In a recent piece in Forbes, "Will COVID-19 Save Higher Education?" Vijay Gurbaxani of the University of California, Irvine, argues against going back to our postsecondary status quo once the pandemic recedes.
Borrowing the analogy of “paving the cowpaths” from the management thinker Michael Hammer, Gurbaxani argues that colleges and universities should adopt the ethos companies such as Apple, Alphabet and Netflix to “reinvent education as a software enterprise, employing platform strategies and harnessing software industry practices like open source, modular, and agile development.”
Is Gurbaxani correct? Should we look upon COVID-19 from the perspective of not wasting a crisis and seize this moment to push through fundamental shifts that will put digital learning technologies at the core of how colleges and universities are structured?
There is a temptation to believe that if we could only act like digital platform companies that we could solve the cost, access and quality issues that plague higher education.
The problem, of course, is that selling software is not analogous to educating students. And the for-profit software industry is not anything like most public and nonprofit higher education ecosystems.
Whenever we read arguments that if colleges and universities would only act a little bit more like Google or Apple or Microsoft or Facebook or Amazon (the frightful five), we should stop for a minute and think about how higher education actually works in this country. We first need to keep in mind that the plurality of all students (over 40 percent) are both young and nontraditional learners who attend public community colleges. Three-quarters of college students are enrolled at public institutions, with the vast majority of these learners attending two-year and regional schools.
The missions of the institutions that most college students attend are around access, equity and training and credentialing in preparation for employment. These are the very same institutions that suffered the largest levels of public disinvestment and that must make do with disproportionately low-levels of funding per student (as compared to flagship public universities and wealthy private institutions).
According to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges and universities in 2018 was $6.6 billion below what was spent in 2008. Between 2008 and 2018, 41 states spent less on higher education, equating to a drop of $1,220 (or 13 percent) on per-student spending. The Century Foundation found that private four-year research institutions spend five times as much per full-time student as community colleges.
The central problem of American higher education is not that we behave too little like big tech companies, but rather that we invest too little resources in our public colleges and universities.
Improving educational outcomes, including graduation rates and postgraduation job-ready skills, will require that we, as a society, make the commitment and sacrifices necessary to invest in public education.
The questions that those interested in postsecondary innovation should be asking are not about how we might better leverage digital learning technologies and online education to improve our schools. Instead, we should be asking how to shift public policy to reverse decades of disinvestment in public higher education.
It is a fantasy to believe that if financially strapped public colleges and universities would only adopt digital platforms and online programs that their problems would be solved. The reality is that digitally mediated and fully online learning is suboptimal for many learners. The support, coaching and mentoring that many students need to thrive can be accomplished most efficiently and effectively in face-to-face settings.
We should not imagine that the role of educators as mentors and coaches can be replaced by digital platforms. The core of a quality educational experience depends on an environment that fosters authentic relationships between students and faculty, learners and educators. A liberal arts education at a small residential college is wonderful, and an excellent value, mostly because of this relational model of learning.
We should not accept that this relational model of education is only available to a tiny elite of wealthy students able to attend well-resourced private colleges and flagship public institutions while consigning every other student to education by screen and algorithm.
The real higher ed lessons of COVID-19 are that for at least a generation now, we have systematically underinvested in our nation’s public colleges and universities. These will be the schools that will struggle the most with the fallout of the pandemic.
Asking that these schools act more like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft is perhaps the least helpful advice we can give during a pandemic.