Defenders of higher education are on the ramparts. Again. This time, the ivory tower is under assault from a pitchfork-carrying crowd marching under the banner of reducing the cost of baccalaureate degree programs via the use of new technologies, especially online learning.
Predictions of the demise of the traditional baccalaureate program, especially at residential liberal arts colleges, have resonated through a spate of books and articles over the past few months. The planned closure of Sweet Briar College amplified the message that our institutions of higher learning are on the brink (and this at the height of the college acceptance/rejection season).
But are things really so dire for traditional undergraduate education? Are we really looking at The End of College, as Kevin Carey insists? As we consider the impact of new technologies on higher education, must college be “unbound,” “disrupted” or “unbundled” in order to best serve this generation of students?
It will be several years before we are able to assess the long-term viability and validity of an unbundled college program, but I believe unbundling is a fatally flawed approach. Rebundling is my rallying cry.
Many proposals to unbundle traditional higher education advocate a complete reinvention of the undergraduate experience. These proposals often dismiss or fail to make best use of excellent resources within existing institutions. Moreover, those wishing to unbundle the traditional baccalaureate degree program haven’t adequately considered the way teenagers entering college would experience an unbundled education. They overlook the fact that achieving success in an unbundled degree program requires a level of cognitive and developmental maturity that teenagers often don’t possess. (Adult learners, on the other hand, more often have the level of executive functioning necessary to successfully complete an online program, which is one reason why online learning has become such a useful option for this demographic.)
Finally, advocates of unbundling have not solved the dilemma of accreditation. For employers and graduate schools, established colleges and universities have long played an important role in certifying the meaning and value of the degrees they confer. In my opinion, there are two inviolable tenets of American higher education: to make students smarter and to recognize them as “certified smart.” What institution or agency will provide comparable certification for a degree from the “university of everywhere” (to use Kevin Carey’s term), a degree that is the aggregate of course components from diverse sources?
Under the leadership of Senator Lamar Alexander, a congressional committee is considering this issue. However, if a push to embrace unbundled degree programs results in a number of new agencies to accredit those programs, such a proliferation will likely diminish the current value of accreditation. Second, even if the number of new accrediting bodies is limited, any newly created agencies will have to establish track records of reliability over time in order to be viewed as comparable to the certification offered by existing colleges and universities.
As a response to these challenges, my proposal to rebundle college preserves the primacy, integrity and identity of existing institutions. Rebundling college will benefit students, reduce costs and provide the necessary certification of a given program of study by a college or university faculty.
This model will require many existing institutions to reorganize so that they, in effect, become the curators of an education for each enrolled student.
Individualized degree programs will be culled and created from many sources, much in the way an art exhibit is curated so that separate pieces come together to form a coherent, integrated whole. With oversight from their enrolling institutions, students will select from a variety of traditional and emerging pedagogies as well as other academic and co-curricular resources that existing institutions provide.
My model for rebundling college has three parts:
Part One: Educational and Financial Commitment
The first part involves the student and family making a commitment to planning a course for an individual’s education from (ideally) middle school through college. Planning could be initiated and overseen at the school district or the state level, perhaps through a mechanism similar to the Achievement Compacts developed by the Oregon Education Investment Board. Trust me: I do not underestimate this challenge given the current cultural patterns of limited or no forethought to developing a plan for postsecondary education among scores of families. Financial planning support must be made available to families through guided online learning modules, or where resources permit, group or individual counseling sessions that begin (again, ideally) in middle school, with special incentives for the lowest-income families.
And the individual plans -- digitized and kept within the control of the student and family -- can be updated periodically.
Part Two: Curriculum
The second part involves customizing a curriculum required for a student to complete a degree program. The institution at which the student eventually enrolls will support and oversee this process, curating a student’s education according to its own distinctive mission and goals.
The courses needed to complete the degree program may be taken at a home campus, or, where necessary, outside classes (reviewed and approved in advance by the home campus) would be purchased for the student. This process, similar to cross-registration protocols currently employed by collaborating institutions, would also encompass the purchase and delivery of online course content. This model reduces the need for a single campus to provide highly specialized but low-enrollment courses, thereby improving efficiency and reducing costs.
Part Three: Co-curricular Experiences
The third part focuses on co-curricular educational experiences. Participation in study abroad programs, intercollegiate athletics, or work with a faculty member on a specific research project, for example, can be layered into this model according to individual student interests and aspirations. These options would be priced separately and reviewed with an eye toward the overall financial strategy in place for the student. While these opportunities add significantly to the educational experience of each student, this model accepts that institutions may not be able to provide all opportunities for all enrolled students. Therefore, great care must be taken in order to avoid exacerbating the equity divide in higher education. This will require additional financial aid to low-income students, aid that is likely to be campus based. Moreover, it is not expected that students coming from wealthy families will uniformly engage in all options for high-impact co-curricular experiences.
This tripartite model for rebundling college has distinct advantages when compared to models of an unbundled education.
First, this model specifically addresses issues of student readiness for, and access to, higher education. Most importantly, this model directly engages students and their families in a beneficial, comprehensive academic and financial planning process that is currently lacking among students of traditional college-bound age, but is so critical for student persistence and success in a degree program.
