You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

In a recent essay in Forbes, David Rosowsky, the vice president of research at Kansas State University and a leading commentator on higher ed leadership, finance and innovation, describes a recently released McKinsey report that purports to explain how the United States could graduate an additional 10 million degree holders over the next 20 years.

Entitled “Pipeline or Pipe Dream,” the essay details the McKinsey vision:

  • Close the 45-percentage-point gap between the lower- and higher-performing colleges and universities “through creative support structures, greater schedule flexibility and degree pathways, and tailored instructional modalities.”
  • Direct students toward the 64 percent of postsecondary programs that have a positive return on investment.
  • Enhance “affordability through cost efficiencies and new financing mechanisms.”

The cost?  $1.2 trillion.  

The McKinsey plan strikes me as a pipe dream, fanciful, utterly unrealistic and lacking in a well-defined plan of action. But the goal—to bring the proportion of Americans with a postsecondary credential to the level of South Korea, a startling 69.8 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds—is one that a democratic society should aspire to. American higher ed should extend its promise to millions more people.

My knee-jerk response to reading the McKinsey report is this:

  • Where is that $1.2 trillion going to come from given other competing societal needs?
  • Why do the authors of the McKinsey report think that low-performing institutions can raise graduation rates 1 percent every year without degrading quality, rigor and standards?
  • Isn’t this proposal essentially a bailout for underperforming institutions, many of which are located in areas suffering from demographic decline?
  • Doesn’t the report conflate very different outputs? After all, nondegree credentials, associate degrees and a bachelor’s degrees have very different payoffs, which in turn vary widely by institution, major and geographical location and local job markets.

As Rosowsky points out, the report’s projected cost savings are illusory unless these institutions are going to cut, cut, cut—eliminating underenrolled liberal arts programs, trimming services and relying even more heavily on adjuncts.

Prescriptions for improvement and innovation are legion. Some make a lot of sense. In an important forthcoming book, James Shulman of the American Council of Learned Societies and the mastermind behind ARTSTOR shows how cross-institutional collaboration and shared services can bend the cost curve, improve outcomes and make higher education more equitable.

Unfortunately, many proposals for change are little more than wishful thinking—castles in the air and pies in the sky—and their authors lack Shulman’s depth and breadth of real-world experience.

I don’t know whether higher education institutions, with foundation support, can create scalable, replicable nonprofit data analytics infrastructure or a next-generation student information system or high-quality interactive courseware or implement mechanisms for cross-campus course sharing.  

But I have seen CUNY’s DegreeWorks and Transfer Explorer—state-of-the-art tools that allow students to track their academic progress and see whether a course that they take will satisfy gen ed, major and other degree requirements—and I can attest to their effectiveness. I can only hope that the U.S. Education Department will scale these tools nationwide.

Higher education needs more straight talk. I try to keep a close watch on higher ed trends, and here’s what I see:

  • Rapidly expanding enrollment in early-college/dual-degree programs as a way to accelerate time to degree and reduce the costs of a college education.
  • Financially incentivizing students to begin their college career at a community college.
  • Offering more asynchronous online classes and more compressed intersession and summer courses to allow time-stressed students to acquire more course credits.
  • Increasing reliance on undergraduate assistants and course graders and the elimination of breakout sessions to expand enrollment while containing instructional costs.
  • Expanding access to low-quality work-based learning—internships with very limited mentoring.
  • Growing reliance on expensive, low-quality instructional courseware unaccompanied by substantive interaction with a faculty member.

Let’s call these developments what they are: the purposeful degradation of higher education. Don’t fall for the scam. Much of the talk of personalized learning, lifelong learning and competency-based learning obfuscates the innovators’ true agenda: to cut costs by making higher education essentially a matter of credentialing, not of learning.

I have a particular source of concern: the future of community colleges. Many of my best UT students transferred from two-year institutions. At Hunter College, where I served as an adviser to the president, a majority of graduates are community college transfer students. Given the rising cost of an education at four-year institutions, I have every reason to believe that more and more students will start out at a two-year school.

Yet these institutions are in trouble. Their enrollment is falling, and a fifth of their students are actually high school students. Their graduation and transfer rates are abysmal. Many place students in courses that won’t transfer into a four-year college or university.

Even the most effective community college student success programs, like CUNY’s ASAP—which offers free books and transportation, intensive advising, block scheduling, and structured degree pathways—only succeed in raising completion rates to around 50 percent—at a cost that would allow these students to attend a four-year school with higher graduation rates. And programs like ASAP cherry-pick students, since admittees must agree to attend full-time.

Meanwhile, a growing number of community colleges are engaged in mission creep. They’re asking permission to grant bachelor’s degrees at a time when they are having trouble adequately serving their existing student body. I’m not opposed to such degrees. After all, there are many high-demand technical and applied degrees that four-year schools refuse to offer. But we want to make sure that all schools, whether two- or four-year, keep their eyes on the prize.

The higher ed pipeline is far too leaky. It’s filled with class and racial inequalities. Time to degree is much too long. Postgraduation employment outcomes are way too uncertain.

If we are going to make higher education a better investment, we need to:

  • Ensure that many more high school students are college ready, for example, by expanding bridge programs and implementing corequisite remediation in roadblock courses.
  • Offer more intensive advising and guidance, supplemented by a data analytics system that can identify barriers to success, prompt timely interventions when students are off track and steer students toward the most rewarding opportunities.
  • Reduce the financial barriers to academic success and, to the extent possible, incentivize full-time enrollment.
  • Increase student interactions with faculty and do much more to engage undergraduates in on-campus activities, whether these involve mentored research, attendance at cultural events or participation in club organizations, interest groups and wellness pursuits.

A college or university should be more than a train station, through which students pass as they come and go. It should, instead, be a genuine community—a community of inquiry, a community of care, an ethical community and a solver community.

Over the course of the past century, this country made great strides in democratizing a college education. After World War II, the U.S. took remarkable steps to universalize access. For all its inequities in resources, this system sought to ensure that all students received something that resembled a Harvard education at an affordable price—a liberal arts education provided by teacher scholars on a campus rich in the arts, culture and creativity, and the life of the mind.

That great democratic vision is now at risk.

Over the past quarter century, this country has created a much more fractured and fragmented system of postsecondary education with multiple educational models, diverse delivery modes and very different college experiences. There is something to be said for this. Working adults, family caregivers and college completers may well want an alternate approach to a college education. A surprising number of students see no need for a well-rounded liberal arts experience; they want pre-professional training and a credential. Period.

But you and I must stand firm. We need to reaffirm the value of an education that goes beyond career preparation. That doesn’t mean such an education shouldn’t be attentive to career considerations. It should. But just as a democratic society should ensure that every member has access to quality health care and a safe place to live, it should make it possible for every undergraduate to receive an education something like the one I received at Oberlin College half a century ago.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma