All Articles Education #SXSWedu Summit: What higher education does right, what it needs to do better

#SXSWedu Summit: What higher education does right, what it needs to do better

4 min read


The 2015 SXSWedu Conference and Festival is underway in Austin, Texas. SmartBrief Education editors are on the ground, bringing readers coverage of the discussions and happenings at this year’s show.

Jill Biden, second lady of the United States and a community college professor, highlighted the role community colleges play in the higher-education landscape and in the mission to help Americans reach their full potential during a SXSWedu Summit.

“I think we all agree that education is the foundation for building a better life,” Biden said. And in explaining her choice to work in community colleges, she said it comes down to the students. From single parents to veterans or workers trying to take their careers to the next level, Biden says community-college students are her heroes. “I am profoundly moved by their determination to learn and their quest to make a better life for themselves and their families,” she said.

Biden shared reflections and video from visits she made this week with Ted Mitchell, undersecretary of education, to Sante Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., and Austin Community College in Texas, both of which she said are making strides to improve student outcomes. “These two schools are meeting students where they are and guiding them to where they want to go through the use of technological advances,” she said.

She also discussed the Obama Administration’s ongoing commitment to improving higher education. “Support for innovation in education has never been stronger. The president is behind you. The vice president is behind you. This is your moment, and together we can make sure that education in this country is accessible, affordable and attainable for all Americans.”

Biden’s remarks followed a lively discussion, moderated by Casey Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, that helped set the stage for discussing what higher education is doing well and what higher education can do better. Green had audience members considering their experiences as students of higher education and comparing those with what students might experience today.

Participants offered mixed reactions. Some said today’s higher-education experience is enhanced by having more diverse voices in the classroom and a broader reach through online access, while another held that the experience is complicated by the fact that today’s learners are thinking about more than just earning a liberal arts degree. (Think: work, children, credentials and paying the bills.)

A panel representing some perspectives of today’s students and faculty also weighed in. For Valerie Innis Bertrand, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, helping students understand the financial details and figure out how to pay for college should be a priority. Student Gregory Abbracciamento, who attends Texas A&M University, discussed the shortcomings of “grades, rubrics and testing.”

Rounding out the panel and representing the faculty perspective, Kevin Bell of Northeastern University, Lawrence Morales of Seattle Community College, and Tiffany Mfume of Morgan State University, each shared some of the efforts underway on their campuses — from initiatives in adaptive learning to communication and transparency.

Houston Community College student Christopher Thomas, who then briefly took the stage to introduce Jill Biden, described his own journey to finding an affordable and meaningful high-education pathway, which has included community college, work and plans to transfer to a four-year school. “As a community-college student, I can’t stress enough how grateful I am that these conversations are taking place,” he said.

Katharine Haber is an education editor for SmartBrief, writing and editing content about a variety of topics in education.

Check back daily for more conference coverage.