Second, the curated, individualized educational program provides necessary structure and guidance for students as they develop the cognitive, personal and technological skills needed to earn a degree. This model integrates new technology and online learning opportunities as appropriate for individual students -- opportunities that are brokered, reviewed and recommended by faculty at the home campus. Ultimately, the curated educational program will reflect the distinctive ethos of a specific college or university faculty dedicated to a complete and cohesive vision of what a graduating student should know and have experienced. This model for rebundling college, therefore, offers a means of quality control and reliable certification of all degrees granted. The degrees earned by students retain an institutional imprimatur, which is significant for employers and graduate schools.
While this model addresses issues of equity and access in higher education, it does not assume public investment in a full residential college experience for every traditional student. Instead, this model advocates that institutions do as much as they can for as many as can afford the opportunity, while still being cost-effective.
These evolving dynamics and demands on institutional leadership and faculty will lead to changes to our traditional models, and debate about the effect of disruptive technology on higher education is in the early stages. Those on the ramparts of the ivory tower and those carrying pitchforks are set for a long battle. The best way forward is the détente proposed for rebundling college.
Larry D. Large is president of the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities.
The issue of sexual violence on college and university campuses has been a metaphorical bomb dropped on the reputation of American higher education. A bomb that has been ticking and counting down for decades, and has now reached the point of explosion and complete catastrophe. Indeed, no single issue has permeated the higher education landscape to such a scathing -- and well-deserved -- degree. And, through myriad public lawsuits, protests and articles, the culture surrounding the issue of sexual violence on college campuses has been firmly established: change will come through isolation, confrontation and regulation.
I agree that strict policies and zero-tolerance attitudes are critical to changing the culture of sexual violence. Yet I fear this steadfast dedication to zero tolerance has bled into zero tolerance of conversation and constructive dialogue among students on topics of sexual violence.
The tried-and-true commitment to civil discourse -- a pillar of the American higher education system -- is strikingly absent from the issue of sexual violence on college campuses. However, we know that difficult topics require conversation, in addition to policy and procedure. When it comes to an issue as critically important to student safety and well-being as sexual violence, nothing should be off the table. For example, we cannot discuss sexual violence without also addressing alcohol abuse -- the two are bound together. Indeed alcohol abuse plays a role in almost all of the behavior issues afflicting college campuses -- and society -- and we have to have a holistic approach. We should encourage students, male and female, to tell their stories openly and honestly, without fear of judgment -- whether it is a first-person account from a rape victim or a bystander who has witnessed, or knows of, a violent assault and did nothing about it.
College and university campuses need truly grown-up conversations about sexual violence led by and among our student bodies. Conversations and discussions that are free from this entrenched sense of “Thou shall not.” Instead, we need conversations that feed the higher education essence of “Thou shall think and act.”
How do we, as higher education leaders, create an atmosphere in which people will not be afraid of awkward conversations? I believe we need to focus on three ingredients: awareness, transparency and student leadership.
First, leaders must continue to build awareness of sexual violence issues and policies on our campuses. At West Virginia University, we have joined the It’s on Us campaign, a national conversation starter on campus sexual violence. Through the campaign, West Virginia University is leading comprehensive awareness strategies centered on a commitment to recognizing assault, intervening in situations of assault and creating an environment in which assault is wholly unacceptable.
In tandem with awareness, campus leaders must be transparent about the issue of sexual violence. This is where the conversations can be awkward. Yet transparency is crucial to lessening the intimidation of sexual violence issues. And, through transparent conversations, we will get to a place where students can have awkward discussions without being afraid of conversations on awkward topics. Campus leaders must show students that the most worthwhile things in life are not pleasant all of the time.
Finally, the issue of sexual violence on campus is not a top-down discussion. As I previously stated, change will come through peer-to-peer conversations among students. Leaders must help students have these crucial and awkward discussions. We need to encourage bottom-up conversation but engage in top-down support.
I would be remiss -- and naïve -- to not mention the dual importance of both change and continuity of change. If we are to be laser focused on the challenge of culture change regarding sexual violence, then we must also focus on the challenge of continuity. Universities have survived for millennia because of the fact that there is coherence and continuity in what we do in classrooms and research laboratories. We must apply the same foundational thinking to our culture.
Universities can battle sexual violence by proving that there is another way. Higher education must move from the symbol of being the ivory tower to the symbol of being the helping hand. We have all conceded that this is a very serious moment in the history of higher education. We must, therefore, become the central force for change. That means colleges and universities need to make a case through example and through speaking out that the state and nation must do the same. We must fight the darker angels from the fringes and recapture that middle ground, which will solidify our path to both change and continuity.
Lastly, I have come to believe that the most important lesson related to leading change may be counterintuitive. Many people argue that change should be made gradually -- that people cannot stand such sudden change, and that rapid change is overly disruptive. My view is to the contrary. In today’s environment and with such an important issue, incremental change is not enough. When change is this necessary, it should be made quickly and boldly.
