Monday, August 9, 2010

An Argument for South Africa to Learn from the United States' Higher Education Challenges

Yesterday, I focused on the overall experience of the trip to South Africa and specifically on the country’s people. Today, I turn to higher education. After all, the reason for my trip to South Africa was the privileged opportunity I have to be studying for my doctorate in higher education management.

In my July 21 posting, I shared some summary observations regarding the state of higher education in South Africa. In short, I noted that while its desires seem appropriately focused and from a policy standpoint there has been abundant action, the South African government has not made progress in accomplishing its higher education goals at a rate it desired. After 16 years of democracy, the gap in college participation and completion rates between the affluent and the poor and between the white and non-white populations has not been significantly closed. Even with all of the official government policies that have been adopted and with the minimal participation and completion rate improvements that have occurred, South Africa currently has a higher education participation rate for 18-24 year olds of only 16-17%, and even more strikingly, a completion rate that also is only about 16%. The country continues to have a huge disparity between its wealthy and poor populations, and increasing access to and success in higher education has not done much to help close the gap. A related concern for the people of South Africa is that its educational system is not producing enough “technically” skilled workers, so that huge workforce is importing talent rather than drawing from the huge population of unemployed South Africans.

It seems to me that those in positions of influence for South Africa’s higher education system could do well by learning from what hasn’t worked in the U.S. While the U.S. system of higher education fares well when compared to most other countries, we continue to have serious challenges in the areas of participation and completion rates in general, and in particular, among lower socioeconomic statuses and historically underrepresented populations. I believe the U.S. continues to struggle in closing its achievement gap because too much emphasis has been placed on programming and policy-making at the post-secondary and secondary school levels. While it makes sense to try to make improvements among current college students for completion and among current and former high school students for college participation, my opinion is that those populations are too far along for change of the magnitude we seek to occur. My point is that a major emphasis should be placed on the K-8 population of students and on family dynamics in general.

My premise is that students in the K-8 years are still in the formative stages of developing a mindset about college, its benefits and its feasibility. For systemic change to occur, going on to college and completing a degree have to become the norm and the expectation, rather than the exception or the option for only the elite. Yes, there are exceptions to these claims. But if we drill down even further and focus on those families and children from the lower socioeconomic statuses and from backgrounds such as African American, Hispanic/Latino, rural, or first generation college-going, these and other areas are where the real opportunity for dramatic change lies. In South Africa, I believe the same strategizing is needed. Admittedly, the populations that fall into these categories are larger and represent a larger portion of the overall population than they do in the U.S., but thus the rationale becomes even stronger. Scope and scale of initiatives, including funding sources, will absolutely be problematic. And even if these emphases were to gain traction, they cannot be at the complete elimination expense of secondary and post-secondary focused initiatives.

I’ll finish by saying that I think the above observations and recommendations call for significantly increased capacity. Capacity of resources, financial, human and other, will be necessary to make any of this even remotely feasible. In addition, I believe capacity increases in postsecondary spaces and seats need to occur. An infusion of more students that have not been present in the past can’t be done at the expense of other college-seeking and going populations. It seems that the political dynamics of this scenario would prevent progress. On the other hand, if capacity can be increased to the point where those who are academically capable have equal opportunities regardless of whether they are from traditional college-going populations or traditionally underserved populations, then progress may be possible.

These are my thoughts, and they are incomplete as a prescription. There are so many other factors to consider, not the least of which are academic preparedness issues, for students in South Africa but also for the country’s teachers. But to put it succinctly, I think South Africa, and our own nation, could be better served by refocusing attention towards families and to younger aged children.

Tomorrow I’ll finish this off with my attempt at a photo-finale! Thanks for reading.

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