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Eduardo Ochoa Embraces All-Fronts ED Effort

With improved degree attainment a national imperative, Eduardo Ochoa, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for postsecondary education, sees many gaps to fill. As former provost and vice president for academic affairs at Sonoma State University, California, he's got the know-how to work with ED's task force on college completion. His top priorities: dramatically increasing college participation by minorities, preparing graduates to fill the right jobs to keep America competitive, and increasing productivity in core teaching and learning activities. As for higher education leaders, Ochoa says, "We need to make a better case for postsecondary education's value and what our country must do to support it."

By John Walda

*Why is it so important today—and for our country's future—to invest in and successfully educate a larger percentage of the American population?

President Obama clearly stated the most important reason: to enhance the global competitiveness of the United States. That's mainly because information technology has changed everything. Information and production are mobile anywhere in the world; corporations routinely operate globally; and capital can be transferred almost instantly. The one thing that remains scarce—and is becoming more so—is skilled human capital. Creativity and innovation constitute the one competitive edge that will distinguish successful countries and economies.

The Race Between Education and Technology [Belknap Press at Harvard University Press, 2010] emphasizes that technology is a moving target and you've got to keep up. For many years, we did that. We had the world's most educated labor force, which positioned America for decades of manufacturing preeminence. That's no longer the case—not because our educational level has dropped, but it has plateaued and other countries have overtaken us. We're now 16th among the developed countries when it comes to the level of educational achievement for 25- to 34-year-olds.

We must dramatically increase college participation by minorities, particulary by Latino students. But, the degree shortfall is not all with them; we also need to raise the attainment level for the rest of the categories, which include adult learners. The department needs to make an all-fronts effort.

More students are from financially disadvantaged backgrounds or minority populations that historically haven't achieved the educational attainment level of traditional students. How does ED view these challenges, and how do you intend to meet them?

The demographic changes are no longer a forecast; they are baked in. Given that, we must dramatically increase college participation by minorities, particularly by Latino students. But, the degree shortfall is not all with them; we also need to raise the attainment level for the rest of the categories, which include adult learners. The department needs to make an all-fronts effort.

Clearly, Race to the Top, Invest in Innovation, and other school reform programs are designed to fill the pipeline with more students with access to college. Secretary Arne Duncan and our team are creating a sense of urgency for change in K—12. But, we haven't spent as much time looking into how higher education can expand its capacity to produce the graduates needed to keep the country competitive.

ED's under secretary, Martha Kanter, started a college completion task force, which we're now managing at the Office of Postsecondary Education, to ensure a smooth interface between higher education and high schools. The group also plans to establish and disseminate best practices for states and institutions for promoting the college completion agenda.

Are the best practices focused on learning outcomes, or do they also include business components such as campus operational efficiencies and innovations?

We tend to focus more on core academic aspects. But, clearly, required resources and the current level of state funding for public higher education are on a potential collision course. Other priorities are winning out and making higher education expendable. We've seen business officers find creative ways to achieve efficiencies, and we need to apply that same approach to increasing productivity in core teaching and learning activity.

Carl Wieman, associate director for science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that, if you look at faculty—particularly in research institutions—who are wearing their research hats, they operate very much like professionals in other industries. They quickly adopt innovations, adjust lab operations, and alter their techniques to keep up with the latest developments. But, the minute the instructor hat goes on, they become independent artisans, reinventing the wheel without concern for resources or costs.

If we could find a way to transport the faculty research ethos into the teaching function, we could see some truly dynamic developments.

Does this suggest a new relationship between campus business officers, chief academic officers, and presidents, in terms of becoming a team that looks at innovative practices?

Certainly, particularly on campuses where the CIO reports to the chief business officer, who already works as a team with the CAO. As provost, I considered the relationship with the CBO next in importance after the one with the president, because when business officers are more familiar with the academic mission, they obviously can better understand some of the challenges on the academic side. And, one of the ways that I helped do that was to involve the CBO in the accreditation process.

Some of the most innovative institutions have taken a kind of clean-slate approach to developing curricula, involving a team effort among instructional designers, faculty, CIOs, and CFOs. For the most part, faculty have not been exposed to the possibilities that can emerge when you start involving these other actors.

What is your sense about the erosion of the social compact between the general public and higher education?

It's happening almost by default. Generally speaking, Americans are losing the understanding that education is a "public good," the benefits of which go beyond the individual to improve our entire society. That's the economic rationale for subsidizing higher education. A more educated citizenry affects economic productivity, leads to lower crime rates, results in less unemployment, and so on. Policy makers, government, and—most importantly, taxpayers—understood that. Now a different subcontext colors everything: overall, a more conservative view is more skeptical about the role of government.

Beyond that, state budget pressures have made legislatures look toward other economic priorities in an environment that is no longer as committed to higher education as a public good.

Meanwhile, higher education, as a sector, has not organized itself to communicate a story, to advance its agenda, with the public. It's understandable. We're a fragmented, decentralized group of many diverse institutions—without a national system and with a federal role in higher education that is much more limited than in other countries.

But, I'm quite concerned, given the fact that higher education is such a strategic asset—probably as key a sector of the economy as the defense industry. In comparison, the integrity and support of the defense industry is not something that happened just by chance. There are people who worry about that and make sure that we have the capacity to continue keeping the country safe. ED hasn't had a comparable mission, and the alternative has to be for the sector itself to take the leadership role.

What specific role do you see for higher education associations in providing a common voice for our industry?

When I came here, I assumed that the American Council on Education (ACE) was the voice for higher education, and I've been in dialogue with them about this. To ACE's credit, its key institutional organizations have stepped up to the plate by creating a presidential commission to help deal with priority issues.

However, I'm also looking for other ways to help get higher education leaders to work together, focusing specifically on public higher education, since the bulk of the students are there. Public institutions are structurally more responsive to the need for change, as are state systems. So, we might also develop a cluster of structures that operate at the state level to make an impact, which may eventually lead to a national response.

Tell us little bit more about the initiatives of the Office of Postsecondary Education and what outcomes institutions and NACUBO members might expect to see?

As part of its ongoing activities, the office manages a number of programs with which you're familiar—national resource centers to support institutions, student services, and international activities. And, of course, we develop policies that guide the financial aid system, and we work with accrediting agencies.

When I first came to the office, two things struck me. For one, Secretary Duncan asked me to work to improve office morale, so I looked at our internal structure and realized that much of our work is managing a number of grant programs that have thousands of applicants. That makes for a lot of grinding work, particularly when we tend to be understaffed. Related to that is the fact that we are the Office of Postsecondary Education and yet our main job description didn't seem to have much to do with the overall health and welfare of our education system.  

What I've proposed is to link office morale to this larger mission, for which we look out for higher education, diagnose and point out problems, and generally act as the eyes and ears of our sector. One of Arne Duncan's phrases really caught my imagination; he wants to "transform the Department of Education from a compliance agency to an engine of innovation." What we're working on now is a strategic plan that stretches us into this broader mission. This will also result in enriching the job description for staff beyond monitoring compliance—to gathering intelligence, identifying best practices, and playing a significant part in finding solutions that help us reach our larger vision for higher education.

JOHN WALDA is president and chief executive officer of NACUBO.