Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) and “flipped and hybrid classrooms,”  are cures worse than the disease.  A plan that presents the Western Governors University–a competency-based online university–as a model of efficiency and quality education is unworthy of the US Department of Education. It is difficult to see the “world class” in a private university with a graduation rate of 6.5%. 2

I remind the audience that the costs of a WGU education are modest only because WGU has no permanent full-time faculty.  Instead, its students – unlike students who attend high-tuition public and private universities like UCs or Stanford – interact with “course mentors,” not qualified faculty, to complete their classes.3 The plan’s call to integrate and mainstream online learning platforms like MOOCS as a panacea for dwindling fiscal support is also extremely troubling. The dismal and embarrassing results from the Udacity-based 2013 MOOC experiment at San Jose State should be sufficient to discredit such facile schemes.4 As California Faculty Association members Kell Fujimoto and Liz Cara reminded us in a Sac Bee op-ed piece, “Dealing with tough economic times by handing off education to private vendors and using public funds to increase online offerings through these vendors will not serve California well in the long run.”5 Again, there are no ‘silver bullet’ solutions to the challenges facing public higher education, and the search for such magical solutions – promoted by groups like the Gates and Lumina Foundations – serves only private corporations with an interest in selling technology-based solutions in order to secure lucrative contracts paid with taxpayer dollars. To craft a successful plan to improve higher education, the President and the Secretary of Education would do better to listen to instructional faculty, staff and students.

To reduce educational costs, the plan encourages private-public partnerships to develop “innovative approaches”, “accelerated degrees”, and to introduce “new technologies” into on-campus teaching and learning. I am here today to point out that we in the CSU are already doing these things. We are doing these things, however, subject to our ethical mandate and moral responsibility to above all, not harm or disadvantage our students. We are doing them in a responsible way, evaluating new technologies and deploying them in ways appropriate to our mission, which is not only to make education accessible but to guarantee that our students have the same opportunity to acquire a quality education as students from more privileged backgrounds.

My fear is not only that the plan developed by the Department of Education will saddle universities like CSUDH with unrealistic expectations but that it will institutionalize inequality of educational opportunity rather than reduce it.  Employers who hire our graduates continuously state that they want workers who 1) Come ready to work the first day on time, 2)Communicate clearly orally and in writing; 3) Think critically and show independent problem solving abilities, 4)Work in teams, 5)Use technology effectively, 6), Speak multiple languages and, and 7) Think globally.6 Accelerated degrees and MOOCs will undermine our ability to produce graduates who meet these standards.

Thank you.

1 CFHE, “Response to President Obama’s August 22, 2013 Plan for Higher Education,”

http://futureofhighered.org/response-to-president-obamas-august-22-2013-plan-for-higher-education/

2 http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57517188/

3 ASCSU Online Education White Paper, January 2012, p. 35-36,

http://www.calstate.edu/AcadSen/Records/Reports/documents/Online_Education_White_Paper.pdf

4 http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/18/citing-disappointing-student- outcomes-san-jose-state­pauses-work-udacity. Please also see the eloquent and public critique of MOOC courses detailed in the open letter from the SJSU Department of Philosophy, (April 29, 2013). http://chronicle.com/article/The­Document-an-Open-Letter/138937/.

5  http://www.calfac.org/headline/san-jose-suspends-udacity-experiment

6  http://www.calstate.edu/app/general_education.shtml

 

 

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