On the Immense Good Fortune of Higher Education

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle

September 01, 2014

Six years ago, I wrote my first Think Tank column. This is the last. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

America is blessed by its colleges and universities. I get to visit them sometimes. Looking out over the University of Maryland-Baltimore County from the administration building’s rooftop with Freeman Hrabowski; watching a crew team slice through the waters of Madison’s Lake Mendota; shivering while walking across Grinnell’s perfect miniature city in midwinter—these images last.

It is always apparent that people love these places with an intensity reserved for no other institutions. Colleges are oases of enlightenment in a vulgar world.

But the deep loyalty that people feel for the academy can narrow their sense of possibility and dull their capacity for self-criticism. The biggest failure of the modern university is that it can’t imagine any other way to be.

This is true for each of three issues that have dominated higher-education discourse over the past six years: money, technology, and learning.

Any honest accounting of rapidly rising college prices, a trend that began in the early 1980s, includes multiple, interrelated causes. But the blame cannot be laid entirely on stingy legislators and entitled students demanding climbing walls. Baumol’s cost disease is not the law of gravity. Colleges raise prices because they can and they want to.

It took a while for the bill to come due, in the form of ballooning student debt. Now that it has, the public will never see colleges in quite the same way again. Higher education has been plucked from its pedestal and set down among all of the other financially self-interested industries of which buyers should be wary.

When I wrote my first column, online education was seen by many as a fading memory of the 90s-era dot-com boom, left for down-market institutions and for-profit colleges to do with as they liked. Today the best colleges and universities in the world offer fully branded online courses of increasing sophistication free to anyone with an Internet connection.

MOOCs and their ilk, meanwhile, have entered the "trough of disillusionment" stage of the hype cycle. Overcriticism always follows overpraise. Then, while attention is elsewhere, survivors emerge that match the original, extravagant promises and more.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift made waves upon its release, in 2011. But none of their findings of "limited or no learning" among many undergraduates should have surprised. Researchers had already documented how students were devoting fewer hours to coursework than in decades past, even as typical grade-point averages rose.

The standard research-university model—autonomous professors rewarded for scholarship, untrained in teaching, and unaccountable for student learning—dominates every aspect of modern higher education, including the vast majority of colleges, which have no mandate for research. It is obvious that students are cheated by this structural inattention to their academic well-being. The history of higher learning in America is substantially a story of people pointing out the problems inherent in this arrangement, and being ignored.

The most powerful response to these critiques, and accompanying apocalyptic predictions, is that they have been made before, and they have turned out to be wrong. People said radio would end education as we knew it, then film, then television, then the original World Wide Web. Articles published 50 years ago warned of the runaway cost of college. If people level the same charges against an institution for a century even as it thrives beyond all expectation, perhaps the charges leave something to be desired.

At the same time, there is a chronic underappreciation of how fortunate American colleges and universities have been: located in an ascendant global power, shielded from world war, buoyed by government subsidy, protected by regulation, engorged by middle-class prosperity, positioned to capitalize on the collapse of the blue-collar economy.

The broad contours of the future are often easier to predict than the exact moments of revolution. The formality and credentialism of higher education are such that colleges tend to be run by people well advanced in their careers. It can be rational for someone looking at just 10 or 15 more years of leadership to avoid painful restructuring in favor of optimizing an institutional game plan that has stood the test of time.

But in the long run, unsustainable trends end. Colleges can’t forever continue raising prices, shortchanging their teaching responsibilities, and clinging to pre-technological models of organization.

The standard, comforting rejoinder is that existing institutions can adapt to the onrushing future if they act quickly enough. Nothing in the lessons of history or theories of organizational behavior suggest that this is actually true. Many colleges will either be ground down by the steady deterioration of their financial models or caught in a wave of shifting collective consciousness. Given how many communities rely on these institutions, and how much we depend on them to preserve our intellectual inheritance, we need to think hard about what is vulnerable in the transition.

At the same time, I believe that the idea of the university is stronger than ever. We love our colleges not for what they are but for what they represent—beauty, truth, justice, each generation’s profound obligation to the next. Colleges are what great societies build. They just don’t have to look and behave exactly as colleges do today. I’m excited to see what comes next.

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation and a contributing writer to The Chronicle.