• 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.

Staying Viable as a Key Source of Opportunity

Sustaining higher education's role as an engine of social mobility requires an unsparing look at where it isn't hitting the mark now.

November 20, 2019

Regardless of your perspective regarding disruption, higher education and what to do about it, the importance of harnessing the potential of these changes is undeniable.

In a recent article, “Is College Worth It?” Peter McPherson, CEO of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, makes a case that is both compelling and frightening regarding the past and future impact of higher education on modern America. It is compelling in its description of what we have achieved. And it is frightening in its prediction of the dire consequences of failing to sustain and extend higher education’s core social and economic value.

In the article, McPherson:

  • Cites economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz’s chronicling of the direct connection between economic vitality and education. They write, in The Race Between Education and Technology, “[The fact] that the 20th century was both the American Century and the Human Capital Century is no accident”;
  • Recognizes the Morrill Act as “transform[ing] American higher education from a province of the privileged into a shared commitment to our future.” He quotes Senator Morrill: “Higher education should be accessible to all, but especially to the [children] of toil”;
  • Reaffirms, with data, the critical connection between higher education and increased economic prosperity, whether gauged by wages, current and future job requirements, unemployment rates, or labor-force participation; and
  • Connects higher education with increasing entrepreneurship and higher productivity, both personally and at the community level across the country.

McPherson closes with deeply serious points. First, we cannot ignore the skilled trades, because to do so ignores reality. Nor can we ignore manufacturing, though we must acknowledge that it will become more sophisticated, requiring more sophisticated knowledge, skills and abilities.

The larger point here is we cannot wall ourselves off in exclusive silos that separate the types of education and the different job markets from each other. The skilled trades will need critical thinkers and problem solvers, and, as McPherson notes, manufacturing will become increasingly complex and sophisticated.

Finally, he laments the decline in financial commitment to a highly educated citizenry in our state legislatures and at the federal level. Over all, his article is a beautifully phrased argument supporting the historic value of higher education and the risks inherent in its future decline.

As they say in sports, that is “the tale of the tape.”

  • We know what higher education has meant to the growth in American prosperity, productivity and creativity at both the individual and societal levels.
  • We know the times are changing and the demands for postsecondary education on the general society as well as on colleges and universities are changing as well.
  • We know there is skepticism among some people about the value of college as it is currently understood, especially in light of its attendant and growing costs.
  • And we know that there are disruptive forces both inside and outside higher education that are changing the face of opportunity.

So, how do we make sense of the situation we face? And how do we prepare for a future with significant unknowns? I believe that our “look forward” must begin with an unsparing look at our current condition. If our objective is to improve completion rates for learners currently enrolled and to improve enrollment and completion rates for the “new” learners -- high school graduates with little or no college and working adults -- we must first reckon with current practices and models that make college a practical impossibility for so many of these people.

Only then, when we understand the obstacles from the eyes of the consumer, can we look beyond the pain that disruption brings to its value. The next several blog posts will investigate some of these obstacles.



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