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In his recent book with the research fellow William Dabars, The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), Arizona State University’s president, Michael M. Crow, claims to have the diagnosis and cure for those ills. The American research university has failed to deliver on its full potential because of self-imposed restrictions on the size and scope of its operations. Instead of admitting the top 10 to 15 percent of high-school students, research universities, Crow argues, should admit the top 25 to 30 percent. Large universities like Arizona State (nearly 120,000 students at last count) are necessary to meet the country’s needs. With growth in size come other benefits: Crow contends that going big facilitates efficiency gains in both research and teaching. Another benefit: A commitment to undergraduate enrollment growth will reduce societal inequality.
For Crow and Dabars, the fifth-wave university builds on the first-wave colonial colleges, second-wave public universities (think Jefferson’s University of Virginia), third-wave land-grants, and fourth-wave research universities. It has three core features: (1) undergraduate teaching on a very large scale, including vast online programs, (2) corporate-style management of resources, and (3) interdisciplinary research focused on contributions to economic development and societal progress. Crow envisions a league of fifth-wave universities that model the scale, efficiency, and societal contributions he has in mind. His own university is the prototype, and the Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, and the University of Maryland systems are potential league mates.
Under Crow’s leadership, ASU has vaulted beyond many other research universities in degree production and research performance. But he is not a trustworthy guide to the ups and downs of his tenure, much less to the future of research universities. His “case study” of Arizona State deploys an avalanche of hyperbolic rhetoric. The evidence of the university’s success is “unprecedented.” Its students are “gifted and creative,” and emerge “empowered” by their proximity to “transformative” and “impactful” research. Once “lackluster” and “lagging,” Arizona State is now “world class,” advancing “innovation on all fronts.”
Crow’s chosen peer universities speak with similar overstatement. Purdue University Global, the online college, markets the “Global Advantage,” a promise to students to gain skills that will have “an immediate impact on your career — and the edge to conquer what comes next.” The University of Maryland advertises itself as the first “Do Good” campus, transforming “idealism into impact” — as if none of the other 4,000-plus colleges in America do good. At the Penn State World Campus, “students are part of the family,” and their degrees are “no different from those earned on the physical campus.”
Crow’s choice of other “fifth wave” campuses indicates how important remote learning is to his model. They are all highly reputable research universities. Yet their most notable common feature is their online presence. The University of Maryland says it has the largest online program among public research universities, with more than 58,000 students, many of them taking classes through contracts with the military. Purdue University Global (formed by purchasing Kaplan) enrolled some 29,000 students as of 2019. As of 2018, the Penn State World Campus enrolled nearly 15,000 students.
An obvious educational drawback of huge online programs is that their graduation rates are abysmal. According to the College Scorecard Purdue University Global’s eight-year graduation rate is 26 percent, Maryland Global Campus’s is 27 percent, and Penn State World Campus’s is 39 percent. Arizona State’s data are hard to separate between in-person and online-only students, but its failed experiment with MOOCs (2 percent completion) and its deceptively labeled “free college” plan for Starbucks employees would not seem to help. Then there’s the fact that three-quarters of ASU’s online instructors are off the tenure track. If they are like other non-tenure-track instructors at ASU, they teach many more classes and at much lower pay than do their tenured colleagues, contributing to the cheapness of the operation. Still, remarkably, the nearly 40 percent of ASU students who learn exclusively online pay the same tuition as students on the physical campuses.
There are reasons to believe that much of what is important about the college experience is lost in the online environment. The evidence from the pandemic year indicates that students miss face-to-face socializing and even face-to-face classes. They find online classes lonely and alienating. And they miss out on student clubs and organizations, which they deem “very important” to their experience of college. It looks as if ASU is shortchanging undergraduate education for fully online undergraduates to pay for expensive research professors and far-flung research operations, while promoting the “excellence” of its “innovative” and “efficient” delivery methods. From this perspective, the ASU experience looks like an extension of some of the more dismal trends of the last three decades.
