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Chancellor Richard Wells

President Obama’s new “Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans” has begun a lively conversation among higher education leaders throughout the nation. The Blueprint is multifaceted, proposing an array of reforms, from a new, uniform, consumer-focused “College Scorecard” to billions of dollars incentivizing more affordable access to colleges and universities for more students. Lots of new ideas. Many potential changes. The proposal has triggered an immediate and necessary dialogue.

There is and will continue to be disagreement over the President’s developing Blueprint details. Needless to say, these are challenging times. Our nation’s economic recovery has not progressed as fast as many hoped it would, and that leaves many Americans enduring continued household hardships and pressures. Meanwhile, taxpayer support for state institutions like the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is dramatically decreasing, putting overwhelming and unreasonable pressure on higher education to continue to do more with less year after year. Frustrations could further mount in what is likely to be a yet another supercharged and fractious year ahead for state and national politics. This is a difficult atmosphere for people to come together in, and our differences threaten to only widen any ideological divides between us.

However, there is much within President Obama’s proposed Blueprint framework and call to action that can rally us as a country. When we pause for a moment and examine what the president is structurally proposing and the priority he is placing on higher education as an individual and national economic recovery solution, it is clear we agree on plenty. Legislators will agree. Business leaders will agree. The higher education community will agree. And, most certainly, everyday Americans eager to access an education promising prosperity for them, their families’ and their communities’ will agree. Collectively, as a nation, we will benefit from more Americans accessing a better education at a better subsidized price that yields a better quality of life.

A video conversation with Chancellor Wells on President Obama’s ‘Blueprint’ proposal…

Quality learning must be the driving priority

The President is also to be commended for providing an inclusive and ongoing forum for higher educational leaders to rightly share questions, concerns and solutions regarding the tone and details of his Blueprint proposal as it moves forward. If the details are developed collaboratively, then it always leads to better results.

It is early in this initiative’s life. There are many details yet to work out. However, what is clear to me and other higher education colleagues – a handful of whom were as fortunate and pleased as I was to participate in a Jan. 27 White House briefing on the President’s Blueprint – is that we must not diminish thecentral importance of improving the quality of the education a student can obtain. We must also stress that it is affordable access to better educational quality and the resultant success, not merely completion of a degree, that needs to be our agreed-upon goal.

The good news is that this first-and-foremost concentration on improved quality in higher education is already driving examinations and initiatives throughout the United States.

On Jan. 24, the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability released a report titled “Committing to Quality: Guidelines for Accountability in Higher Education.” This report is, in its own way, a collaboratively-developed blueprint to not only dramatically increase the number of degree holders in the United States but, even more importantly, to ensure achievement of our educational, economic and political goals receives “sustained attention to the quality of student learning,” as the report states.

The report prescribes a four-step approach to helping improve assessment and accountability in higher education: Setting more ambitious learning goals, gathering evidence of student learning, using that evidence to improve student learning and reporting the evidence and the results in a transparent away.

I strongly urge the President’s administration and higher education policy makers to consult this report as he and others collaboratively develop the deeper details within his Blueprint proposal.

This cannot be over-emphasized: Improved educational quality must be the key driver of the President’s Blueprint initiative. Better educational quality leads to a better subsidized price for a better price-value for students and, ultimately, a better quality of life for more Americans.

The Essential Student Learning Outcomes and related rubrics developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in partnership with faculty, higher educational and business leaders throughout the nation should also be used to anchor accountability measures for improving the quality of learning. (Click here to learn more about UW Oshkosh’s Essential Student Learning Outcomes and Liberal Education Reform Team initiative).

The New Leadership Alliance’s and AAC&U’s Essential Student Learning Outcomes work are not the only resources at the President’s disposal.

A role, and a ‘scorecard’ for all stakeholders

The College Portrait of Undergraduate Education and its Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) have, likewise, developed an informative and equitable reporting system regarding quality at more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States, including UW Oshkosh (Click for UW Oshkosh’s College Portrait). The VSA seems to answer the President’s call for a “College Scorecard:” It transparently delivers a wealth of data to help prospective students and families choose the right higher-educational institution for them.

