'Revolution in Higher Education'

Author discusses new book predicting significant change -- including demise of many institutions, and a reduction in number of professors -- in American academe.

October 7, 2015
 

Richard DeMillo is a scholar of the evolution of higher education and a proponent of change. The Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren Chair of Computing and director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, DeMillo explored this evolution in a 2011 book, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press). Now, he's back with a new book, also from MIT, Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable. (Inside Higher Ed blogger Joshua Kim discusses the book here.)

DeMillo responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: As you look at the landscape of American higher education, what percentage of colleges do you believe will be unable financially or educationally to continue the status quo in the years ahead? Are any sectors particularly vulnerable?

A: It’s a big number. There are somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 universities in the U.S. In the middle are the universities that are not brand-name institutions, they don’t have specialized missions, they don’t have a long history of dedicated alumni to support them. All of those universities are going to have to change their mission dramatically or find themselves in severe financial trouble.

Some people, like Clayton Christensen, put that number as high as 50 percent. I think that’s a little high, but even if it’s 25 percent or 20 percent, you’re talking about a massive change in the business of educating students.

Middle-tier, public universities and small private colleges that subsist primarily on tuition are in deep, deep trouble. You can see this in declining applications and declining enrollments. Students, when given a choice, will choose what they think is quality. Price is a factor but is not really the critical factor. They want to make sure that the degree they have is stamped with a name that’s going to be valuable in 100 years.

Q: Massive open online courses were all the rage a few years ago, but many academics today say that much of the discussion was hype. What do you see as the long-lasting impact of MOOCs?

A: I sometimes think that I live on two planets. I live on one planet where people say MOOCs were hyped two years ago and now the whole idea is a failure. I live on another planet where enrollments in programs like Georgia Tech’s online master’s in computer science program are going through the roof. Many of our peer institutions who work with Coursera, for example, are seeing an increase in demand for MOOCs.

My take on this is that hype is often a good thing. Particularly when you’re thinking about new technologies. Hype fuels investment, for example. The initial excitement that you have over a technology -- what some people would call hype -- really fuels creativity. Expectations can be inflated, for sure, but investment that doesn’t have compelling value to underpin it eventually dries up. In the meantime, ecosystems spring up. At that point successful technologies begin a slower and more deliberate build-out. I personally don’t think that MOOCs have peaked yet. I see them entering new fields. I just returned from an American Medical Association conference on accelerating change in medical education where there was much interest in how to use MOOCs to streamline costly and cumbersome approaches.

What I do see is the slower building of the ecosystems that will provide permanent value. We, for example, look for ways to invest in MOOCs that support other critical pedagogical innovations on campus. As a matter of fact -- institution by institution -- leadership that was very wary of the technology two years ago is now testing the waters. I was recently at a meeting with a forward-looking president of a technical college, for example, who believes that by making the curriculum more nimble, MOOCs will transform her campus within five years.

Q: Many of the revolutionaries in higher education are in for-profit companies -- and some academics view them with suspicion. Should they?

A: Not really. There’s an easy narrative that says for-profit is bad and not-for-profit is good. Actually, the world doesn’t conform to that so easily. It really depends on what the nature of the company is, what the mission is, what the leadership wants to do with their products.

We have many examples of not-for-profit companies that have been unspeakably horrible and we have many examples of for-profit companies that have done good and done well at the same time. In fact, the whole social entrepreneurship movement is premised on this. In the case of educational technology, the cost of investment and innovation is so high that not-for-profits are at a huge disadvantage. That why there are so few that have made a big difference in our industry. You’ll find out that with few exceptions the not-for-profit companies that tried to enter the education market really didn’t serve the marketplace very well.

Q: You note examples of leaders of historically black colleges and universities embracing the kind of change you discuss. Can you describe your vision for how black colleges and other universities can benefit from the shifts you discuss?

A: I talk a lot in the new book about HBCUs and other universities with specialized missions. I think that what has happened in the last generation is that too many of these institutions have run away from their missions. Jim Renick, the provost of Jackson State University, says, “All too many leaders at universities view their mission as a straitjacket.” I was impressed to see a leader embracing his institution’s mission as a launching pad. Historically, for example, HBCUs have been a source for leaders in the community. In his foreword to my book, Andrew Young talks about Fort Hare University and its role in educating black leaders in southern Africa. This is a discussion that goes well beyond HBCUs. I spoke recently to the trustees of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul -- my own undergraduate institution -- and heard about their plans to double down on a mission to serve the common good. How would society be different if every institution was this explicit about its social contract? I devote an entire chapter of my book to this idea. Embracing that kind of mission again is going to be a big plus for not only HBCUs but for all sorts of institutions.

Q: How will the faculty role change as more colleges embrace the revolutionaries you profile?

A: You can see already a changing profile among successful faculty. This is most noticeable in research universities where only a generation ago it was very difficult to get a conversation going about undergraduate education or pedagogy. Now, you’re seeing senior faculty members with sterling research credentials and prestigious careers coming back to the classroom and saying, “How can we do this better? Can we make this more focused on data rather than gut feelings, for example? Is there a better way to use technology?” So, one of the things that will happen is that what it means to be a successful professor will change. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to divorce the successful research professor from the successful classroom educator.

The other thing that is likely to happen is that there are going to be fewer of us. Since many faculty members see this as an inevitable outcome of the revolution I believe we’re in the middle of, there is a lot of uncertainty and angst about the direction the profession is taking. One of the things driving costs in higher education is that we haven’t seen productivity increases that really matter. You’ll find, just like we’ve seen in the [computer science] program here at Georgia Tech, increasingly large numbers of students and not corresponding increases in the number of faculty. You can do that by actually increasing quality and how to effectively deliver quality. It does create more opportunity for what some call “super professors.” These are faculty members who are skilled at leading larger academic teams.

Q: Many critics of higher education say that traditional means of quality control (such as accreditation) squelch creative and new approaches. Many others argue that these new models need close oversight. How do you view the oversight/regulation issue?

A: I’m one of those people who is not a big fan of accreditation as it is currently conceived. It’s increasingly costly and intrusive, and by any measure has failed to improve the state of affairs in higher education. I’ve spent enough time as a professor and enough time as a dean to know that it’s very hard to make a direct connection between what the regulators think is quality and something that shows up as quality on a student’s diploma. It’s never been satisfactorily explained, for example, how the regulators will assess quality. In fact, there are economists who think that one of the forces driving cost increases in higher education is throwing around a word like "quality" to justify spending without any means of judging whether or not those investments were worthwhile.

I would much rather see a system in which accreditors return to their traditional role, which was assuring a minimal level of quality. There’s a lot of what we do in college that won’t come to fruition immediately. No one has ever really explained how a test we give today can determine whether or not this skill a student is learning today is going to peak ten years from now. I’d much rather see us focus on those problems.

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