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Noble: Ten ideas to improve higher ed
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We all know the success of our higher education system is vital to the success of our state -- both today and in the future.

This column is not about all the good things or all the failings of our individual institutions of higher education. Let’s just say we have some great and not so great institutions. At the great institutions we do some things well and some things not so well. At the not so great institutions, we do some things well and some things not so well.

In short, there’s room for improvement at all of our state’s institutions of higher education.

Now let me say up front, I don’t claim to be an expert on higher education, but for many years I have been involved in higher education in our state in lots of different ways. I have a wife and two children who graduated from USC. I’ve been on various boards at Clemson, USC and the College of Charleston and have taught classes at all three. I was also on the board of S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities. I say all this not to boast about my resume, but to simply say I care about this and I at least pay attention to what’s happening and try to be involved and help how I can.

And thus, I’d like to suggest some ideas. None of these is a silver bullet to make everything grand and glorious -- and all the ideas don’t apply equally to all of our state’s institutions -- but all are worth considering. (Note: several of these ideas have been developed by The Third Way, an innovative public policy think tank which prides itself on ideas which achieve proven results.)

1. Adopt a Board of Regents. This is probably the single biggest thing we could do and probably the one thing least likely to get done. Currently, there are 33 public colleges and universities and branch campuses in the state -- and each one has their own board and each one is competing for scarce tax dollars. It’s called a higher education free-for-all and it’s the students who lose. North Carolina and Georgia both have a single governing Board of Regents and things seem to work a lot better there.

2. Teach Ph.D. students to teach. The focus for doctoral candidates is research and publication. This should continue. But a new focus could also help them develop the skills to be successful teachers -- a large component of many Ph.D. students’ job requirements both during and after their program. Ask a college student how many of their professors they consider to be good at teaching.

3. Require colleges to design and publish an instructional improvement plan for their schools. If it’s measured, it matters, and it will improve. While the U.S. Department of Education has taken action at the K-12 level to ensure states provide equal access to effective educators through their teacher equity plans, no such initiatives exist asking colleges and universities to do the same.

4. Make community colleges a lab for better teaching. Most community colleges do not require professors to complete research or get published in order to continue teaching. This is fine, but since so many teachers are part time, particular attention should be paid to ensure community college professors have at least a minimum level of pedagogical and instructional ability.

5. Build in students’ rights protections against low-quality instruction. Students pay tuition with the expectation the classroom instruction they receive will meet a certain standard of quality. Yet under the current system, almost no recourse exists if such instruction falls short, allowing institutions to collect tuition fees regardless of whether or not they deliver on that promise.

6. Institute a TIF-like program to incentivize best practices. During the last ­­­­­decade, federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants have helped K-12 school districts around the country invest in efforts to improve educator effectiveness. A similar competitive grant program could be created at the state level to help colleges and universities implement innovative systems to train and develop excellent professors.

7. Require institutions to disclose the number of adjunct professors they hire. According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, more than three-quarters of all university faculty work as part-time or adjunct professors. While the verdict is still out on whether adjunct faculty are categorically more or less effective at teaching than their tenured counterparts, part-time professors are often paid less and expected to teach a variety of courses across multiple institutions. Thus, these adjuncts have very little incentive to develop their pedagogical abilities due to their often limited and impermanent nature.

8. Institute a National Professor of the Year award. The various teacher of the year programs in our state have played an integral role in increasing the prestige of the teaching profession at the K-12 level. Having a comparable program available for professors would help shine a light on the importance of instructional excellence in higher education, and raise the stature of professors who are making incredible strides with their students year after year.

9. Promote opportunities for 60-plus year olds. This may be the best kept secret in South Carolina. Anyone who is 60 or older can enroll in any public university in the state for $25 per semester … yes, $25 per semester. They can even earn credits toward a degree. Think about this: If they take a full load, 60-plus students could get a college degree for $200. Pretty amazing and virtually no one knows about this.

10. Make colleges and universities look like South Carolina. These are our state’s schools and they should look like our state -- the students, faculty and staff. We should strive to reach this goal based on race, sex, region of the state, etc.

Most all of these ideas are low cost. It’s not about spending a lot more money, it’s about spending our money more effectively.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange. Contact noble at phil@philnoble.com).