Higher Education’s Brave New World

How should colleges and universities adapt?

November 30, 2021

In the first session of my first class in graduate school, the professor warned my classmates and me about the worst sin that a graduate student could commit: trying to demonstrate how smart we were by savaging the books we were assigned to read.

He called this “the steamroller technique” and said pointedly that if those books were as flawed and defective as we thought, then we obviously didn’t understand or appreciate the authors’ arguments and contributions.

Worse yet, if the profession’s luminaries wrote such flawed works, how could we hope to do better?

Good advice, I still think, nearly half a century later. Whenever I feel tempted to criticize a book or article paragraph by paragraph, I remind myself that I have almost certainly misunderstood the author’s claims and contentions.

I recently read Arthur Levine’s latest book, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future, co-authored with Scott Van Pelt, and it reminded me of that early lesson.

Were you simply to read the headlines in the academic press, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this book was a defense of MOOCs. Here’s the heading EdSurge used: “Could Coursera Become as Prestigious as Harvard?” Or a call for universities in the cloud (“Digital Natives, Analog Universities,” is how Brandeis Magazine framed the book’s summons to remake higher education).

In fact, the book makes quite a different argument that institutional leaders need to take into account as they guide their institutions forward.

It would be easy to quibble about some of the book’s details, such as a highly schematic history of American higher education that divides this history into “seven messy, overlapping stages” that culminate in the diffusion, standardization and scaling of practices and innovations that originate in the most prestigious institutions before spreading widely.

Then there is a rather nebulous discussion of how technological innovation, globalization and demographic shifts have converged to create “vast new challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties” for colleges and universities.

Also, some of the book’s arguments will sound a bit familiar, such as the rather hyperbolic claim that the U.S. economy is in the midst of a transition as profound and far-reaching as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution or that an analog, industrial model of higher education, designed for a very different context, must be junked in favor of approaches better suited to today’s global knowledge economy.

Then there are the book’s sweeping predictions:

  • That the postsecondary education marketplace is poised for disruption as new providers enter the higher education sector and offer cheaper, faster routes to a marketable credential.
  • That the proliferation of new providers places unprecedented power in the hands of learners, many of whom prefer more affordable and convenient online options, posing a dire threat to many community colleges, small private institutions and regional universities.
  • That outcomes will replace credit hours and seat time as the measure of student learning, and that degrees will lose their currency as the dominant educational credential as more students seek “just-in-time” training and more employers accept industry certificates and other alternative credentials.

Whatever this book’s defects or limitations, Levine’s mind is nevertheless one to reckon with, and we dismiss his views at our peril.

To reflect on Levine’s career is to confront a welter of contradictions. He’s a former president of Teachers College, who is perhaps best known for his damning critiques of schools of education, which he derided for their low admissions, academic and graduation standards; faculty out of touch with practice; limited interaction with K-12 schools; and a sizable gap between the theories that they teach and the actual challenges that classroom teachers face. In his view, educational leadership programs range from “inadequate to appalling” and the Ed.D. degree should be abolished.

He’s an advocate of radical educational reform who has held positions at the very pinnacle of the educational establishment, including a 13-year tenure as president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (now the Institute for Citizens & Scholars).

There, he launched initiatives to transform STEM teacher preparation programs, recruit teachers with strong STEM backgrounds to work in high-need schools and help states create M.B.A. programs for education administrators. He even created a new competency-based, problem-centered graduate school of education.

In addition, he chaired the higher education program and Institute for Educational Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and served as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation and Carnegie Council for Policy Studies in Higher Education.

As the president of Bradford College from 1982 to 1989, he reorganized the curriculum around the applied and practical liberal arts, to great acclaim. But just 11 years after he left, the heavily indebted college closed, apparently due to a subsequent president’s misguided plan to increase enrollment.

To truly grasp why Levine’s opinions are worth grappling with, it’s important to note that over multiple decades, he published three major studies of shifts in college students’ values, aspirations and needs that rested upon extensive quantitative and qualitative research. In each case, he offered powerful suggestions about how colleges and universities ought to restructure themselves in response to these shifting realities and better prepare their graduates for workplaces and adult responsibilities.

In other words, he’s as much an implementer as a thought leader, and unlike many self-described innovators, his advice isn’t simply off the cuff.

The Great Upheaval’s overarching argument is that unless the leaders of the nation’s community colleges, small private institutions, and regional comprehensives address four pressing challenges, their institutions will face a gradual erosion of enrollment and quality. Here are those challenges:

Challenge 1: The Increasing Diversity in What Students Seek From Colleges and Universities

According to Levine and Van Pelt, the market for advanced education is becoming more diverse not just in terms of race, ethnicity or class, but in students’ needs and aspirations. A growing share of the existing and prospective student body neither needs nor wants a traditional in-person experience.

Many students prefer a less expensive, unbundled, more flexible and convenient jobs-focused education. If brick-and-mortar institutions don’t expand the options that they offer, then other providers will address those needs.

Challenge 2: Worsening Inequalities

There is a grave danger, which Levine and Van Pelt recognize, that the existing trends in postsecondary education will deepen inequality. In addition to the inequality in the actual educational experience (which pits a residential education, with extensive extracurricular opportunities, against a commuter experience), there is profound inequality of outcomes (evident in graduation rates and postgraduation employment and earnings).

Unless colleges and universities invest substantially more resources in the students with the greatest academic and financial needs, today’s vociferous calls for equity will be for naught.

Challenge 3: Mounting Competition From Nontraditional Providers

No longer, Levine and Van Pelt argue, can traditional colleges and universities largely monopolize college-level instruction and credentialing. Museums (like the American Museum of Natural History), archives and institutes (such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the New-York Historical Society), and media and high-tech companies (including Amazon, Google and Microsoft) alone or in partnership with existing institutions have begun to offer lower-cost credentials with genuine market value.

Traditional institutions will need to decide whether to partner with these providers or compete against them. Unlike the for-profit universities, which could easily be attacked as predatory institutions that offered a worthless education, these competitors have the brand and reach that will make them highly attractive to potential students.

Challenge 4: Heightened Desire for Personalization and Flexibility

“Personalization,” “convenience” and “choice” are the watchwords of today’s economy, and shouldn’t consumers of education, too, have the opportunity to select from a wide range of options—and be able to move seamlessly from one provider to another?

As more and more students swirl from one college or university to another, the notion that individual institutions have an absolute right to accept or reject transfer credits and to define their graduation requirements as they see fit is coming under attack. Barriers to successful transfer are increasingly difficult to defend.

So how, then, can traditional institutions of higher education better meet the needs and expectations of today’s students? Here are the book’s answers:

  1. Increase anytime, anyplace course availability, unconstrained by fixed 15-week semesters and a handful of start dates.
  2. Place a stronger emphasis on learning rather than teaching by offering higher levels of instructor-student interaction; more active, experiential and project-based learning; and more robust support services.
  3. Supplement traditional degrees with a variety of shorter, less expensive nondegree credentials and just-in-time offerings that are tightly aligned with labor-force needs.

Perhaps you remember the phrase spoken by The Borg on the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Resistance is futile.” Those three words might well serve as the tagline for Levine and Van Pelt’s Great Upheaval.

If community colleges, regional comprehensives and most small privates are to thrive, these colleges and universities must adapt to higher education’s brave new world. The alternative is probably not bankruptcy, but rather shrinking enrollment, a declining reputation and a diminution in quality.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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