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7 Seriously Bad Ideas That Rule Higher Education

Questioning the dominant postsecondary narratives.

June 14, 2015
 
"Seriously bad ideas, I’d argue, have a life of their own. And they rule our world.”
 
Paul Krugman, from Seriously Bad Ideas
 
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” 
 
 
7 Seriously Bad Ideas That Rule Higher Education:
 
Seriously Bad Idea #1 - Institutional Sustainability Requires That Faculty Costs Be Minimized:
 
Institutions that follow a cost saving strategy of adjunctification and other non-full-time, non tenure-track faculty models are trading short-term cost savings for long-term viability. The critical comparative advantage offered by any college or university is the highly trained and experienced educator.  
 
Treating teaching as a commodity, rather than a highly intensive skill best undertaken by a dedicated educator, is the surest way to enter a race to the bottom.  Smart institutions will invest in faculty, since faculty create the institution's value.
 
Seriously Bad Idea #2 - Quality Education Can Be Scaled:
 
Quality education requires a relationship between the educator and the learner. Authentic learning occurs at human, rather than Internet, scale.  Our knowledge driven global economy creates a continuous upward pressure on what constitutes a worthwhile education. Skills such as critical and flexible thinking, social intelligence, and leadership cannot be learned by methods of teaching that only privilege content acquisition. 
 
In a world of information abundance, an education that is valuable (at least one that anybody will pay for) will be small-scale - one built an environment where the professor and the student know each other as individuals. This is the real lesson of MOOCs, adaptive learning platforms, and all those other technologies that seek to lower the cost of education by prioritizing scale over relationships.  
 
Seriously Bad Idea #3 - Technology Is the Answer to Every Problem in Higher Education:
 
In higher education, technology should never be the answer. At best, technology is a means to reaching our goals. At worst, technology distracts us from what we should be doing and diverts our resources and attention away from solutions that we know can work. The educational technology profession, (my profession), has consistently over-promised and over-sold the potential of technology to improve quality, increase access, and lower costs. 
 
We in the educational technology profession have largely lost credibility with faculty, those colleagues who should be our most important partners. We should be talking about educational technologies as, at best, useful assistive tools for the core work of an experienced educator working directly with students. Rather, we in the educational technology community have largely failed to make the case for the primacy of the educator - or to speak honestly and forcefully about the limits of technology when it comes to education.
 
Seriously Bad Idea #4 - Faculty Are Impediments to Innovation in Higher Education:
 
How many times do we hear that we could accomplish great innovation if only the faculty would stop resisting? The reality is that the difficulty that our colleges and universities have in adapting and changing has very little to do with the faculty, and everything to do with the incentives and culture that we create on campus. Create a set of incentives that prioritize innovation and you will see innovation. Build a culture that prizes risk taking and change and you will get risk taking and change.  
 
Seriously Bad Idea #5 - Staff Growth Is the Underlying Problem to What Plagues Higher Education:
 
The growth of administration jobs, and the changing ratios of faculty-to-staff, is often advanced as both a symptom and a cause of most problems (particularly cost problems) that trouble higher education. A knee-jerk reaction to get rid of staff on principal, rather than doing the hard leadership work of organizational change. This would be a sure-fire strategy towards the unintended consequence of reduced institutional viability and innovation. 
 
The problem is not the necessarily the number of postsecondary staff, it is the roles that these staff continue to fill.  It may be that aligning staffing to core mission will result in fewer staff. The reality is that we have too few non-faculty educators (such as instructional designers), and too many staff doing work outside of the learning and research core competencies that should be the work of most folks on campus.  
 
Colleges and universities need more non-faculty educators able to partner with faculty on redesigning large enrollment classes to encourage more active learning, and on partnering with faculty to create new blended and low-residency degree programs. Where the work can be sourced, and it is not a core competency that differentiates the institution, then it probably should be.
 
Seriously Bad Idea #6 - The Trends Toward Public Disinvestment to Higher Education Is Inevitable:
 
When we talk about public disinvestment from postsecondary education we tend to assume that this is only possible reality.  Not true.  The choice to disinvest from public higher education is a choice, and we can make different choices. The current numbers are certainly grim. By one measure, state spending on postsecondary education is down 40 percent since 1980.  Extrapolating into the future based on current declines in state funding, by 2059 state spending on higher education will be zero. 
 
Some states, however, are making different choices when it comes to funding higher education. From 2007 to 2012, North Dakota increased funding by 33%, Wyoming by 28%, and Indiana by 20%.  Connecticut spends over $12,000 per full-time equivalent student, Wyoming spends $16,000, and Hawaii spends about $14,000. In comparison, in 2012 Arizona spent on $3,425, New Hampshire $2,795, and Wisconsin $4,439. 
 
Is it out of the range of possibility that some state will figure out that investing in higher education is a competitive advantage for drawing employers, supporting good jobs, and creating the conditions for long-term economic growth? All of us in higher education, especially those of us working at private institutions, have done too little to advocate for increased state postsecondary spending. We should understand that state higher education disinvestment is a choice, a bad choice that will ultimately lower the economic competitiveness and quality of life of our states, and we should do whatever we can to increase funding to our public institutions.
 
Seriously Bad Idea #7 - U.S. Higher Education Is In Crisis:
 
Many colleges and universities are facing significant financial challenges. In the next 20 years we will see more Sweet Briar’s. More postsecondary queen sacrifices, as schools close programs and stop offering degrees that are no longer supported by student demand.
 
But the closure of a few schools (or even a few hundred schools- which I don’t believe will happen), or even a great many programs (queen sacrifices) does not mean that the entire U.S. higher education industry in crisis. Our postsecondary system is amazingly diverse, dynamic, and resilient. We should worry less about a few schools closing their doors, and more about our atrocious 6-year graduation rates.  (Which hover around 60% for first-time, full-time students).  
 
Our globalized and increasingly information based economy will drive demand for postsecondary education will increase.  This increase in demand will be especially strong in the 31 states that are expected to see an increase in the number of high school graduates between now and 2022. These states, located largely in the South and West, are largely underserved by quality postsecondary institutions.  It is an open question if all those Northeast and Midwest schools will be able to attract students from the younger and faster growing states to apply. 
 
What we do know is that every college and university is under strong pressure to improve, and that this competition will spur innovation and change. Rather than a crisis, the real story of higher education in the next 20 years will be non-incremental changes that result in improved student outcomes, better student learning, and (quite possibly) higher 6-year graduation rates. We should not confuse what is best for our institutions (a maintenance of the status quo), with what is best for the students that we serve (non-incremental changes).  
 
Creative destruction is rarely fun for the incumbents, but is almost always good for those people that the incumbents once served.
 
What seriously bad ideas do you think rule higher education?
 

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