Higher Education Under the Microscope

A balanced view of higher education’s state and fate.

February 12, 2019

The Great Recession not only prompted enormous interest in new educational models – competency-based, stackable, earn-learn, among others – it coincided with a torrent of books on academic transformation.

On one end of the spectrum were the radical disruptors, like Clayton Christensen, who viewed digital technology, alternate credentials, the elimination of physical campuses, and unbundling of the faculty role as the answer to undergraduate education’s purported inadequacies – especially its cost and disconnection from the job market. At the other end were defenders of the faith, like Jonathan Cole, who offered a ringing endorsement of the value of the top end of the nation’s steep higher education hierarchy.

Most books, however, occupy an uneasy middle ground. Reformist in outlook, these volumes reaffirm the value of a physical campus and a liberal education, but underscore the need for innovation. Even those who are the most bullish on higher education acknowledge, deep down, that colleges and universities must address critical issues involving cost, access, and measurable outcomes.

Michael S. Roth’s Beyond the University exemplifies the vital center. Roth traces the contentious debate between proponents of a useful, vocationally-oriented education, who regard the liberal ideal as appropriate only for a pampered elite, and those who argue that only a liberal education can provide the rigor and intellectual flexibility needed in our volatile, uncertain environment. A great challenge is how to make a liberal education more accessible, affordable, engaging, experiential, and effective. 

Much of the literature on academic transformation adopt a forceful voice, decrying the transformation of higher education from a public to a private good and the pressures on colleges to act like businesses, while others, often by establishment figures like Derek Bok and William Bowen, employ a more measured tone. 

There are books by the grand visionaries with big ideas – who often work at think tanks or foundations or in academic departments, where they face few constraints – and then there are books by administrators on the ground, who know first-hand how hard it is to advance innovations across multiple campus committees.

The latest entry in this conversation, Steven Brint’s Two Cheers for Higher Education, a history of American higher education from 1980 to 2015, is also the most thorough, sweeping, and balanced book that I have read on the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary colleges and universities.

The book’s portrait of higher education is Janus-faced. In many respects, American universities are bigger, stronger, and more dominant than ever before. Since 1985:

  • Enrollment, especially of women and students from underrepresented groups, nearly doubled, as did the number of graduates and the number of advanced degrees awarded.
  • New specialties and subspecialties proliferated, as did the number of programs and degrees.
  • Research expenditures grew nine-fold.
  • Both the number and salaries of faculty members increased, even in the midst of the Great Recession.

By most measures, higher education’s impact is greater today than in the past. One in eight workers Americans are knowledge workers, professionals or managers with advanced degrees. Roughly 40 percent of the GNP is generated by the knowledge sector, the most dynamic sector of the economy.

But college’s impact is not simply economic. Universities powerfully shape public discourse. Terms like stakeholders, relationship-based moral reason, communities of practice, emotional intelligence, and coping strategies trace their origins to the academy. Higher education, after all, is more than just educating leaders or workers. It produces another product -- the intellectual substrate -- which its graduates articulate and actualize.

While Brint defends traditional colleges and universities, he is no cheerleader. Many of the most vociferous criticisms of four-year institutions may be exaggerated, but, as he shows, contain a kernel of truth.

  • For all the talk about inclusion and diversity, racial gaps in access to higher education have remained relatively stable over the past 35 years, even as racial gaps in completion widened. Nor has the racial composition of the upper-income quintile markedly changed.
  • Many, and probably most, institutions of higher learning shortchange their undergraduates by failing to implement evidence-based pedagogies, failing (outside of the sciences) to demand significant amounts of student work, and handing off an increasing share of teaching responsibilities to untenured instructors, resulting in an academic caste system.
  • The efforts to increase the number of Americans with meaningful postsecondary credentials are progressing much too slowly and the high tuition-high financial aid model that most selective four-year institutions have embraced has not sufficiently diversified student bodies at those institutions.

One theme that runs through Brint’s book is intensifying inequality, across the higher education sector, but also within institutions. Not only did the elite private universities grow more selective, but so too did the public flagships, making them, more and more, preserves of student elites. 

