Higher education in the United States is in trouble. Despite a high number of college students, Americans still lag behind many other high-income countries in adult literacy. America’s colleges are graduating fewer engineers and computer scientists than some economic competitors — almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded in 1956, the last class before Sputnik, than in 2004.

Kurt Landgraf, president and CEO of Educational Testing Services on Rosedale Road, made these points two years ago. In the statement, which coincided with the release of an ETS report entitled “A Culture of Evidence,” Landgraf pointed out that though we have tangible facts about certain aspects of higher education in the United States — how much it costs to attend college, which majors are popular, the number of Ph.D.s on the faculty — we do not know whether students really are learning.

Two years later concerns over what is being learned and how it is affecting the emerging workforce linger. Landgraf will address these issues before the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, September 4, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott. The presentation, entitled, “The State of Higher Education — Both in the U.S. and Princeton,” is part of the chamber’s September luncheon meeting and costs $45 to attend. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776. For more information about upcoming Chamber of Commerce activities, see the special section beginning on page 10 of this issue.

“When it comes to higher education, we have a measure for almost everything but what matters most: actual learning outcomes at our nation’s colleges and universities,” Landgraf says. “Whether the United States remains competitive will depend in large part on the ability of our postsecondary institutions to prepare learned, high-performing graduates equipped for the global workplace.”

No one in charge. Higher learning, says Landgraf, is not adequately measured. Unlike K-12 schooling, which is kept under tight watch by No Child Left Behind standards, colleges have no overseer demanding accountability.

According to “A Culture of Evidence,” attention is paid to test scores, number of degrees granted by an institution, and where graduates are working, but not much is paid to the learning process itself. The report suggests a national system of accountability that measures workplace readiness, domain-specific knowledge and skills, “soft” skills such as creativity and teamwork, and the level with which students are engaged in their studies.

Such measures, says Landgraf, are still needed. And while America’s colleges are the world standard in higher education, the sheen is quickly dulling. Europeans, says Landgraf, are far ahead of American colleges in articulating what a person at various educational levels should know or be able to do. ETS is considering creating an “ETS Credentials Service” that would allow students to gather credentials, such as test scores, that employers could use.

Money. A major problem with attending college in America, says Landgraf, is that it is terribly expensive. “Rising costs putting college education out of reach of more Americans.” Princeton, Rutgers, and Rider universities provide some of the most sought-after education in the state, but it costs as much as a house to live on campus for four years.

Rutgers is the least expensive of these three schools. An undergraduate from New Jersey will pay $21,504 to attend this year. Add $10,000 if you come from another state. Undergraduate tuition at Rider is more than $27,000 this year, and at Princeton is almost $44,000. Graduate tuition is often twice that of undergraduate tuition.

But while costs are rising, state and federal support for students and institutions is falling, Landgraf says. Turmoil in the banking and lending industries have forced several would-be lenders out of the college loan business and an increasing number of default loans are not helping. Where once lenders jumped at the chance to help, they now are backing away and leaving students with fewer ways to pay for college.

Price of a college education a major concern for Americans, Landgraf says. “The public is right to be concerned. The United States cannot afford to slip further.”

High school revisited. The academic quality of high school graduates is as much part of the problem as it is the result of their education, Landgraf says. A 2006 ETS study entitled “America Speaks” found that American students are entering college deficient in math and science education, as well as in basic business skills. The National Governors Association estimates deficits in basic skills cost high school graduates, colleges, and businesses $16 billion a year.

Schools, therefore, need to improve teacher-training programs and support professional development — particularly in math, science, world languages, and special education. A good note for New Jersey, Landgraf says, is Montclair University, which is recognized as a top teacher preparation program in the United States.

If anyone understands the importance of opportunity and education it is Landgraf. As a child he lived in an orphanage in Newark until he was adopted by a blue-collar family. He graduated from Rahway High School and landed an athletic scholarship to Wagner College. Graduating in 1968, he served as a Navy pilot, came to ETS in a junior marketing position from 1970 to 1974, then moved to the Upjohn Company. Along the way he went to Harvard’s Advanced Management Program and earned master’s degrees in economics, educational administration, and sociology, from Penn State, Rutgers, and Western Michigan respectively).

He joined E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company in 1980. As president and chief executive officer of DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Company in the early 1990s, he grew the business tenfold in three years and also created a diverse and inclusive organization, as documented by a 1993 Harvard Business Review case study. In 1996 he became chief financial officer and later executive vice president and chief operating officer of DuPont and chairman of DuPont Europe, with responsibility for DuPont’s consumer health presence in electronic commerce through its venture with WebMD. After he lost the race for CEO he stayed two years, grew his division from $50 million to $2 billion, and sold it for $8 billion to Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Landgraf returned to ETS as president and CEO in 2000. Since then, he has overseen ETS’s entrance into the K-12 market, expanded its international businesses, broadened its education research activities, and raised the company’s profile as a voice for education reform.

“The value of postsecondary education is undeniable,” Landgraf says. “America’s colleges and universities are among the finest in world and in history of human thought. But the U.S. is falling short of its own standards, and falling behind other countries. We need to recognize the urgency of situation or we will pay the price — and bear the burden.”

—Scott Morgan

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