I leave you with the old Irish proverb that says, “You will never plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” Good stuff, indeed, and I hope it ignites conversations among readers.
E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.
Among all the seemingly intractable crises Americans face in the world today, none is so serious as their utter unfamiliarity with that world. It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently.
Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference -- probably some of each over time -- the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events, let alone participate in formulating and executing the foreign policy that is an essential component of self-government in a healthy modern democracy.
This condition reflects the basic inadequacy of the educational system at every level, when it comes to understanding the world we live in. Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current-events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs.
As we know, Americans do not tend to appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages, and that indifference is only increasing. According to a recent report from the Modern Language Association, college students in the United States are actually studying languages 6.7 percent less now than they did five years ago. Even enrollments in Spanish, America's second language, declined 8.2 percent in that period, in Arabic 7.5 percent and in Russian 17.9 percent. Admittedly, English is in ascendance as the international language of business and trade, but needless to say, Americans will not get away with waiting for all the world to learn it.
There was a period, not all that long ago, when, at least in “peacetime,” it seemed as if international issues could be left to a small cadre of experts in government and educational institutions. As the pundits told us, such matters played virtually no role in routine political discourse or in local and national elections -- and certainly not in the daily lives of most members of Congress or much of the public they represented. Indeed, for many years slots on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were difficult to fill; congressmen did not want to have to go home and explain why they were wasting their time in Washington on such matters.
One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. But in the years following the end of the Cold War, the foreign affairs account in the federal budget was cut drastically and some news organizations proudly announced that they were closing overseas bureaus because of a lack of interest among their subscribers or viewers, not to mention their own financial adversities.
Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange. Only a third of Americans are thought to hold passports -- compared to about 50 percent in Australia, more than 60 percent in Canada and some 80 percent in the United Kingdom. Study-abroad rates at American colleges and universities are, on average, stuck in the low single digits.
It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control -- the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.
One of the recent manifestations of Americans’ confusion over world affairs was the wild fluctuation in public opinion with regard to whether the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war or become reinvolved in Iraq. The data are confusing, at best:
In May 2013, 68 percent of Americans surveyed told Gallup they felt the United States should not use force to attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic and economic efforts failed. Thirteen months later, in June 2014, 54 percent still said they opposed using military means to help the Iraqi government fend off the insurgents from the newly discovered Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), which was threatening to take over that country, while 45 percent now favored American air strikes there.
By August of last year, after the Islamic State had received substantial media coverage and begun to replace Al Qaeda in the public mind as the principal U.S. adversary in the region, support for air strikes had risen to 54 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. In September, after the widespread circulation of grotesque videos of the beheading of American journalists, that number reached an astonishing level of 71 percent in the same poll -- hence, President Obama’s recent willingness and political capacity to take bolder steps.
It is difficult to know how much faith to place in any of those numbers, because in some of the surveys fewer than half of the respondents said they had actually been following the situation in the Middle East closely when they were interviewed. And for a time there was speculation that perhaps government spokespeople and media sources had it wrong -- that the Nusra Front or the Khorasan Group (even less familiar names) might actually be the worst actor in the mix, from an American perspective. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy or, worse, did not really know whom we were fighting?
Should we become more frightened, more resolute -- or, as many seem to do, just tune out?
There is, alas, no quick or easy cure for this fundamental problem. No number of urgent adult-education courses, live or online, will catch the country up anytime soon. And it is not as if a wave of American tourists or students should be encouraged to drop in on Syria or Iraq for impromptu fact-finding missions.
That is not the point. It is, rather, a broader familiarity with the world that is needed. It will take decades -- a generation or two -- for the United States as a nation to develop a deeper appreciation of the complex forces at work, such that popular attitudes are no longer subject to crass manipulation.
It may not be easy to persuade Americans, legitimately worried as they are over other matters at home, that every field of endeavor and every issue of public concern will soon have an international dimension, if it does not already -- or that continued ignorance of, or indifference toward, how other people see the world is a concrete threat to our own security and safety.
This will require nothing less than a national call to action. We are not dealing here with a partisan issue, and the concern is relevant for all economic strata and all social groupings in the United States. For a start, we will have to send many more young people to study abroad -- in high school, in college and in graduate and professional school -- and make sure that a significant number of them go farther afield than the traditional destinations in Europe. When they get wherever they are going, it is crucial that they live and study not just with other Americans, but also with local people of their own generation.
Meanwhile, back at home, more students will have to learn about the wider world from every perspective -- political, economic, anthropological and scientific -- whatever their intended careers. The attainment of an international sensibility should be on any list of liberal education requirements.
And yes, we should bring back old-fashioned language requirements, but teach those languages in a practical manner that assumes we will all use them in our daily work and social lives, not necessarily become foreign-literature scholars.
Above all, we must value the experiences and listen to the insights that young Americans bring home from overseas. They, in turn, will have to push their professors, their families and everyone else they encounter to be willing to learn from the way other societies and cultures conduct their lives and govern themselves.
Sanford J. Ungar, distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University, recently stepped down after 13 years as president of Goucher College in Baltimore, where every undergraduate is now required to study abroad.