Campuses have grown more diverse, but women and members of underrepresented groups disproportionately populate non-quantitative fields. Large numbers of students who aspire to major in STEM fields, especially those from underrepresented groups, find themselves forced to shift to less demanding disciplines

Counterbalancing institutions’ stress on diversity is the growth of exclusive programs at public universities. These include the expansion of honors colleges, restricted admission into highly ranked majors (particularly programs in business and engineering), and entrepreneurship and leadership programs that enroll a small fraction of the undergraduate population.

Higher education does not exist in a bubble, nor is it immune from outside forces. It reflects society as much as it helps shape it and is not perched above and beyond on some rocky crag. In a period when the stratification of income and wealth has increased substantially, colleges and universities not surprisingly reflect that fact.

Another key theme involves shifting institutional priorities, as universities place greater emphasis on contract research, evident in the proliferation of research centers, research, parks, and offices of technology transfer. Nor is the stress on research confined to R1s. It can be found at many regional comprehensives.

This research is certainly valuable to society as a whole, but at most institutions research is a money loser, funded through internal cross-subsidies. Brint also notes that fewer than 5 percent of postsecondary institutions conduct more than 80 percent of published peer reviewed research.

Academic research is bit like collegiate athletics. Ticket sales and alumni donations do not cover the costs of stadiums, practice facilities, travel, or coaches’ salaries.  In most cases, research is not revenue neutral either.  

A third major theme is how college administrations have found ways to exercise greater control over their institution’s overall direction by, for example, promoting interdisciplinary initiatives (shifting control away from departments) and relying on a more fractured academic workforce, increasingly divided between tenure track faculty, researchers on soft money, untenured lecturers, postdocs, and teaching assistants, not to mention the new educational professionals in writing, teaching, and disabilities centers.

Of course, in many cases, moving away from traditional academic departments can lead to good things. Many administrative moves are driven by necessity or cost or a desire to move their institution in an important new direction. And many senior faculty, facing other demands on their time, resist teaching introductory and service courses.

Perhaps Brint’s most important theme involves the diminishment of educational quality. Spending on instruction has stagnated even as expenditures on research support, compliance, administrative salaries, information technology, and other areas have risen. To be sure, a growing number of faculty members have embraced evidence-based pedagogies informed by the learning sciences, but many haven’t. Institutions also hand most lower-level teaching responsibilities to low-paid instructors who are more likely to rely on multiple-choice tests, less likely to use active learning techniques, spent less time preparing for class, have lower expectations for student performance, and fewer interactions with students in person or online.

Brint offers an especially pointed critique of Arizona State University, with its bold call for a “New American University” that emphasizes inclusion, interdisciplinarity, and innovation. He notes that ASU has among the highest student-faculty ratios in the country and forty percent of its instructors off the tenure track, while acknowledging that much of this is driven by dramatic cuts in state funding.

Brint offers a number of thoughtful policy prescriptions. He argues that online instruction for undergraduates should be limited and regulated, to help more immature, unevenly prepared students succeed, and for the same reason that law schools do: to ensure that students acquire skills that can only be learned through face-to-face interactions. He also maintains that the federal government should institute income-contingent student loan repayment policies. In addition, he argues that teaching should become more professionalized, with much higher expectations for formal training and professional development in course design, pedagogy, and assessment.

By eschewing impassioned rhetoric and drawing heavily on the research literature, Brint offers a balanced, nuanced perspective on the state of higher education today and the policy innovations that will be necessary for traditional institutions to thrive. One only hopes that policymakers, administrators, and a broad swath of academics will read his book and heed his advice, where much can be learned about the real problems facing higher education and how they might be addressed.

Anyone in higher ed (and perhaps many outside it) can only applaud Brint’s pragmatic approach. It just makes sense. There is hope, if universities were to adopt his measured approach.

But the problem with such measured books is that readers inevitably say to themselves: “Well that’s all well and good … but how do we actually do this?”

The truly wicked problem facing higher education involves execution. What forcing mechanism, other than good intentions, will be at play? Will market forces, government, or accreditors drive innovation? Can presidents convince faculty? Will students or parents demand changes in pedagogy, curriculum design, and delivery modes? 

Right now, change is primarily being driven by the demographic and economic realities of students and their parents. And so far that pressure has not been sufficient to transform colleges and universities into what they claim to be and ought to be: learner- and learning-centered institutions. 

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top