Penn State Center for the Study of Higher Education marks 50th anniversary

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) at Penn State is a golden opportunity to celebrate College of Education faculty past and present who have helped create and maintain one of the country’s largest such research centers.

Alicia Dowd Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

“We are a community of faculty who are very interconnected in our approach to our work,” said Alicia Dowd, professor of education, who is the center’s current director. 

“The fact that we have over a dozen faculty involved is meaningful because we are able to cover a lot of key topics in higher education: law; financial aid and institutional economics; college access and equity; internationalization; and state, federal and institutional policy. We have sociologists, we have economists, we have people who bring perspectives from cultural studies and curriculum and instruction. 

“The size, diversity and breadth of our faculty is the key strength of the center. Our expertise runs the gamut of higher education topics and issues.”

The center was founded in 1969 by G. Lester Anderson to examine higher education as a social institution and as a process, according to a June 1974 document titled “The Center for the Study of Higher Education: The First Five Years 1969-1974.” 

Its goal was to contribute to the capacity of American higher education to respond to increasing numbers of students of diverse talents, aptitudes, backgrounds and needs who seek a college education. In this way the varied manpower needs of the states, the regions and the nation can best be met, the report said.

“We’re carrying on the tradition of the faculty who preceded us with a broad focus on all the arenas of higher education,” Dowd said. “The current faculty sustains the threads that have been studied previously — institutional research is a key area of study as well.”

Kevin Kinser, who heads the Department of Educational Policy Studies in which the center’s faculty members are housed, said the scholarly expertise of the faculty and their skill at targeting their work toward pressing issues in higher education is another key to the success of the CSHE.

“I think it is unique for a research center like this that this expertise is sought out within Penn State as well as found useful by those outside the University,” Kinser said.

The college’s support for the center, according to Dowd, has produced a large network of alumni affiliated with the center and the higher education degree programs.

“That’s a key aspect to the longevity,” Dowd said. “Our students who study and earn doctorates in the higher education program graduate into a network of scholars, policymakers, faculty, administrators — people in all arenas of higher education who work directly with students and administrators in colleges and universities.”

That number of alumni and the ties they hold with the center is important because it supports new students as well, according to Dowd.

“And it’s important to the faculty because our work finds an audience through collaborative research or through application by people who are in position to apply our studies,” she said.

Collaboration was as important 45 to 50 years ago as it is today. The 1974 report cited the opportunity to serve as instructors and advisers in the higher education program as personally rewarding to the staff and significant elements in the staff’s productivity and professional satisfactions.

Today, Dowd said, everyone who is part of the center doing research also is teaching.

“The relationship between our research and teaching is very close. We provide peer review to each other on our research, and we’re also pulling from our research into our teaching,” she said.

Kinser said several hires in the past five or six years have provided “exciting” new lines of research and enhanced CSHE’s connection to practitioners and the field of education more broadly.

“It really is remarkable to be in an organization that is hiring for the future and building capacity to move to the next level,” Kinser said.

A prevailing challenge in higher education today is equity, according to Dowd, and it is one the center’s faculty is addressing.

“Higher education has become more diverse but the question is also, how do we become a more inclusive institution, what does it mean to become more equitable?” Dowd said. “It means not making assumptions about whose knowledge counts. What are the ways that people make claims about what an institution should prioritize or what should be taught? What topics of study are worthy of research? Which types of students should receive our attention? The language that we use. 

“Equity refers to whether or not we have a system of education that’s just. It’s an ethical standard for examining injustice in higher education. This ties into the enduring question — and central aspect of Penn State’s mission — about public good of higher education. What roles should colleges and universities be playing to promote the public good?”

Kinser also cited the development of the World Campus master’s program in higher education, an “incredibly successful program” with more than 150 students enrolled.

“And the Academic Leadership Academy is established as one of the premier leadership development programs for higher education administrators in the U.S.,” he said.

Kevin Kinser Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

"But I am particularly proud of our ability to place our graduates as faculty in other higher education programs. This shows that we have the cream of the crop here, and it means our influence will continue to grow,” Kinser added.

While it’s a happy 50th for the Center for the Study of Higher Education, Penn State has been graduating students from its higher education program for 70 years. 

Leticia Oseguera, associate professor of higher education and senior research associate, is the professor in charge of that higher education program, and she has seen the Center for the Study of Higher Education evolve from one where faculty were merely affiliated with the center by virtue of their connection to the higher education program to a more intentional discussion around what center faculty do and what the expectations are of faculty who are affiliated with the center.

“I have also seen an evolution of what we have been known for and for many years it appeared we simply benefited from the efforts of a handful of individuals who were successful at bringing in large grants,” she said.

“Center faculty have also been entrepreneurial about ways to generate revenue while also maintaining excellence and providing service to the higher education community more broadly. 

“I am optimistic about its future as the past couple of directors have engaged in serious conversations around how to maintain our relevance and we have engaged in exciting conversations around the future of our center and we all have had a say in the direction we are moving.”

Oseguera believes that in an era of attacks on higher education more broadly, it is increasingly important for CSHE to engage in these conversations and to continue to produce scholarship that can be used to combat some of the criticisms that are waged against higher education.

