Debating the Future of Higher Education

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of conscripting a panel of experts at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Policy Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Joining me on the panel was Laura Perna (Professor, University of Pennsylvania), Bill Tierney (Professor, University of Southern California, and AERA President), and Steve Trachtenberg (President Emeritus, The George Washington University). My friend, Will Doyle of Vanderbilt, did his best to herd cats.

I had asked each panelist to talk for 10 minutes on what they saw as the short-, medium-, and long-term views of higher education. Not an insignificant task, to be sure, and the closer we got to the session, the harder it seemingly became. However, each of the panelists did a remarkable job scoping out their concerns and views. (EPI is planning to issue a transcript of this session soon for your edification.)

Laura Perna selected the short stick in this round and had to go first. In her own words, she said she was “pessimistic” about the future of higher education, with special regard toward access for historically underrepresented students due to rising costs and burgeoning pressure on existing financial aid programs, especially the Pell Grant.

Perna suggested that we are going to have to do some serious rethinking of the system, with equity at the center of this conversation. With an increase from 24 percent of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants in 2006-07 to 37 percent in 2011-12, as well as an increase in the maximum Pell Grant, this is assuredly unsustainable in her opinion. She envisions an increase in the stratification of higher education, with regards to who has the opportunity to attend and attend at what levels.

Bill Tierney, serving as the professor of the group, offered several points for the audience. The first was for academic researchers to conduct more relevant research. “If we are going to do research, we must focus on more broader issues than I hear here.” He said that too much of our work is internally focused and referential and that if it is not of better quality and greater utility there will be fewer of us doing it and fewer tenure track position.

He said that academia must look beyond research journals. His journal article in the Review of Higher Education will be read by about 2,000 readers, he said, while his last oped had 25,000 readers. Tierney said that he was not suggesting that we stop writing academically, “but we need to learn to write and speak in different registers.” Tierney also suggested a stronger engagement with the public and a new to move “beyond the Ivory Tower.”  He advocated for more blended teaching and learning, and that the socratic seminar is a thing of the past. Finally, Tierney said that the future will require more dependency on external funding for professors, unless you want to teach 12 classes a year.

Steve Trachtenberg brought to bear his career as a college president and his background as a lawyer to the discussion. He opened by suggesting “what brought us here won’t get us there” with regard to higher education in this economy. He wondered aloud why, with the invention of movable type back in the fifteenth century, we still cling to lectures in the twenty-first? “Once education became democratized, it was inevitable is that it would become vocational,” stated Trachtenberg. “What is amazing is that it has taken this long. It tells you something about the liberal arts narrative, that it is only now, through the introduction of technology, that the full potential of vocationalism can impose itself on the historic academic model is becoming apparent.”

Trachtenberg offered an example of a young man who roomed with his son at Columbia University freshman year back in the early 1990s. He was a brilliant kid who got a summer job with a tech company. By fall, they offered him a full-time job for $50k/year. His son’s roommate never made it back to higher education, and today is a rich man. Thus, Trachtenberg asked if we are providing value for money and value for time, suggesting that we have to come back to basics and ask what are the primary purposes for our institutions? “Back in the day we served the 1 percent.” But by the second world war, he offered, the GI bill allowed us to “warehouse” blue collar workers in our universities, which was transformational for our society, the returns from which are still being felt today.

For my part, I suggested that the major changes to come in higher education—which will be massive—will come at the request of students more than any other constituency. Now that we have entered the age of free access to online courses, such as what MIT is offering, students are in the lead with the total democratization of higher education. At issue is how public and private schools of education will face this change in the cost and access structure of education. I believe that business and industry will take a stronger lead in postsecondary education. While the “Motorola Universities” are nothing new, they have the power to do more without the university in mind, and that could have an effect. As well, the question of whether we need to put people in a seat for 4 or more years—and 7 or 8 in the professions—needs to be revisited when the skills can often be acquired in the oft-referred “badge” certificates.

I suggested that faculty members will have the biggest change happen to them as this democratization occurs. As more courses go online, and intro courses begin to be taught to 45,000 students rather than 45, the question of how many are needed will be an issue, let alone what use tenure has in the future. Steve Trachtenberg mentioned how we are pushing out Ph.D’s in history, only to for them into a reality of teaching in an adjunct capacity at four separate institutions just to make ends meet.

Of course, this ASHE session was held in the lion’s den of professors of higher education. It was a biased crowd. One question near the end questioned why we haven’t had am Amber Light Alert on higher education, given the interest of venture capitalists and other sectors of the economy and professions who feel they can do better. My response was simple. “Who says that this a bad thing? Maybe the education should be taken out of the hands of higher education. Who’s to say?” The fact that we are moving toward the first real significant changes in higher education in several generations, and perhaps since the Gutenberg press, could the be the best thing for access and affordability that we have ever experienced.

Divergent conversations are almost always a good thing, and, yes, are the basis for liberal arts education.

I look forward to getting the full transcript to everyone soon.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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