‘The Real Disruption’ in Higher Ed?

Recently, several admissions officers and college counselors have asked me about “disruption” in higher education. They’d all read somewhere that academe is on the verge of transformation—or collapse. Was it true?

My answer goes like this: Imagine that you’re the head of a publishing house, and that a prospective author has proposed writing about how and why college will change in some ways but not in others, that many of those changes will be gradual, subtle, and complex, and that despite many serious problems in academe, the sky, really, is not falling, at least not everywhere, in every way.

Would you choose to publish that book over one that declared the end of higher education as we know it, and that described the brave new world of virtual learning just over the rainbow? Probably not. As a publisher you would know that nuance doesn’t sell like simplicity does.

That’s not to say any particular prediction out there won’t prove true. But as Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, told The Chronicle, “Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a vested interest in this.” Sure, college presidents have a self-interest stake in this debate, but so, too, do the doom-saying pundits who’ve stormed the speaking circuit, where talk of revolutionary change pays well.

Ms. McGuire’s comments appeared today in a thoughtful article written by my colleagues Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk. They ask whether “disruption” might make higher education inaccessible for students who need traditional instruction the most.

Their article suggests that the most drastic changes may have less to do with MOOC’s than with the makeup of tomorrow’s applicants. ”Waves of minority students,” they write, “especially Hispanics, are arriving on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools that didn’t prepare them for college work.” Ms. McGuire said: “The real disruption is the changing demographics of this country.”

If I were assembling a packet of required reading for admissions officers, I’d include this piece, which is refreshingly free of hype. Read it here.

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