The College of Education reached out to graduates of the higher education program to ask for their opinions on what makes CSHE successful, how the program has helped them, how the program has evolved, some of its most important accomplishments, and challenges facing higher education today.

Here are their stories:

Susan Lounsbury, director, Education Data Services, Southern Regional Education Board, Atlanta (doctorate, higher education):

Susan Lounsbury Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

ON THE HIGHER EDUCATION PROGRAM AND SECURING JOBS: In addition to the professional network I developed through the Penn State higher education program, I believe the high-quality content and instruction in my coursework also prepared me well for a career in higher education. The core courses provided me with a solid foundation in higher education literature and research. I was also able to choose several electives from a variety of courses on topics such as institutional research, policy and finance in higher education that made me more competitive in the job market, as well as prepared me for the work I have been doing since graduate school.

ON CHALLENGES FACING EDUCATION TODAY: The key challenges facing postsecondary education today have to do with access and affordability. Although we have been studying these topics for decades, challenges still exist. In addition, affordability of postsecondary education continues to pose a challenge for many students who want to pursue a degree after high school. Students from lower-income families are affected the most, but middle-income families also often find it difficult to pay for college and must resort to incurring a great deal of debt. 

ON BEING PART OF THE PENN STATE ALUMNI NETWORK: I have only conducted a few job searches over the course of my career, but Penn State alumni have been there during those times to offer advice when I have asked for it. It was helpful to get their opinions on the types of positions for which I should apply or the types of institutions at which I should look. In addition, I have contacted fellow alumni for suggestions on best practices or models that I might want to look at when faced with a particularly challenging project at work.

Joni Finney, Penn Executive Education in Higher Education Program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (doctorate, higher education, 1990): 

Joni Finney Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

ON THE HIGHER EDUCATION PROGRAM: Four core courses were required of Ph.D. students in the mid-1980s and they established a broad foundation for understanding American higher education. The integration of public policy in the broader historical context of higher education became an intellectual interest. The faculty in the higher education program were very well connected to areas of practice. It was this work that allowed me to return to the academy as a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania to work with colleagues and students in research projects and establishing closer links to communities of practice in the public policy arena.

ON CHALLENGES FACING EDUCATION TODAY: Challenges are primarily external, even though I worry a great deal about the capacity of our system of higher education to respond to these challenges. As more (most) Americans require some education beyond high school to earn a living wage, our educational systems are still largely set up to educate a young, traditional population in traditional ways. Addressing the diverse needs of students of many races/ethnicities from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds is critical to the relevance and success of American higher education. The research agenda of higher education faculty is misaligned to these urgent public policy problems. Faculty experts are underutilized in the public policy arena in thinking about and contributing to future solutions.

Lorenzo Baber, associate professor, School of Education, Iowa State (doctorate, education policy studies, 2007):

Lorenzo Baber Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

ON THE HIGHER EDUCATION PROGRAM: My experience in the higher education program provided me with the confidence, skills and knowledge to pursue a faculty career. What I appreciated most was the visibility of faculty who provided transparent examples of balancing scholarship, teaching and service at a research university. 

ON CHALLENGES FACING EDUCATION TODAY: The key challenge is the socio-political landscape that has positioned education, postsecondary education especially, as a vehicle for individual economic success. This perspective drives a market-based approach to education which influences state support, curriculum and student outcomes. Lost in this shift are the aspects of education that support a strong democracy — understanding of historical contexts, critical thinking skills and communicating across differences. 

ON BEING PART OF THE PENN STATE ALUMNI NETWORK: Early on, the Penn State network offered connections to an amazing group of scholars and leaders. Now, I am the person introducing students to leaders in the field and it is a wonderful feeling. I am honored to be associated with those who were in the program with me; we have all maintained the perspective developed in the program to find our place in the field, establish a strong reputation for supporting equity and excellence, and pay forward to others what we learned.

David Tandberg, vice president of policy research/strategic initiatives at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, Denver (doctorate, higher education):

David Tandberg Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

ON THE HIGHER EDUCATION PROGRAM: My experience in the Penn State higher education program has been a distinguishing factor in my career. Having the credential, a Ph.D. from a top higher education program, itself has been helpful, but the knowledge and skills I gained from the experience have been critical factors. I use that knowledge and those skills daily. I used them working for a state higher education agency, as a faculty member, and I use them now working for a state higher education policy organization.

ON CHALLENGES FACING EDUCATION TODAY: There is a lack of appreciation and emphasis on higher education for the public good. Among the public and policymakers, the contributions made by higher education are not adequately understood and appreciated. Many institutional leaders do not adequately prioritize their responsibility to advance to the public good through their work. These factors have contributed to reductions in state support; increased tuition and fees; a prioritizing of extraneous activities (e.g., big-time college sports); and the rise, prevalence and influence of college rankings. Higher education prioritizes the education of upper-income and white populations. Resources and privileges follow those students, while lower-income, students of color, and first-generation students struggle to gain access; when they do, it is often to lower-resourced institutions.

Justin Ortagus, assistant professor, School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education; director, Institute of Higher Education, University of Florida (doctorate, higher education, 2015):