I echo College Portrait Executive Director Christine Keller who, in a Feb. 1 statement responding to President Obama’s Blueprint, offers the VSA as a model system developed with higher education leaders’ guidance and feedback. It is readily available to help policy makers in the administration craft a new, equitable and effective scorecard within the national Blueprint’s framework.

The VSA’s tuition and fee reporting, “net price estimates, success/progress rates, financial aid, student involvement, and learning outcomes,” as Keller describes, are examples of the kind of empowering, educational consumer data that will help launch more Americans into the highest-quality, higher-education journey possible.

I believe it is also critically important that all stakeholder leaders involved in further developing the President’s Blueprint proposal consult Jane Wellman’s and colleagues’ Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability. As described at its website, the project “has organized data on operating spending and revenues into aggregate measures of costs per student and costs per degree/certificate produced, organized into Carnegie classifications separating public and private nonprofit institutions.”

Let me additionally stress that whatever final scorecard is green-lighted by the President and approved by our Congress as part of a Blueprint plan, it must make sure each and every stakeholder vested in high-quality, affordable higher education is held accountable and fairly “assessed.” President Obama has stressed the shared responsibility of stakeholders at multiple levels of our democracy in shaping this new Blueprint, and so I think we must fairly score each and every stakeholder to ensure accountability and collective, interdependent success.

It is not enough to turn to University communities like UW Oshkosh or presidents or Chancellors like me alone to examine our performances and budgets, running the outputs through a point-system to hold only this one category of stakeholders accountable for higher education in America. A scorecard works best only if it authentically measures the performance of each of the distinct actors in the higher education equation, from federal and state governments to students.

I propose a “Stakeholders Scorecard” holding each partner accountable and ensuring collective success. The scorecard needs to score all of us fairly based on our shared responsibility and given the interdependence between the higher educational “external” and “internal” stakeholders.

In my opinion, it is wrongheaded to single out faculty and administrative leaders and conclude that we are totally responsible for one of our nation’s most pressing problems – the ever-rising subsidized price (tuition) and college loan “investment” debt. That said, there can be no question that we have primary responsibility for improving educational quality while containing costs and better aligning resources with high-impact learning practices and programs. This is not to diminish the attention we must give to levels of state, federal and donor funding, policy and budgetary decisions made by legislators and Governors and decisions made by students. Together, they are, far and away, the biggest drivers of the subsidized price paid and the investment debt incurred by students.

Again, faculty and administrative leaders are most responsible for the quality and cost for delivering an education, which makes us very important but secondary drivers of the final subsidized price a student pays. Conversely, the students and the federal, state and donor price subsidizers are most responsible for the price paid and the students investment loan debt incurred. That makes them a very important, but secondary, driver of the quality and cost of the education received.

What this interplay and interdependence means is that any final Stakeholder Scorecard approved as part of the President’s Blueprint needs to fairly score us all, from the state and federal price-subsidizers to the keepers-of-the-cost such as faculty and administrators to the students themselves. We are truly a team of stakeholders invested in our higher educational system, and we need to share in the responsibility and accountability to make more affordable, higher quality college and University education available to more Americans.

Restoring, rebuilding trust and confidence

Here’s another point these interdependent groups can agree on: There is very hard work ahead of us. And our efforts will not even get off the ground unless we find a way to close the rifts between the groups.

In my four decades in education, I have never seen the trust and confidence between state legislatures, institutional faculty, staff and administrators and even students so low. We must collectively change this if we are to improve the essential component of our democracy that is higher education.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama rightly noted our country has, historically, proven strongest when we are able to set aside differences and realize our shared responsibility to make life here better for more people. We are more effective and able to achieve our goals – we persevere — when we decide to confront the challenges before us together, when we’re all involved in the making of things, the reaching of solutions.

This is not empty rhetoric. It is a fundamental truth, and if we are to achieve the challenging goals the President set forth in his Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans, it is one of the first hurdles we must cross. Again, we can all agree that if we acknowledge and accept our shared responsibility to develop a higher education system offering a better education at a better subsidized price resulting in a better life for more Americans, all boats will rise.


Richard Wells is serving in his 12th year as Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He also serves on national boards of directors for the College Portrait, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the American Council on Education. He was invited to the Jan. 27 White House briefing on President Obama’s Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans and, along with 10 other higher education leaders, provided supportive, critical and frank advice to the President’s higher-education staff.