Pushing Back on the Dismantling of Higher Ed Narrative

3 reasons to be positive about our future.

May 31, 2015
Reading the Rolling Stone article What’s Left After Higher Education Is Dismantled will leave you nothing but depressed. Don't be. Our future is better than you think.
There is no doubt that our industry has its challenges.Chief amongst our problems is the erosion of public funding.  
Between the 2007-8 and the 2012-13 academic years, state appropriations for higher education fell by 17.5% (or $16 billion). This is a decline from about $90 billion to $74 billion (adjusted for inflation) in annual state spending on higher ed. Since enrollment at public institutions increased from 10.2 million to 11 million during in this time, this lower level of state funding resulted in a 23% percent decrease in state funding per full-time student. (From $8,700 to $6,700 per student).
The trends in state postsecondary funding are indeed depressing - something we should talk about, and fight against, at every opportunity.  
These state funding trends, however, do not equate the “dismantling” of higher ed. Rather, in thinking about higher education, we would be wise to heed F. Scott Fitzgerald:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
In the case of higher ed, the opposing ideas are:
A: We face real challenges, along dimensions of public support - as well as costs, access, and quality and many others.
B: We should be willing to be positive about the future.
Why should we be positive about the future of higher ed?
Reason 1 - Demand Is Increasing:
It is comforting, and also true, to argue that demand for education will increase as the premium on knowledge and skills also increases in our information based economy. As is often said, nowadays the only thing more expensive than getting a higher education is not getting a higher education.  
It is hard to argue against the future prospects of any sector that is best defined by huge, and increasing, demand. The growth in demand for postsecondary education is more a global than a U.S. story. By 2025 the number of students enrolled globally at degree granting postsecondary institutions is expected to about double, reaching a total of over 260 million, up from 178 million in 2010.  
India alone will see a college-age population (18-23) of 142 million by 2030. If only half of those Indian’s attend college by 2030, India alone will boast 70 million enrollees in 15 years.
The positive postsecondary demand story is not confined to global education. Take a quick look at the National Center for Education Statistic’s most recent report on future U.S. education trends.  Total postsecondary enrollment is projected to increase 14 percent from 2011 to 2022, from about 21 million to 24 million students. The fast growth is in graduate students, with the numbers of master’s degrees conferred expected to increase by 36% between 2012 and 2023. 
Reason 2 - Our Potential for Innovation:
U.S. higher education, as a sector, is way more resilient than is generally imagined. Ours is a sector that is best described as diverse, decentralized, and highly competitive. 
It is easy to conclude that all of higher education is in trouble when we read about the closures of entire campuses, and the shutting down of individual programs. That would be a mistake.  
For every school that is losing enrollment or dropping programs, there are others that are gaining new students and starting new degrees.  
The dislocations brought on by increased competitiveness and rising costs are extremely painful for all those impacted, but are probably healthy when looked at from the perspective of the entire U.S. higher education system.  
(Note:  This creative destruction assertion that I'm making here needs to be debated. I recommend that you read every word that Bryan Alexander writes - and invite Bryan to any discussion that you are having about the future of higher ed - and in particular pay attention when Bryan writes about the “queen sacrifice” strategy in higher education). 
Anyone who works in higher education, or who has ever been a student, knows how much room we have to innovate. Mary Meeker thinks that the Internet has had only 25% percent of the impact on higher education that it will in the future.  
From everything that I can observe, my conclusion is that we are living through a time of rapid change and innovation in higher education.  
Online and blended learning are fundamentally changing traditional lecture-based models. The emergence of open online learning has forced residential institutions to think carefully about the value and potential of face-to-face teaching.  
New credentialing and assessment models, from competency based degrees to badging, will both put pressure on and add diversity to traditional postsecondary models. Both competitive and cost forces are pushing change and innovation at every level of our higher ed sector.  
Do you know of any school that is happy with its status quo?  That is resting on its laurels?  That is not trying to make big improvements in quality, access, or costs? (Or trying to do all 3 at once - a goal that is very hard indeed to obtain).  
Reason 3 -  Learning Is Ascendant:
The final reason to push back on the “dismantling of higher ed” narrative is the fact that a college education has never been so good, and is quickly getting better.
The story of just how much a college education has improved, and will improve more in the future, is one of the great unremarked upon stories of our generation. The fact is that your kids' college education will be better than yours, and your grandkids' college education will be even better. 
Why is this? The main reason that a college education is improving so much is that learning is ascendant.  
We have a much better idea of how learning occurs. Advances in cognitive science and learning theory have revolutionized our understanding of how the brain learns.  These advances are filtering (although admittedly not quickly enough), into how teaching and learning is structured across the postsecondary spectrum.  
Go to almost any campus and you will see changes in how courses are designed and taught.  Active learning models are replacing traditional method of teaching as information transmission. This shift first occurred in the world of online (traditional / small / cohort based) learning, and is filtering to blended and flipped classes.
None of this is to say that when it comes to higher ed, that we are living in the most perfect of all possibe worlds.  
We are an industry with both big problems (costs, state funding, adjunctification, etc. etc.), and a big future
The overall future of higher education, when seen from the perspective of either learning or knowledge creation, has never been more bright.  At the same time, many individual institutions of higher learning (and many people who make up these institutions) are in for an extreme set of challenges and dislocations.  
Both uncertainty and progress will characterize the decades to come. 
The real story of higher education is not one of dismantling, but rather of reinvention. 
It will be a wild, risky, and scary ride. 
How are you feeling about the future of our industry?


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