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American higher education suffers from an identity crisis that threatens its long-term viability.

As costs have surged and free online courses have proliferated, colleges and universities have elevated image over substance and clung to an antiquated structure that has left them vulnerable in an era of rapid change. Until they focus seriously on improving their core function – student learning – they risk foundering in a sea of mixed messages.

On the one hand, administrators explain the immense long-term value of a degree and the immediate payoff in job opportunities and higher salary. On the other hand, they elevate sports teams to godlike status, pay coaches many times more than they do professors, reward volume of research over innovative teaching, and compete for students by promoting what Jose Bowen calls the “campus spa.”

Overcoming this identity crisis requires an understanding of what I argue are the three main components of higher education: promise, process and product. Colleges and universities have long promised a path to broader thinking, an entree to a leadership class, and a means to bolster a democratic society.

They have done this through a process of learning that helps students hone their thinking, learn on their own and develop their independence. At the intersection of these two areas lies the main product of education: a credential that opens the door to better-paying jobs and a more fulfilling life.

Those three elements worked together fairly well for decades, until the product began to overshadow the more important aspects of a college education. Rather than focusing on education’s core — pushing students out of their comfort zones, challenging them to think critically, helping them to become independent and adaptable  — colleges and universities have promoted an idyllic lifestyle that has nothing to do with learning:  sports teams, leisure activities, living amenities and social opportunities now, and higher salaries later. State universities, especially, have been forced to embrace the idea that they are job training grounds and engines of economic development.

None of those are necessarily bad. Learning has been mostly lost in the equation, though, tarnishing the reputation of higher education, disrupting an entrenched model, threatening the survival of some colleges, and leaving administrators unsure of how to regain a better balance.

How Process and Promise Work in Tandem

In an article about online universities, Cormac Foster offered a cogent statement that gets to the heart of much recent debate about higher education. Foster writes: “Ultimately, education is a promise, rather than a product.”

Foster is mostly right, even though many administrators, politicians, parents and students treat education as a product. There’s a subtle but important philosophical difference: A product is fully formed and fully functional. It fills an immediate need or want. A coat keeps us warm. An automobile provides individual transportation. A box of cereal provides food. A television entertains and informs us.

A promise offers security and hope. It boosts confidence and allows people to move forward with a sense of purpose. In the case of education, that promise pays off gradually over a lifetime. It’s not redeemable upon graduation for a specific job or a predetermined salary. As Josh Boldt writes, “Often we don’t realize until semesters or even years later how much value we actually received from a course we took.”

That promise is created through a process of learning. Higher education exposes students to a wide range of ideas, challenges their assumptions, pushes them to test their beliefs, and helps them dig beneath the surface of concepts, ideas and ideals. Learning — real learning — is hard work. It requires dedication, sacrifice and persistence by students, teachers and administrators. Students can’t just buy a degree or the promise it represents. They must earn it.

That’s a real challenge for administrators and professors. If they — and students — look at what they offer as a product, then the relationship changes. Students become customers, and customers demand satisfaction. Think grade inflation, courses clustered between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and empty campuses on Fridays.

Where Does the Process Fit In?

Unfortunately, the process of higher education — its most critical element — has been pushed into the background. Students who have grown up under No Child Left Behind have been exposed to a battery of tests that promote scores (a product) over learning (the process). When the process does become part of the conversation, it is too often couched in terms of preparing for assessment. Politicians and administrators like tidy numbers that make comparisons easy and that they can hold up as “proof” of learning.

Colleges and universities have fallen into the same trap with SAT and ACT scores, and have been forced to play a fallacious ranking game that places them in a tidy descending order. They use a similar approach by demanding high G.P.A.s for students who receive scholarships or other financial aid, pumping more air into an already inflated grading system. Once again, these numbers offer tidy packages even as they focus students’ attention on a product (test scores, rankings and G.P.A.s) rather than the process of thinking, reasoning and learning.

Sometimes the grades and the test scores do reflect well-prepared, deeply thinking students. Grading of things that really matter, though — writing, projects, portfolios — rarely has the tidiness of multiple-choice tests. Even with rubrics or other predefined scales, assessment is a highly subjective process better-suited to qualitative comments than to quantitative scales.

Swelling costs further distort the focus

As a process that builds to a promise, education pays off over many years. It doesn’t provide instant success. That’s a hard sell in tough economic times. As college prices skyrocket and students leave college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, graduates — and parents — want to make sure a degree pays off immediately. Can they recoup the costs? Will they be able to afford loan payments?

Those are reasonable, practical questions, yet they shift the focus away from learning, which in the long term provides the return that students and parents seek.

State legislators and government agencies have amplified the imperative for short-term payoff. Since 2008, half of states have cut financing for higher education by 10 percent or more, and three-quarters have made at least some cuts. At the same time, many states have demanded evidence of quality and proof that money spent on higher education leads to short-term economic gains. Some governors have also insisted that state universities focus on disciplines tied to today’s economy. Will graduates be able to walk into jobs today rather than gain adaptable skills that will benefit them over the long term?

