ERIC Identifier: ED470037 Publication Date: 2002-00-00
Author: El-Khawas, Elaine Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Higher Education Washington DC.
Reform Initiatives in Higher Education. ERIC Digest.
Reform initiatives are numerous in American higher education. Their messages
and hopes are widely documented through conferences, journals, newsletters, and
funded projects. Many membership associations, networks and informal alliances
actively promote new directions for higher education.
The history of American higher education reveals a continuing stream of
reform that has affected academic programs, degree requirements, methods of
instruction, and organizational structures (Rudolph, 1977; Altbach, 1980; Curry,
1992; Gaff and Ratcliff, 1996). General education requirements have been
overhauled, new fields of studies introduced, and new institutions established,
all without being labeled as reforms (El-Khawas, 1996).
Visible as these activities are, reform movements are poorly understood as a
mechanism by which higher education changes. Levine (1980) described several
general patterns. As he noted, reform is usually described in terms of its
typical phases: the initiation phase, when aims are set out; the implementation
phase, when ideas are put into operation; and a final, institutionalization
phase, when reforms try to achieve a stable, enduring form. Presidential
leadership is been said to be important, with visible leadership support seen as
crucial in getting reforms off the ground. A common assumption is that most
reforms are unsuccessful because they come into conflict with ongoing programs
or otherwise fail to win broad acceptance. Many reforms are thought to survive
only in enclaves, somewhat removed from mainstream programs, or survive only if
they change substantially from their original purposes.
Recent studies identify a number of universities that have been increasingly
successful in undertaking reform and have tried to influence the practices of
other academic institutions (e.g., Ewell, 1991). Survival of a reform may be
only one indicator of a reform's success. Another indicator may include having
multi-institutional impact, in which the reforms are adopted by many other
institutions. The development of a professional network to promote wider
understanding of the reform may be another mark of success.
PROFILES: MAJOR REFORM MOVEMENTS
Recent reform initiatives
can help illustrate some general points about reform in higher education. Two
profiles are offered, chosen for differences in their aims: 1) Student
assessment, a reform movement active since the mid-1980s that presses all
colleges and universities to measure educational progress of students, with
notable success; and 2) Freshman year seminars, an effort to improve the
experience of beginning college students that has substantially changed the
practices of most US colleges and universities.
Assessment as a reform movement took
wing in the early 1980s, prompted by calls for greater accountability by
governors of several states. States pressed for greater evidence on the outcomes
of college study, and some imposed new requirements on colleges, including
annual reporting on institutional performance or a revamping of academic
programs. Accreditors also took a strong stand: regional accrediting agencies
mandated that institutions conduct outcomes assessments, and many specialized
accrediting agencies went a step further, requiring that academic programs be
redesigned to link curriculum to the outcomes being assessed (e.g., Middle
States Association of Colleges and Schools, 1991; Glidden, 1998).
Following this initial push, nongovernmental actors took on a strong and
eventually dominant role in the assessment movement. Although they worked with
state governments and accreditors, they also encouraged institutions to develop
assessment procedures appropriate to their own circumstances. The American
Association for Higher Education (AAHE) offered a highly visible, continuing
forum for information exchange. Several academics and a few institutions, such
as Alverno College, became "stars" of the movement, offering advice and
commentary. The result was widespread implementation of student assessment
methods on the nation's campuses over a relatively short period (El-Khawas,
1996), with prospects for continuing success reinforced by annual AAHE
conferences that continue to highlight good practices and implementation
FRESHMAN YEAR SEMINARS
Freshman year seminars are a very
successful reform that tackled a long-standing, seemingly endemic problem for
higher education, the confusion and difficulties that cause many new students to
drop out of college during or at the end of their freshman year. Beginning in
the mid-1980s, a new approach gained national attention, based on the experience
of one university and one forceful advocate. John Gardner, at the University of
South Carolina (USC), had developed University 101, a course that offered
guidance to new students about adapting to university life. In 1986, after more
than a decade's success, USC established a National Resource Center that has
promoted the wider adoption of this approach through annual conferences,
publications, research, eventually an academic journal and a network of colleges
and universities. The impact has been phenomenal: by the mid-1990s,
three-quarters of the nation's colleges and universities reported greater
attention to the freshman experience (El-Khawas, 1996).
