A review of Bowen and McPherson’s Lesson Plan

Reforming higher education increasingly appears on the public agenda. Politicians from both parties have decried tuition increases and the need for a better educated workforce. The problems facing higher education today are complex, interconnected, and difficult to fix. However, the constant complaints often focus on problems that aren’t as serious or are simply not the major areas that we need to address. Recently, William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson have joined this conversation with their new book, Lesson Plan:  An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education.

Bowen and McPherson are among the most qualified experts on higher education in the country. Bowen is president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College.

Many of the most consequential books in higher education have been written by one or both of them including:

Shape of the River:  Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admission

Crossing the Finish Line:  Completing College at America’s Public Universities

The Game of Life:  College Sports and Educational Values

The Student Aid Game:  Meeting Need and Rewarding Talent in American Higher Education

Keeping College Affordable:  Government and Educational Opportunity

The authors state that their goal with Lesson Plan is to clearly and concisely (the book checks in at just 140 pages) diagnosis the major problems facing higher education and discuss an “agenda for change.”

I would recommend the book to anyone new to higher education (I’m using the book in my Contemporary Issues in Higher Education course this semester). It is also a useful refresher for those trying to keep up with the current state of higher education policy and reforms.

Reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd are quite useful for keeping up with current events on a daily basis. I found Lesson Plan helpful for taking a step back and putting all of the daily headlines in a broader context.

For my review, I want to identify three key areas where I found Bowen and McPherson’s work compelling and one area where I disagree with their focus.

1.  College costs and debt.

Bowen and McPherson’s discussion of college cost and debt compelling lays out the problems with higher education financing and the current dialogue on college costs.

First, they explain that someone has to bear the cost of college when it occurs (as most students do not have the resources on their own to pay for it). Either the older generation pays for it or the older generation pays for it with the promise of being repaid. These two options or some combination of them are the only options for paying the cost of college.

The authors also express concern about the emphasis on access and affordability in policy discussion is overriding any discussion of completion. As the research on earnings suggests, completing a degree or certificate is far more important than simply starting. Getting in the door is a critical, but insufficient condition for realizing the benefits of higher education.

Throughout the text, Bowen and McPherson convincingly argue that the most pressing issue of financing college is how to share the costs and aim financial aid resources effectively rather than attempting to make college free for students. While student debt is a real concern for students and families, many media reports exaggerate the problem. Research from the College Board shows that 61% of bachelor’s recipients graduated with some debt. The average debt per graduate was $16,300 and per borrower was $26,900.

While defaults have increased, as much as 75% of the increase can be tied to borrowers at for-profit colleges (and a smaller amount from community colleges). Clearly the rampant fraud and preying on students using federal loans must end.

2.  Need for better leadership in higher education

While admittedly biased as someone who has dedicated their career to improving the leadership of higher education institutions, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the discussion in Lesson Plan of the need for improving higher education leadership. As the authors themselves express, they didn’t expect to include leadership when they started writing the book. However, evidence continues to mount that campus leadership is lacking.

Many of us in higher education long for the days of influential college presidents such as Clark Kerr, William Friday, and Father Theodore Hesburgh.

College presidents today are overly risk adverse, which is powerful coming from two successful college presidents.

Shared governance can’t be arguing over who is in charge, but rather should focus on genuine collaboration.

In an environment of cost cutting, political attacks, and the need to be constantly fundraising, college presidents don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t need presidents to throw out all caution, but there are times when higher education needs presidents to step up and be vocal. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.

3. Debunking free college idea.

One of the most pervasive ideas in higher education policy over the past couple of years has been the free college movement. President Obama proposed free community college and Bernie Sanders made free college a centerpiece of his insurgent Democratic primary campaign.

Bowen and McPherson argue for a system where everyone shares the costs, state and federal governments, students, and families. Beyond the economic argument, the authors persuasively argue that students that aren’t paying for college don’t finish as quickly. As an example, out-of-state students are more likely to finish their degrees in four years while in-state students take longer.

It is understandable in the face of rising tuition prices that policymakers are seeking to make higher education free. However, making all of higher education free spends too much on funding wealthier students. A more tactical policy would be better targeting aid to support lower income students.

A missed opportunity: Using technology

My one area of disappointment with Lesson Plan was in the book’s discussion of information technology. Bowen and McPherson focus their information technology discussion largely on the potential of adaptive learning. Fortunately, they don’t buy the hype of MOOCs as many commentators have and they spend little time discussing them.

They make a forceful argument for the potential of adaptive learning to help control costs and improve student learning. It is hard to disagree with them. Particularly in courses such as math and statistics, adaptive learning could be quite transformational. The technology still needs work, but I do think there is long-term potential there.

Given their focus on improving completion, I had hoped Bowen and McPherson would think a little more outside the box. For example, there is the idea that we should have college advising that mimics Netflix recommendations. I’ve been fascinated with this idea since this story appeared in the Chronicle several years ago.

College and universities have a tremendous amount of data on their faculty, courses, and students. This data is collected as part of assessment or simply the course of doing business.  I don’t know of any college in the country that is really using all this information effectively.

As technology improves, I hope we are better able to use the “big data” we have about our campuses to improve the student learning experience. I was disappointed that Lesson Plan didn’t explore some of these issues in depth.


Bowen and McPherson have made a nice contribution to the higher education literature by providing a concise, insightful, and readable text on higher education reform. I believe both beginners in higher education as well as long-time observers will benefit from their thoughtful analysis.

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