• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Nicholas Kristof Made It Official

U.S. higher education is on the downward slide.


October 26, 2014

The downgrading of U.S. higher education both as the engine of domestic upward mobility and international influence is official: Nicholas Kristof in this Sunday’s column, “The American Dream is Leaving America,” said so himself.

So what are those of us who are in and/or higher education going to do about it?

Many of these thoughts are not original, but putting them together in this blog space, and inviting readers to add to it, is an immediate response to the gauntlet that Kristof has thrown down in front of us. Here are five high level thoughts to get the party started.

1. Move the higher education associations out of D.C.  … Or at least out of that mind set.

Long puzzled over why higher education seems stuck in a reactive mode, it finally dawned on me that it is because since the second half of the 20th century it is perpetually caught in a dependency relationship to federal and state governments. Among federal funding for financial aid and grants, state funding for institutional budgets and the wide scope of compliance, I get it. But I also get that it not sufficient for higher education to make its identity and mojo hostage to the vicissitudes of government. Get off the ropes! Go proactive and let’s celebrate while we think about ourselves outside of this box.

2. Invest in a robust public relations campaign to educate the public in general and legislatures specifically about the history, current challenges and continued promise of higher education.

Got education? What used to be obvious no longer seems to be apparent: higher education is a public service and upward mobility historically has been intimately tied to it. Add some lesser-known details that should be made more public, such as the comparable rates of cost increases between higher education and health care to illuminate the lacuna in public policy debate about it.  Even more simply: let’s shift public opinion from resentment about tuition price to a public interest in addressing the challenges that colleges and universities face. 

3. Take international initiatives to the next level.

There is nothing new in a “semester abroad” program but there is a new level of what international engagement means in the higher education space that exceeds mere quantity of the number of students taking advantage of it. From the technical level of inter-federation of research and higher education networks (e.g. Internet2’s International Partnerships through initiatives such as Cornell’s “Global Cornell”) to the formation of blended international, inter-institutional course development, a higher octave of engagement is upon us. Let’s use it to full effect, beginning with the nature of collaboration instead of competition becoming a model of international Internet governance. In fact, higher education is making its mark, could and should be a leader in that effort. Curious? Take a look at the Berkman Center’s Network of Centers.

4. Community engagement.

Just as international initiatives are not in themselves brand new, neither is community engagement. The quality of what it could and should be is. More and more colleges and universities are stepping up their game about it.  Please excuse a focus on Cornell University, again, but of late it has greatly advanced developments in this area and I am proud to shout it out. Engaged Cornell, together with its existing Engaged Learning and Research Program, speaks well to these initiatives. 

In general, higher education is a unique sector, but unique does not mean separate. Universities should keep a steady eye on translational research and colleges should never lose sight of the communities where they sit and the societies they serve directly not just in their not-for-profit mission statements. A public relations campaign will do a lot to change perceptions in the immediate but nothing wins over hearts better than people working together to help each other out. Students learn so much more about what their professors are trying to teach and communities appreciate the interaction and support. A classic win-win relationship.

5. Reform undergraduate education from passive to active learning, information literacy and undergraduate research …

Again, these ideas are hardly new. The challenge is recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. These parts go by many types: competency credits and degrees; distance learning; undergraduate competency programs, flipped classrooms, problem-solving course work, digital humanities, etc. We need to start thinking of the aggregate of these developments not as anomalies but as a paradigm shift.

In U.S. higher education, this shift would not be the first.  Over a century ago, Harvard’s President Charles William Eliot championed the transition from a classical to an elective curriculum that incorporated graduate and professional education.  That transition undergirded the advance of U.S. higher education to the top of the global heap in the twentieth-century.  The top of the heap mentality may no longer be functional in the twenty-first, but identifying these developments as a paradigm shift and instantiating it in the areas that count, accreditation, collaboration and cooperation, revives the spirit of what higher education is fundamentally all about.


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