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What is the future of American higher education? Will the institutions that serve the bulk of undergraduates increasingly adopt online- or hybrid-delivery modes? Will the lower-division gen ed courses gravitate to high schools or community colleges? Will alternative approaches to job credentialing emerge, undercutting the value of a bachelor’s degree? Will applied scientific, medical, technology and defense research shift from research universities toward institutes with independent funding and a high degree of autonomy?

I no more know the answer to these questions than do you. But those of us who care deeply about the future of liberal education need to seriously ponder these possible futures.

In a lengthy, and perhaps prescient, essay entitled “The university monopoly must be broken,” Julius Krein, the politically conservative founder and editor-in-chief of American Affairs, makes a series of arguments that anyone interested in American higher education leadership needs to reckon with.

He begins with a historical argument: That two ideas fueled the rapid post–World War II growth of the American research university—that university research was needed to sustain national security and that the nation’s economic future hinged on human capital development.

He is certainly correct that the Cold War battle for military, technological and economic supremacy played a crucial role in realizing the ideas in Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report, “Science: The Endless Frontier,” “which laid the foundations of the modern American research system, giving rise to institutions such as the National Science Foundation and similar bodies.”

However, the 1960s protests against the military-industrial complex increasingly severed direct links between university research and national security. It was this development that led the Obama Defense Department in 2016 to help convene the Defense Innovation Board and the Defense One Tech Summit, to bring military strategists, defense and technology industry leaders, and others together to discuss how emerging technologies (including biology-based technologies) can reshape military tactics and national security strategies.

The other idea, that great power competition required higher education to democratize and enhance the nation’s human capital, proved more durable, and gradually morphed into the idea of “college for all.”

Especially influential was the Chicago school of economics’ notion that human capital was as important as physical and investment capital, and that higher education could counteract the trends toward deindustrialization and the “fissuring” of the U.S. economy that were driving a deepening divide in income, skills and workplace autonomy between lower- and higher-skilled workers.

If nothing could reverse the offshoring of commodity production, then younger Americans needed to be prepared to participate in the knowledge economy. The effect was to stigmatize vocational education while incentivizing college attendance.

But as Krein argues, “The ‘information economy’ jobs of the future never materialised at the levels promised.” As the number of college graduates exploded (rising from around 6 percent of the population to 40 percent today), the economic benefits of a college degree diminished, especially for those who attended less selective, less resourced institutions, even as college debt soared.

At the same time, Krein contends, the American system of higher education actually reinforced economic inequalities even as academic rigor, educational quality and time spent studying and teaching declined.

Those claims should not be dismissed out of hand. Our current system does reinforce economic inequalities. Despite financial aid, the high cost of tuition and other expenses encourages students from low-income backgrounds to attend institutions with the lowest graduation rates. Also, debt from students loans disproportionately affects those from less affluent backgrounds, impacting their career choices and delaying or limiting their ability to invest in homes, start businesses or save for the future. Meanwhile, elite institutions often provide students with networking opportunities and social capital that can be crucial for career advancement, perpetuating a cycle of privilege.

We mustn’t delude ourselves: Certain long-term trends—toward larger class sizes, reduced faculty-to-student ratios, increased reliance on adjunct faculty, grade inflation and reduced reading and writing requirements—do suggest a decline in academic rigor and educational quality—even if the perceived decline varies widely across institutions and disciplines.

Krein also argues, with some justification, that for all their vaunted concern with redressing racial inequalities, the more selective universities are, in fact, mainly helping the most privileged of the least advantaged portions of the population. The overwhelming majority of lower-income students are concentrated in the institutions with the fewest resources and the lowest graduation rates.

Among Krein’s takeaways is this: Today’s universities have too many conflicting and contradictory missions.

They serve as a sorting mechanism for employers at the high end of the economy. They are society’s chief provider of human and cultural capital. They are among the most important vehicles for applied corporate- and government-funded research. And they are supposed to help manage diversity in a highly fractured society.

The conclusions that Krein draws are three-fold.

The first is that the reforms recommended by scholars like Steven Pinker—to bolster campus free speech and promote viewpoint diversity and refocus on the university’s teaching mission—and those favored by anti-woke conservatives—to refashion red state universities and to start new ones like the University of Austin—will do little to change university cultures or to alter the dynamics of higher education as a whole. As he points out:

“The status of top institutions is not derived from their stellar humanities departments or pedagogical commitment, but rather from the signaling value of their credentials, the wealth of their alumni networks, and their relative importance to corporate and government research apparatuses.”

Krein’s second conclusion—which should scare the living daylights out of those who lead the nation’s premier research universities—is that the best way to promote national security in the face of new international threats is for government, wealthy donors and corporations to redirect their resources away from “dysfunctional” universities toward the next-generation successors to the Bell Labs, RCA Labs and Xerox PARC of the past.

One model might be the Microelectronics and Computer Consortium, the computer industry research and development consortia that spurred the development of Austin into the nation’s tenth largest city. Another model might be the Broad Institute, which facilitates cross-disciplinary and collaborative biomedical and genomic research outside of traditional single-laboratory settings.

As Krein explains:

“Such institutions could be co-located with universities, and share personnel, but institutions with their own unified and coherent research missions, along with their own independent governance and funding structures—separated from undergraduate admissions and credentialing—would be an improvement over housing more programmes within already sclerotic universities.”

Krein’s third conclusion is that conservative legislatures and donors should take steps to reduce the importance of college degrees in hiring. Eliminate bachelor degree requirements for jobs. Allow direct employment testing. Open up alternative pathways into the job market. Create new applied science training institutes. In short, create an ecosystem for training and credentialing outside universities.

Krein’s “ruthlessly instrumental approach to education” (the phrase is his), which seeks to break the grip of universities on credentialing and applied science, poses as serious a threat to higher education as do the online universities, public and private, and the dual degree/early college initiatives that threaten to relegate the foundation portion of a college education into high schools.

Universities that ignore these threats do so at their peril.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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