Skip to main content

SUP-442: Tackling the Toughest Challenges in Modern American Higher Education

Go Search
New Atlas
Atlas, A-Z
Atlas Maps
MPP/MPA Programs
Core Topics
Illustrative Courses
Topic Encyclopedia
Concept Dictionary
Career Tips
Best Practices Project


Harvard Kennedy School

SUP-442: Tackling the Toughest Challenges in Modern American Higher Education

Description: This American Higher Education is in most peoples’ eyes the envy of the world. In my own judgment, it deserves to be the envy of the world. American colleges and universities are getting a lot of things right. Yet not so long ago, General Motors was the envy of the world, and the world is changing quickly. What are the challenges, at least the predictable ones, that many American colleges and universities will face in the next few years? Can American colleges and universities remain great? I don’t mean in a hundred years, I mean literally in two or three or five or ten years.. 

Faculty Richard Light

Source: At (accessed 3 June 2015).

Additional Course Description in Syllabus

For example, America is unique in the world for having more than 150 small, liberal arts colleges. No other nation has such institutions, and certainly so many of them. So we will ask, what is their future? What are their strengths? Their vulnerabilities? Two presidents of “top ten” liberal arts colleges, campuses that are far richer than average, recently told me that “their current business model is broken and it is unsustainable…” What did they mean? What can be done? In this class we will discuss exactly what both of these leaders meant, and YOU will decide what can be done.

For example, America is increasingly asking its colleges and universities to become more “accountable” to their tuition paying students and their families. This can require widespread assessment of students’ actual learning. Public institutions in particular, since they are subsidized with taxpayer monies, are increasingly now being asked to provide evidence of concrete, serious, student learning. How should colleges and universities do that? How can they do that? What is the difference between words such as “Accreditation,” and “Accountability,” and “Assessment?”

For example, just recently for the class of students entering in fall, 2012, California State Colleges and universities had to turn away more than 20,000 applicants who they report they would have been admitted to these public colleges as recently as last year. Plus tuition was raised by twenty percent in one year. It is easy to make the argument this change is bad for those students, bad for California, and bad for America. Would anyone in our class like to try to make an argument that perhaps this shocking change might actually be GOOD for California? Or for American higher education? And why this might be so?

For example, it is no secret that demographics in America are rapidly changing. We are a nation where just 21 years ago, in 1990, 23 percent of high school graduates were students of color. In 2000, that fraction rose to 31 percent. In 2013, that number grew to 38 percent. Projections are that in 2020 that number will exceed 46 percent and by 2030, long before anyone taking this class begins to receive Medicare checks, that number will exceed 50 percent. This is a dramatic change in less than two generations. So - QUESTION - how in the face of this increasingly diverse society can ALL types of institutions, private and public, highly selective and less selective, rich and not so rich, help each student to succeed - as each college steadily admits a group of students from increasingly diverse social, economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds?

For example, more than fourteen percent of high school students in America today are either immigrants or children of immigrants. Should college leaders and professors be changing what they teach, and how they teach, in light of this large influx of new Americans? It is easy to make the simple assertion that these students deserve a topnotch education. It is perhaps just a bit harder to make a thoughtful and rigorous argument about what, exactly, should change in colleges, and why. Should Introductory Chemistry or Physics be taught differently in the year 2020 than it was in the year 2010? How about History or English or Sociology or Psychology?

For example, it is nearly impossible to attend a modern Conference on undergraduate life, and not have speaker after speaker extol the virtues of "studying abroad," or "spending time abroad" in an "increasingly globalized world…" Might there be some students in our class who have the courage to make a compelling argument that for some students, spending a semester or a year studying abroad during their time at a university is a POOR idea? And for those who believe this is true, WHEN and FOR WHOM might study abroad be am "unproductive idea?" Conversely, when is study abroad for students while in college a highly productive and excellent idea?

For example, the vast majority of American students attend PUBLIC universities, quite unlike Harvard or Stanford or Amherst or Pomona or Bowdoin or Kenyon College. In fact, last year more than 78 percent of all undergraduates attended PUBLIC universities. The enrollments at Wellesley, Dartmouth, Kenyon and Pomona are 2,100, 4,500, 1,600, and 1,900. The enrollments at the Univ. of Texas, Ohio State and Univ. Florida Gulf Coast Univ. and Arizona State. are 49,800, 51,000, 55, 900, and 68,800. There are certain differences - other than sheer size of course - that come up consistently between private vs. public institutions. What are those differences? How do those differences affect students? Are any current gaps in quality between public vs. private colleges and universities shrinking? Are they growing? How can we make such judgments? Why are such questions even important?

Throughout this course, we will tackle such questions. Some of them are truly hard. The nicest feature of tackling such topics is that many of them do NOT have "obvious" correct answers. People of good will can easily have different answers. If we ask how can we know that a college or university is offering its students good "value added" during their precious time at college, there are about ten different ways of measuring this. And ten different people, all full of goodwill, can disagree on the choice of what kind of measure, what sort of evidence, is most convincing.

I hope this class will retain, as much as possible, the format of a Seminar. That means each of YOU, the students, will be asked to contribute to class regularly. You will be asked to speak up. We will have debates, where two students will argue in favor of Proposition "X" and two other students will argue the exact opposite, and will argue against Proposition "X" Our debates will be about genuinely controversial topics, such as Affirmative Action, Standardized Testing, How to Measure College Effectiveness, How to deal with differences among students from different backgrounds who attend the same campus, How to help all students, including those at some risk, to succeed. We will have small group presentations by you, the students, about the five books that we will read, the articles that we will read, and we will have several groups working on topics about which books haven’t even yet been written!

There will be a substantial group of readings, and this year I am going to try a new idea - we will include among your readings, four final papers from students who took this class last year and wrote exceptionally good final papers. All of these papers received a final grade of "A," and all of them are connected to a topic or theme for one of our class sessions. By sharing these final papers, with of course full permission from the students who wrote them last time I taught this class, you will both benefit from reading the "substance’ of each paper, plus you will get a flavor of the many forms that excellence for a final paper can take in this course. Sometimes reading work by your fellow students is a great way to get insights about what constitutes rigorous work, and what kind of paper receives a final grade of "A." I hope you will genuinely enjoy this.

Commentary by the Atlas editors: The class titles  provide candidates for topic titles to be developed by the Atlas:

  • The History of Standardized Testing
  • Disruptive Technologies and Massive, Open Online Courses in Colleges and Universities
  • Assessment and Accountability in Higher Education 
  • Organizing and Designing Major Policy Projects on Campus to Bring About Change
  • Student Learning and Student Engagement 
  • Flagship and Regional Public Universities
  • Predicting Changes in American Higher Education based on Its Past
  • Helping All Students to Succeed at College 

Page created by: Ian Clark, 3 June 2015. The content presented on this page, except in the Commentary, is drawn directly from the source(s) cited above, and consists of direct quotations or close paraphrases.


 Syllabus (2013-14)

SUP-442 Richard Light Higher Education.pdfSUP-442 Richard Light Higher EducationIan Clark

Important Notices
© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance