• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

The Hidden Costs of Wasted Talent -- Part 2

The unintended consequences of higher education's monopoly as the gateway to economic prosperity.

December 11, 2019

Over the years, it became a core societal value, tacitly accepted, that there was only one superhighway to opportunity, a good job and a better life: the higher education ladder. And this reality rolled out unimpeded for two reasons. First, there was no alternative way to provide higher education, other than the traditional model with expanded philosophical objectives that evolved with every new stage of development. And second, because that model brought with it traditions and values, hangovers from the past, if you will, that colored our view of higher education and students even as we opened the door to expanded opportunity.

For example, one assumption underlying this vision of the pathway to opportunity, usually unstated, was that a failure to complete postsecondary education reflected a weakness in the learner, not a failure of the institution. This has been a significant, and until recently, largely overlooked shortcoming in the opportunity debate. It is, however, still an unstated value held by many institutions as well as throughout the society.

Part I of This Post

The "parchment ceiling" has left
many learners behind

Even as we opened new doors to previously unserved learners, we held on to old values: that success is up to the learner, that the people who don’t “make it” lack some combination of energy, intelligence, willpower and preparation. The verbal hallmark of this set of values is our use of the term “persistence” to describe successful completion of a certificate or degree. That suggests the burden of success is on the learner, not the institution.

This “take it or leave it” attitude descended directly from the traditional academy. There the sons and daughters of the wealthy were expected to flourish in an environment that reflected their values, for which they had been specifically prepared, and which, regardless of degree program, delivered them to and confirmed them in a privileged societal role.

There was, however, an understandable reason why this perspective, that success is the learner’s responsibility, prevailed. There was no experience to suggest another view. So we drew on the values and structure of the traditional academic hierarchy that served less than 5 percent of the nation’s population (and largely males) before 1947 for the expansion of new learning opportunities for new populations thereafter.

Another reason was that there was no other model available. And the reason there was no other model available was because, relative to today, the United States was an information-poor society. And in a relatively information-poor society (think switchboard operators, carbon copies, the telegraph and the two-cent postage stamp), there was no other educational model possible. Campus-based higher education, whatever the level, was the only feasible way to scale higher education to many more people. The plan had to be, generally, “more of the same.” And so the traditional academic practices of the past -- hierarchical and instructor-centric -- persisted even as new programs and employment-oriented certificates and degrees were introduced and thrived over the next 65 years.

There was, however, a significant downside to this transition to opportunity through higher education. The expansion of educational opportunity coupled with the growth of more sophisticated jobs ultimately created a higher education monopoly over the pathway to economic and social opportunity. As the institutional hold over the content of curriculum and the validation of learning expanded, the learning that had buoyed people in earlier times became perceived as illegitimate and insufficient. The “school of hard knocks,” learning from life itself, was devalued.

At the same time, the jobs for which high school graduates had qualified before 1980 began to disappear. What was intended to be an open door in 1947 became a blocked gateway for many people as the years passed. And the blocked gateway was characterized by socially accepted educational traditions and practices for which there were few, if any, alternatives.

Next I will look at several aspects of the rise and then stagnation of the higher education opportunity promise between 1947 and 2019.



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