These profiles illustrate several
characteristics of reform initiatives in American higher education:
Many reforms start small and are "self-funded" by colleges and universities
(El-Khawas, 2000). A typical pattern is that reforms emerge out of ongoing
operations, sometimes as small experiments. Later they connect with networks or
associations (or obtain foundation grants to extend their innovation to other
institutions). John Gardner was a strong advocate of freshman year reforms at
his own institution for a decade before he built a national network devoted to
improving the freshman year. Alverno College, long known for its substantial
innovations in assessing student competencies, eventually created its own
workshops and publications and also worked through associations to expand its
An idea champion certainly helps. Gardner's role with freshman seminars is but
one example. Other important examples include the work of Mina Shaunessey and
Harriet Sheridan to promote writing, the efforts of George Kuh at Indiana
University to promote student engagement, or the initiatives to spur learning
productivity championed by Bruce Johnstone of the State University of New York
at Buffalo. For assessment, several persons helped to explain ideas and spur
activity, including Peter Ewell of NCHEMS, Ted Marchese and Pat Hutchings at
AAHE, and Marcia Mentkowski and others at Alverno College.
Voluntary associations are major sponsors of reform. They help publicize good
ideas and confer national recognition and legitimacy to fledgling local efforts.
AAHE and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)-two
education associations with large, nationwide memberships-have been strong
advocates of curriculum reform. AAHE has been a leader in supporting the
assessment movement, for example, while AAC&U has supported efforts to
broaden diversity, to establish learning communities and to support writing
across the curriculum. Other associations-some directed to specific disciplines
or professional groups-also support reform through conferences, workshops, and
publications. Networks have developed to support reform, notably the League for
Innovation in the community colleges.
Nongovernmental agencies are visible supporters of reform in American higher
education (El-Khawas, 2000). Private foundations, including the Ford, Exxon, and
Kellogg Foundations, the Pew Charitable Trusts, as well as regional and local
counterparts, are responsive to ideas brought to them by creative individuals
and may also spur reform in priority areas they identify. The Ford Foundation,
for example, has long supported reforms to facilitate transfer for community
college students, as well as university-community partnerships to improve the
college readiness of high school graduates in low-income neighborhoods. The Pew
Charitable Trusts has vigorously supported new approaches to assessment.
The federal government's role in reform is limited mainly to small-scale grants
to support certain reforms. The U.S. Department of Education has supported
initiatives in international education and, recently, the Corporation for
National Service has supported the spread of service learning. The Fund for
Improvement of Postsecondary Education, the federal agency mandated to promote
improvement, has been a significant sponsor of reform, awarding small grants to
many early, experimental approaches.
It seems that reform is more complex than often described. Most reforms do not
emerge from mandates by government but instead are shaped from the ideas that
certain individuals or campuses develop (El-Khawas, 2000). Although external
trends can be influential, they also can be ignored or resisted (cf. Cheney,
1991). For an innovative response to develop, concerns about external trends
must be reinterpreted or brought inside the institutional setting. Sometimes a
reform is assisted by general trends. The freshman year seminars were consistent
with growing institutional concerns about retaining students, especially during
a time when demographics suggested that fewer students would enroll.
In sum, reform initiatives in higher education
follow a characteristically American pattern. Each academic institution,
program, or scholar decides whether to take on a certain approach. New
initiatives abound in higher education but they become a "reform movement" only
when many institutions decide to take part. For many issues, a movement does not
develop, and problems continue (cf. Finn, 1988). For individual campuses that
decide to take action, incrementalism is the primary implementation model, in
which a small program is given the chance to demonstrate the value of its
approach but has to rely on the judgments of others to gain adherents or see the
innovation expanded. One enters the market of ideas, but cannot guarantee the
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----- This Digest is based on El-Khawas, E. (2002). Reform Movements. In
Higher education in the United States: an encyclopedia (Vol. 2, pp. 512-516).
Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
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