Welcome to the first week of my new scheduling plan! I’ll be posting regularly on Tuesdays and Fridays so make sure to watch this space for my new stuff as it goes up each week. I may post some surprises on Thursdays as I have time, but you can definitely count on hearing from me twice a week. So, what am I focused on today? The end of the current higher education system- nothing too deep…
OK, so that’s probably not something to throw around so easily- but it’s definitely something that folks have been talking about for years. I definitely recall hearing people question our current university system and its sustainability since I was about to complete my undergraduate work six years ago, and the conversation has only become louder since then. Much of the work that I did in my grad program in higher education focused on higher education reform, so it’s a topic that I’m familiar with and actually enjoy discussing. After all, I’ve spent roughly seven years and more money than I want to say publically at the moment investing in my career in higher education administration, so I definitely have an investment in our system’s continued existence and think about what effect the changing landscape of higher education will do to my career often. That’s probably why I was captivated by a recent article from Time.com on the “perfect storm” heading for higher education– and judging by my Facebook news feed and Twitter timeline many of my friends and colleagues were as well. The piece that popped up over the weekend notes that rising prices that are out of the average family’s reach, technological disruptions, and parent dissatisfaction are all major threats to the current system of things and that most schools will not escape the “storm” unscathed, particularly if they continue business as usual.
For my part, I think that the three factors brought forth by the author are definitely worth consideration, but I have a few thoughts about the article overall and what those in the field should be thinking about:
- First, as much as I think the way that we do higher education in this country should and will have to change going forward, I’m usually really wary of articles that preach that the sky is falling, the end is near and we’re all going to die… or rather, lose our jobs. American higher education has changed a great deal since the first students started classes at Harvard nearly 380 years ago, but if you look back, we’re doing much of what our forebears were doing 50 years ago or more- anyone who works in this field can tell you that the Academy moves at a glacial pace unless it’s forced to. Are we being forced to? Yes, and no- students are still showing up and wanting education, and the fact that people still take out second mortgages on their homes to give their kids that education- right or wrong- shows that the demand is there. As long as that’s still the case, I’m not ready to run into the panic room yet.
- It’s great that we’re finally focusing on the rising costs of college for students, but while we’re doing that, are we looking at the other financial crisis of higher education- the sharp decrease in public funding that led to our overdependence on tuition? Somewhere along the line, we as a society got the idea that education was more of a private good than a public good; this happened for a variety of reasons and didn’t happen overnight, but it’s gotten worse in recent years. Thinking that we can cut tuition costs without reevaluating our public commitment to educating even the least fortunate of us is the real delusion.
- I’m all for the technological revolution in higher education triggering changes and disrupting the order of things- anything that makes my life more efficient and helps the students I work with gets my vote- but I think that we put too much stock in the power of technology to radically change life at times. Online classes and course management systems have been around for years, but last time I checked the University of Phoenix and other online schools haven’t completely taken over the world. For one, as great as these tools are, they haven’t completely figured out how to supplant a brick-and-mortar course experience for every kind of learner. I recently started a class on EdX in computer science and ended up having to walk away for a variety of reasons, but one of which was that not having a “real” classroom experience made it much harder to keep up with difficult material. It’s also important to recognize that if college were solely about the academics, online formats would have taken over a long time ago. At least for right now, students still value the power of a campus experience, even if they are accessing it as commuters, and that’s another aspect of college that the online schools haven’t been able to translate to the World Wide Web. Disruptive technologies can’t be ignored, for sure- but assuming that everyone will use them isn’t the right approach either. There will likely always be a population, however dwindling, that wants the traditional college experience- so we can’t abandon it completely.
- Finally, I understand that we’re focused on parental dissatisfaction because for many students they are paying the bills, but for an increasing group they aren’t; the 18-22 year old student coming straight from high school who’s dependent on Mom and Dad’s money is not the only student in our population and giving into Mom and Dad’s whims may not be a great idea. For instance, turning college into solely a job skills acquisition project instead of the broader educational project it should be just for the sake of getting employment could really backfire on us. Life is so much more than finding a good paying job- not that I’m diminishing that necessity, which I think at times some of us who were privileged enough to have a solid liberal arts education inadvertently do- and the necessary skills evolve every day as the global market changes. The skills one needs today WILL NOT be the skills one needs twenty years from now- but skills like critical thinking, reading comprehension, writing, verbal communication, etc. that you get from a solid college experience will never go out of style. Disregarding other concerns like diversity, institutional responsibility and student satisfaction in favor of doing what parents want because they pay the bills is also foolish for another reason- from personal experience, parents also tend to pay close attention to what their kids want from school and are just as willing to pull the checkbook back when their kids are unhappy as when parents themselves are unhappy. Try telling students that you’re not going to give them what they want because their parents don’t agree- I bet you after the fight, you’ll hear a different tune from Mom and Dad. Student needs and services are just as important as getting a job and walking away debt-free, so we need to strike a balance when possible.
Overall, I thought the article raised some great questions, and I’m never one to trust just one source so here are a few more voices to balance out what’s written in the Time piece (of course, they’re TEDX videos- you’ve read enough of my text):
So, do I think that we’re near the end? Possibly– but I don’t think panic, despair, denial or anger are either necessary or helpful. I DO think that we need to think about how to make what comes next work both academically and personally for our students and for us as professionals.
Read the Time.com article already? Thoughts on what this means for higher education? Feel free to share below! See you back here Friday morning for Pheature Phriday!