National Edition

Bob Kerrey talks about reforming higher education

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8 2014 5:15 p.m. MST

DN: How can U.S. colleges and universities make the best use of new learning technologies?

Kerrey: Don’t be so defensive about it. That’s easy to say but hard to do because people are worried about their jobs. You see it in other companies; these technologies are disruptive. How can someone get enthusiastic about improving instruction if it means losing their job? But if we’ve got great content that costs less, we should use that.

DN: What can be done to improve access to postsecondary education for all U.S. students?

Kerrey: Everybody in higher education needs to do everything possible to increase quality and lower costs. There is no longer a credible argument for charging as much as we do. You can’t make a case for continuing to build so many buildings, mostly to recruit students and to make alumni happy. It can be clearly demonstrated that there is content on the Internet that is as good as the classroom but has the advantage of being free. We need to start applying it and quit making excuses.

DN: What role does accreditation play in fostering or inhibiting innovation in higher education?

Kerrey: We can lower costs by changing the basic organic structure of undergraduate programs and taking advantage of educational technology that produces higher quality and lowers costs. Innovative new programs are expected to graduate a class of students before they can apply for accreditation. But it’s hard to enroll students unless you have accreditation.

Accreditors need to look for ways to achieve their quality objectives but grant accreditation before the first student is enrolled. For existing universities, accreditors can help by looking for ways to encourage the application of technological and other innovations that could produce lower costs. The accreditors’ role is overlooked by the general public — and their representatives. I didn’t discover it until I became a university president.

DN: Higher education enrollment is declining in some areas of the U.S. How will shifting demographics shape the future of American colleges and universities?

Kerrey: High school graduates are voting with their feet. There are complaints about the price of college and lots of options that produce certificates for what employers want. Employers have become colleges themselves by running many kinds of training programs, usually explicit to their needs. Individuals are saying, “I’ve got a choice. I can take this job, or I can go to college to become a better human being — and maybe get a job."

DN: If you could structure federal student aid in your own way, what would you do?

Kerrey: I would take a third of the money and put it into [pre-kindergarten] instruction. If you wait until someone is a seventh-grader and behind in math and vocabulary, they never catch up. I think of Americans as a team or a tribe. We can’t afford to have 25 percent of our team unable to produce at their highest and best capabilities.

DN: You advocate for global education. Why should U.S. college students experience life in other nations?

Kerrey: At age 18, you are a U.S. citizen, participating in decisions of the country that has the world’s most powerful democracy, economy and military. Your livelihood will depend on your capacity to understand what’s going on in the rest of the world. Even if you don’t leave the U.S. to work, experience abroad will improve the quality of your workplace effort. You learn to adjust to a set of circumstances that are foreign and figure out how to make it work. Finding out that you can and must learn to get along in uncomfortable environments is an important thing to learn, even if you never leave the U.S. again. And it’s fun to meet other people of the world.

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker

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