Imagine this scenario, set 15 years hence, as one possible future for higher education in the United States.
The Great Recession never entered a "double dip," as many had predicted. However, it never rebounded. The effective unemployment rate remained stubbornly at 16 percent (one in every six Americans underemployed) for over a decade. This group of disaffected Americans included hundreds of thousands of talented academics. They pieced together an existence by teaching, tutoring, and anything else to pay the bills.
Higher education struggled to find a new business model, but tuition continued to increase at 6 percent a year, as it had historically. The discounted tuition at private institutions rose to far exceed annual median family income, even as net tuition revenue didn’t increase enough to balance budgets for the institutions. At the same time, the weak market continued to devalue college savings. Parents who had been diligently saving since their child was born had accumulated too few resources to support that child’s first (or even second or third) choice of college. The availability and cost of loans grew ever more challenging, as did the ability to service loans after graduation.
Entrepreneurial organizations, like Versatile Ph.D., had arrived on the scene, offering to help "humanities and social science Ph.D.s and graduate students identify and prepare for possible non-academic careers." Students continued to qualify for admission to college but most were leery of the crushing debt they would incur.
Small colleges that had suffered losses for decades closed in ever-increasing numbers. Public universities dealt simultaneously with a lack of state support and an overabundance of state oversight. For community colleges, the standard outcome of bond issue votes was rejection. Adjunct faculty members, exhausted and humiliated by decades of massive course loads, pitiful pay, and no health insurance, found new company in faculty members from defunded and downsized institutions. These wanderers joined the ranks of disaffected students everywhere who could no longer afford traditional institutions, who had been run through the industrial grinder of for-profit higher education, and who still longed for the global competitive advantage that increasingly vocational training could not provide.
Success in the flat-world economy required training to think, communicate, strategize, and lead. It also depended on a mastery of the collective knowledge of humanity, an understanding of diverse cultures, and a desire to enter into the diaspora of global commerce.
Enter the rōnin, a new class in academe modeled after the roving teachers of 18th-century feudal Japan. Like those disenfranchised samurai — or rōnin — who had been compelled to reinvent themselves, 21st-century itinerant academics were highly motivated to re-architect their role in higher education. As the Great Recession rolled on and on, they found no permanent home in the academy, just as hopeful students were effectively shut out of the college classroom.
Thus the rise of the rōnin coincided with an emerging new market of students and their families, open to alternative educational opportunities. Nurtured in a hyper-networked world where the crumbling economies of European nations could immediately (and negatively) impact their lives, these potential students were painfully aware of the need for strategic understanding of global economies and cultures. They were eager to learn, to actively demonstrate their abilities, and ultimately become engaged participants in the global marketplace of opportunity. Employers, thoroughly numbed by candidates with "desirable" college credentials, were also open to change.
Rōnin, credentialed yet denied access to tenure-track positions, began to imagine and then to engineer alternative careers. Despite the sputtering of the 21st-century higher-ed machine, the desire to learn and the passion to teach persisted. Exclusion from the academy was a powerful motivator. Unburdened by the overhead of that old model, rōnin tutors endeavored to create high-touch communities of practice. They attracted cadres of committed students connected via social networks, digital resources, and shared discourse. Guilds of rōnin took form, offering an affordable education with a variety of talented teachers. The guilds offered a flexible and affordable model to students who had no hope of participating in the old academy. Freed from the strictures of the fraying academic model, disaffected 21st-century academics began to build a future that accommodated their skills, knowledge, commitment, and drive.
The open education movement had started as a trickle at the turn of the 21st century. The trickle grew into a flood of free learning resources, ranging from tutorials to textbooks. A generation of students had grown up relying as much on the Khan Academy as on their teachers. These students had never known a world without universal access to world-class lectures, Wikipedia, and Google Books. Of course, they had also grown up with a torrent of pirated resources available to anyone who cared to search for them. Learning resources, free or pilfered, had always been ubiquitously available on whatever gadget they happened to carry. Like them, rōnin took these things for granted. No one worried anymore about library acquisitions and access.
Distance was also different for this generation. They could not recall a time when social networks had not brought them together. These students had grown up learning languages from native speakers via Skype rather than from their high school Spanish teacher. Whether sitting in a classroom or on a plane to China, friends, teachers, and (alas) parents always had access to them. They had never studied without their vast networks at the ready. Indeed, they had never studied "offline." Therefore, they were perfectly comfortable forming cohorts on their own as they studied with a variety of rōnin.
The fractured past was replaced with a coherent collective of independent educators. The rōnin’s independence from the institution fueled an increase in academic freedom. Beholden to no one but their student cohorts, their respected peers, and their pursuit of scholarship, this new collective was emboldened to research, write, and publish with a freedom not seen for centuries. Availing themselves of cheap or free information resources and burgeoning digital publication alternatives, the rōnin were free to pursue their work unfettered by tenure and promotion policies or antiquated accreditation boards. Rather than sinking into self-indulgent solitary research, as some had predicted, they flourished in dynamic collaborations with similarly motivated colleagues.
Students also were free to craft their education. They created curriculums relevant to their ambitions, delivered by scholars of their choice. Cohorts of students with complementary curricular needs meshed with collectives of rōnin tutors. Both were free to craft their own futures and take responsibility for the outcomes. No one entered into guilds or cohorts unless they were motivated to take responsibility for their education and their work. Indeed, this facet of the process began to attract those students whose superior abilities afforded them more opportunities within the existing academy.
Back in 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Education had thrown down the gauntlet regarding credentialing. He had recognized that traditional accreditation and degree requirements were being outpaced by the realities of the "technology-enabled, information-rich, deeply interconnected world." In a prescient speech, he had argued, "Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency…. We must accelerate that transition…. Badges offer an important way to recognize non-traditional ways of learning. They're a way to give credence — and ultimately, credit — for the skills learners and teachers acquire in a broader set of learning environments, and a wider range of content."
Rōnin were quick to seize upon badges, but they also revived the classical portfolio of knowledge. They insisted that their students produce not only theses, but performances, readings, stories, games, debates, and other forms of scholarly work. All of these were available online, worldwide. A given student’s accomplishments were more than a set of credentials on a resume; they were a growing portfolio. A human resource manager in Singapore could get a feeling for a candidate’s skills and personality without leaving her desk. It turned out that employers quite liked these portfolios.
The guilds of rōnin continued to grow and prosper. Meanwhile, higher education institutions struggled with a growing sense that their bubble had burst. Perhaps there was no new business model that could save them.
Coda: “Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.” – Cormac McCarthy
W. Joseph King is executive director and Michael Nanfito is associate director for strategy of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.