As William Baldwin writes in Forbes, the rising price of higher education creates a real risk “that students will think twice about pursuing leisurely degrees that don’t confer automatic tickets to good careers.” On top of that, he says, universities may very well face a price war with “schools desperate to fill their classrooms.” No matter what happens, he says, the college system is contending with “a lot of excess capacity.”

George L. Mehaffy of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities explains the challenge this way: “Our university model is antiquated, we have too many similar traditional practices, our funding model depends on increasingly resistant consumers, our costs are rising at a rate greater than health care costs, our business model supports fewer students, and our institutions are not producing more graduates with greater learning outcomes.”

Why a pure business model doesn’t work

The terms “excess capacity,” “resistant consumers” and “business model” point again toward education as a product. Admissions officials talk in terms of “yield rates,” legislators demand “efficiencies” and “degree productivity” and want to see colleges run like businesses.

None of that is surprising. Colleges are businesses — although most are nonprofits — and must follow a business model if they are to survive. The biggest problem in this is that colleges are inherently inefficient, at least in their most important area, the classroom. The deepest learning takes place in small classes that allow direct contact with good teachers. Even so, the demands of efficiency push colleges to create enormous lecture halls that promote passivity, distance teachers from students, and diminish the incentive and opportunity to learn. They do this to free up professors for research or service.

Research and service are important components of education, but a tenure process that rewards research quantity over high-quality innovative teaching has begun to catch up to many colleges and universities. Once again the product (in this case research) overwhelms the process of undergraduate education, diminishing the potential for innovative techniques that improve student learning.

Students themselves have learned to pursue the product of education — primarily grades — over the process of learning. This semester when I asked students in my undergraduate classes to list their learning goals, many put down “get an A.” That didn’t surprise me. Like all professors, I’ve listened to the pleading about grades and have had students say bluntly, “Just tell me what I need to do to get an A.” Grades have become status symbols that boost the ego and focus attention on a symbol of achievement rather than a process of learning.

Turning the conversation back to what matters

Many universities seem taken aback by the assertions that they offer an education that is less than stellar. With a steady stream of students knocking at the door, they haven’t had to. They also lack the ability to make rapid, radical changes. In that regard, they are like most large organizations, whether in business or in government. The structures they have put in place are complex and inter-reliant, yet need constant remaking to remain relevant.

Universities have additional problems, though. They comprise semi-autonomous units (colleges and departments) that set many of their own rules and recruit students for specific disciplines. They are measured by levels of enrollment: more credit hours, more money. On top of that, they have semi-autonomous workers (faculty members) who are encouraged to work as independent contractors under the umbrella of academic freedom. They are also locked into accreditation standards that change slowly and often hamstring their ability to innovate.

In many ways, education is also the victim of a consumer society that demands instant gratification, that is trained to shop for bargains, and that has grown fickle in its affection for institutions of all types. That makes change all the more difficult, but if universities don’t remake themselves, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant in an age of widely available information, alternative means of learning, and families unwilling or unable to accrue crushing debt that prevents rather than provides opportunities.

So what can we do?

In his book Teaching Naked, Jose Bowen emphasizes the importance of innovative teaching and interaction of students and teachers. “If we are not focused on enhancing the experience of learning in every way,” Bowen writes, “then we should get online and start selling frozen food.”

Innovation — whether in using technology to enhance learning or in redesigning classrooms and class structure or in creating meaningful assignments — takes time and support, though. So does grading student writing and projects. Rarely, though, are professors rewarded for those efforts, at least not at research universities. That puts those of us who mentor students and experiment with learning techniques in a real bind, especially in an age of post-tenure review.

Bowen offers an excellent solution that will rankle many professors and administrators: Count innovative teaching in much the same way as research. That’s an easy and effective way for universities to break away from 19th-century teaching techniques, encourage educational leadership, and develop approaches that will engage 21st-century students. Doing so will require a shift in attitudes and roles among faculty members, though.

Good teachers also need good classrooms, yet most classrooms today have all the appeal of a 1960s warehouse. They were created for efficiency, with rows of seats — often bolted to the floor — and individual lap trays reminiscent of an early 20th-century schoolhouse. That setup promotes passivity among students and a top-down mentality among professors. On the other hand, flexible, open spaces with movable tables and chairs and easy access to electrical outlets change the atmosphere of a classroom, promoting a collaborative environment that relaxes students and pushes them to act rather than sit. This sort of arrangement also helps make a teacher part of the class rather than just an authority figure.

Above all, we need to shift the conversation about colleges and universities to the process of education. Only then can we create a truly modern learning environment. We need to help students take on projects that inspire them and build portfolios that help them — and potential employers — see their learning.

We need to break down disciplinary walls, help students understand the interconnectedness of ideas, and show them how their classes and subjects fit together. We need to de-emphasize grades and re-emphasize learning. We need to involve ourselves more in communities and popular media and explain what we do and why it’s relevant.

All of those suggestions deserve far more detail than I can offer here. They all point to the need to change the process of higher education, though. Colleges and universities have operated on automatic pilot for so many years that they have lost track of their mission. Until they can better explain to students — and the public — why the process of education matters, they can only promote the product.

That’s a losing proposition, and it’s not what higher education is really about. As Bowen says, “the real product is learning.”

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