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Leon Botstein
Leon Botstein (Photo by Steve Pyle) Credit: Steve Pyle

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in New York since 1975, has long believed that American universities should be playing a major role in improving the country’s secondary education. Botstein, who is also music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, says he’s less concerned about a decline in the awarding of undergraduate degrees than he is with the U.S. fixing high schools. Bard has been deeply involved with trying to improve college-going and graduation rates through the establishment of early college high schools. Botstein spoke with Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report about international comparisons and his views on what must change in education.

Q: President Barack Obama has repeatedly noted that the U.S. has slipped from first to 16th in the world when it comes to the percentage of our population aged 25-34 with postsecondary credentials. Are you concerned that U.S. higher education is in danger of being eclipsed by other countries?

A: We should be worried about the appearance factor, but there is also a reality factor, and it’s hard to mask the failure of our own system. The fact that China, Korea and Japan are doing a better job is a sign of malaise in our own system—and that there is something potentially wrong. Well, it has never been right. And now is the time to get it right because the economy is increasingly contingent on what we do in education. There are no unskilled jobs with real dignity that Americans want. So how do we provide our population with the jobs we deserve? Only through education.

Should U.S. higher education be more focused on making sure students get degrees so that we look better compared with other countries that may be surpassing us?

No! Graduation rates are not the way to measure the quality of an education. The more you do that, the more you reduce the university curriculum to a set of cookie-cutter patterns. The first order of business is fixing secondary education in the U.S. The reason [our college completion rates] are low is because [students] are so far behind when they start. So if we don’t fix high school, it’s a waste. Community colleges are doing what high schools are doing. The fact is universities have too many people in college who don’t belong in college, who should have been adequately prepared. It’s ridiculous. With high schools … we invested in high-stakes testing, made a curriculum to fit it and bingo! We have higher graduation rates. Well, we just dumbed it down and the diploma became less valuable. We can deliver a higher [high-school] graduation rate by dumbing down the requirements and expectations … but you can’t do that at college.

Is it time, in your opinion, for U.S. colleges and universities to shift gears in this tough economy and be more career- and job-oriented in the way we educate students?

Lessons From Abroad Series

For every college student in America who graduates, two drop out. The U.S. faces a projected shortfall of 16 million college-educated adults in the workforce by 2025. At the same time, other countries are getting more of their students to and through college. The Hechinger Report is investigating what works elsewhere and why. What can be learned from China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as Canada, Great Britain and Ireland? Watch the conversation unfold in the coming months.

Read more about the series.

The liberal arts are under siege, but they are still the right answer … The focus has to be on keeping the quality high, [along with] the spirit of innovation and adaptation that characterizes the American university … we have discovery, we have independent thought, we welcome anti-authoritarian attitudes. A graduate student here can turn to a professor and say, ‘I discovered you are wrong.’ The way to solve [the graduation crisis] is not through [lowering standards]. It’s harder to get into one of our colleges than it is to get out of them, and that’s ridiculous. If we measure a good college by grad rates, it puts a premium on faculty helping students graduate. What about standards? We should feel free to flunk a student, and it’s embarrassing to go down the same road as high schools have. So instead, we are threatening liberal arts [colleges] and elite research universities, when we have to do something to fix high schools. Secondary education is the weakest part of our system, and we are broken at the most vulnerable place: adolescence. Middle schools and high schools are an American catastrophe, and universities cannot fix it. The foreign comparisons [that show the U.S. falling behind] are a symptom. We have to reverse American dislike of hard work in school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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