Change, Higher Education

Starting Fresh

I admit it, this morning’s review of the higher education landscape has got me a little down.  In the Northeastern US, we are facing devastating demographic predictions–well over a 5% decline in high school graduates through 2025 (NCES).  The closure of the week was Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.  The announced merger of the week was the Minnesota Rural Community Colleges.  This comes on the heels of Maine’s plans to unify it’s four-year system. Pennsylvania seems to have sold out its public university system in favor of SNHU’s nimble degree completion programs.  Relaxed recruiting rules from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) mean last minute (and continuous) efforts to poach each other’s students is now standard operating procedure.  And, my personal favorite, we’ve become accreditation crazed, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars annually to say we are the best in business, education, nursing, art, social work or music… just like everyone else who can afford to do so. Our collective response to innovation, competition, reduced state support, and changing demographics has been to act like for-profit industries.  Oh dear.

So, now what?  It isn’t like we can afford to do nothing.  In the simplest of terms, there aren’t enough students to support all of the colleges and universities out there (particularly here in New England, but we aren’t alone).  At the same time, we cost too much for many of the families that need us most.  For the public systems, the taxpayers are no longer willing to bear anywhere near the full cost of our operations. For all of us the student loan system is broken. We have to do something, but is taking a corporate approach the right answer?  I don’t think so.

What if we were forced to start all over again? If we had the opportunity to design an education system from scratch, would it look like what we have today? With a blank slate, what might we come up with? Here are some considerations.

Question 1: Does the traditional four-year degree model still make sense?

We did not always think everyone should go to college. Even a high school education for all is relatively recent.  The increasing demand for advanced credentials has come from a variety of stimuli, including social justice, GI bills, and the world of work and invention.  The expansion of access to higher education was and is crucial for a society built on advanced technologies and socio-economic mobility.

Nevertheless, it is not necessarily true that the traditional path to and through post-secondary education meets that need.  That is why things like technology boot camps, and mega online universities are gaining traction in the education landscape.  So is the investment in high school programs that grant college credentials, and community college technology programs. This isn’t all bad, but for many of us, it is a limited approach to education.  But, it might be a good clue to what we should be thinking about.

Question 2: Does the going away to college model, with all of its attendant co-curricular supports, still make sense? 

When we first imagined higher education in the United States, it was a place to which students had to travel. Universities were a destination, and as such required an infrastructure to house, feed, and (eventually) amuse students. These services, and the attendant healthcare, mental healthcare, and co-curricular programming are a significant part of the cost of higher education.

Yet, the majority of students do not live on college campuses. In the US, about 73% of students attend public colleges and universities (Statista). Only 40% of those students live in dorms (The College Board). In addition, about 56% of students choose to attend colleges and universities within 50 miles from home, another 12% within 100. The tendency to attend a relatively local institution has risen consistently since 1990 when it was about only about 37% (Econofact Network) .  Much of this change is probably driven by economics.  Some of it is social, as we see trends of students living with their families longer both during and after college. Maybe we should take a hint from these patterns.

Question 3: Is it possible to structure education in away that truly meets the need for life-long learning?

Colleges and universities (and accrediting bodies) all assert that life-long learning is an essential outcome of an undergraduate education. Yet, we very much suggest that learning is complete upon graduation.  We hand out a diploma and call it a day.  We may be laying the foundation for learning, but we are also shutting off access to the things that support learning in very real ways.

Meanwhile, the need to keep pace with changing cultural and technological demands is persistent.  Whether we are discussing re-tooling for world of work because new technologies have emerged or jobs have disappeared, or we have to adjust to an increasingly diverse community and need to know a little bit more about how cultures interact, it is clear that life-long learning has never been more important. But this need for knowledge often emerges in contexts that one did not anticipate in school and then we are ready to learn.  Should we be considering structures that truly support life-long learning, by being available long after the first part is done?

As usual, there is so much more to think about.  What should the role of online education be? Why do we still entwine athletics with education? Should everyone have a gap year or two?  How should we re-structure the funding of higher education so that there is actual equity? Why are we spending so much on accreditation? And the list goes on.

It is a big project, when you think about starting from scratch.  It might be uncomfortable, because we may have to let go of some of our favorite things.  We may have to face the fact the tiers of access that we have built are unfair or insurmountable. We may have to acknowledge that our priorities need to be realigned. Nevertheless, it might be a better place to start than the for-profit priorities we’ve drifted toward in the recent decades. At least I hope so.



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