Robert Eaker

Robert Eaker, EdD, is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Middle Tennessee State University, where he also served as dean of the College of Education and interim vice president and provost.

Debra Sells

A Tsunami Is Headed for Higher Education

A tsunami is headed directly for American public colleges and universities. The wave of discontentment with public K-12 schools that resulted in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is now lapping at the doors of public institutions of higher education. There are clear warning signs.

One only has to look at the increasing number of books and articles that are critical of America’s colleges and universities. Books with titles such as The Moral Collapse of the University, The Closing of the American Mind, Profscam, The University in Ruins, and Our Underachieving Colleges consistently send the message that our colleges and universities are in disarray.

Much of the frustration with public higher education stems from the lack of student success, in spite of huge tuition increases. Taxpayers no longer buy the argument that higher costs for attending college translate into a higher-quality learning experience. According to Bloomberg, college tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since 1978—four times faster than the increase in the consumer price index­—and much more than the cost of medical expenses (601 percent) or the price of food (244 percent). Not surprisingly, the explosion in college costs has been accompanied by huge increases in student-loan debt.

Yet in spite of the unprecedented increase in the cost of college, graduation rates have remained stagnant, hovering just above 50 percent. Moreover, many critics, particularly within the business community, deride the preparation of the 50 percent of students who do graduate. They criticize what they view as a disconnect between the knowledge and skills students receive in their degree programs and the demands of the job market.


Student Success or Else!

These frustrations have found their way to state legislatures. A number of states are responding by rewriting funding formulas to connect state financial support to student retention and graduation rates. These changes in funding signal the beginning of a major shift in expectations for public colleges and universities. The public no longer considers it sufficient for colleges merely to accept more students for admission. They realize that student access and student success are not synonymous. Increasingly, public colleges and universities are being held accountable for enhancing the learning of every student in every course.

The good news is that there is a proven, cost-effective way to enhance student success significantly in classrooms and to increase graduation rates. The professional learning community (PLC) concept—with its emphasis on student learning, the use of high-performing collaborative teams, and a passionate and persistent focus on results—has provided a road map for K-12 systems throughout America and the world, to increase student learning and success effectively. With some adaptation, PLCs will offer university leaders powerful, proven tools for enhancing student success.


Professional Learning Communities in Higher Education

In our new book, A New Way: Introducing Higher Education to Professional Learning Communities at Work™, we explain why the PLC concept is the right solution to ensure high-quality higher education. The power of PLC comes from its shift in the core focus of the higher-education enterprise from teaching students—covering content—to a focus on ensuring high levels of student learning. This is not a call for mere grade inflation or the lowering of standards. Rather it’s a reminder that our very reason for existence is not merely to create a forum for professors to teach but to create a culture reflective of the best practices that will help students learn. The PLC model calls upon faculty and administrators to examine carefully the data and key indicators of student learning and couple those findings with the best practices of subject-specific teaching, all focused on improving the learning of individual students at the level of each essential skill, every critical concept, and in every single class.

The fundamental question is this: What would our institution look like if we said that student learning is our primary mission—and we really meant it? Too often, we mistake the means for an end. As Robert Barr and John Tagg, two advocates for cultural change in higher education, point out, the purpose of higher education is no more about providing instruction than it is a car company’s purpose to operate an assembly line. Every academic department, every business office, every student-support service on the campus must work together to ensure that we are producing learning in our students. The power of a PLC comes from creating cultural change that insists on the use of best practices in our teaching and student support, on measuring our effectiveness, and on committing to ongoing improvement as measured by student success.

We can do this by focusing on supporting and enhancing the learning of each student, organizing and working together in collaborative teams, and improving results—course by course, major by major, student by student. The need is great, the time is right, and the path is clear. What is required is the will to act.


Barr, R. B., and J. Tagg. “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” Change, 27(6) (1995): 13–25.

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