Research is expensive, and ASU has its share of top research professors, including five Nobel laureates, five MacArthur fellows, seven Pulitzer Prize winners, 35 Guggenheim fellows, and 36 members of the National Academies of Engineering, Medicine, or Sciences. How does Crow do it? The answer is simple: Given relatively paltry state appropriations (roughly $330 million in 2019), coming up with the money to run a full-scale “research-grade” institution with a large number of well-remunerated senior professors requires the enormous undergraduate enrollments that ASU has racked up.
Nearly three-fifths of ASU’s total budget comes from tuition and fees. That $1.7-billion share includes comparatively high tuition charges borne by the 25 percent of undergraduates who come from out of state. By contrast, tuition and fees make up just one-third of Berkeley’s budget. (ASU’s endowment was just $959 million as of 2020; Berkeley’s was $4.8 billion.) In other words, ASU’s expansive orientation toward undergraduate enrollment may have been driven by necessity at least as much as by egalitarian idealism. Remote learning, not managerial wizardry, is the engine that helps to power ASU’s research.
It is true that Crow runs a tight operation in areas that do not require large expenditures. Technology is substituted for labor wherever possible, including in advising (through the “eAdvisor” system), in introductory mathematics (where much instruction is self-paced and machine-based), and elsewhere in the online program. Labor is also highly differentiated, including legions of non-tenure-track faculty members, some of whom teach more courses than are typical at public research universities. ASU’s budget allocations are made with market incentives in mind. The goal for 2025 is to produce 60 percent of all the “high-demand” degrees (STEM, health, and business) awarded in the entire state. That emphasis on moving away from the humanities again looks more like an accentuation of a long-term nationwide trend than a prototype.
Faculty contributions to governance are not part of the picture. Crow extols the work of a few notable professors, but he is silent on the role of the faculty in helping to steer the institution. That is because he and his senior staff have been the auteurs. They have rearranged departments and colleges to suit their vision of the future, and thus deserve sole credit for the managerial innovations. Is that wise? It strains credulity to think that all of the 150 contracts with providers of online-learning services have worked out well. Indeed, we know that the Starbucks collaboration has had its share of controversies, and the experimental offering of edX MOOCs was a bust. Another Crow-led enterprise, the University Innovation Alliance, has had, at best, a mixed record. How many other ventures have floundered?
But there are pitfalls here too. Most applied research in the United States is conducted by federal research labs and private corporations, not universities, which have historically been more important for their contributions to basic research. The comparatively long germination period for basic research is an uncomfortable fit for federal labs working on annual congressionally approved budgets or corporations, where pace is dictated by market competition. Consequently, the research portfolio of most major research universities tilts toward basic rather than applied science. That emphasis might even be considered a requirement for a national innovation system designed, like ours, with distinctive, if overlapping, roles for universities, federal labs, and corporations.
Moreover, only a few universities are located in settings favorable to the use of university research as a driver of scientific economic development. Arizona State is based in the fifth-largest city in the country’s metro area. Greater Phoenix has a thriving business community, including the second-largest site for the chip manufacturer Intel and the headquarters of health and other semiconductor firms. ASU should be credited with helping to jump-start firm clusters in medical and biotechnologies. Yet those geographic advantages are unavailable to most public research universities, including two of ASU’s designated league mates, Penn State and Purdue, located in rural areas far from pots of venture capital. Indeed, a high proportion of public research universities have similar locational disadvantages. It seems unlikely the next biotech and business hub will emerge in Amherst, Champaign-Urbana, Gainesville, or Lawrence, Kan.
In a hypothetical fifth-wave future, the liberal-arts experience would be retained in principle but would lose out in practice to the more marketable fields. Face-to-face education would become the province of a more highly selected set of students, possibly paying higher prices for what used to be known as the full college experience. Faculty autonomy and shared governance would suffer as entrepreneurial senior managers wielding performance data increasingly run the show. The class system separating tenured research professors from rank-and-file instructors would grow still wider, with poorly paid adjuncts responsible for the great majority of teaching. It all begins to sound rather familiar.
Is that a future we should welcome? In general, no. The “fifth wave” is an intensification of trends that have been evident in public universities ever since states began disinvesting in earnest four decades ago. Since then, universities have sought larger undergraduate enrollments, less-expensive teaching staffs, and leaner operations to compensate for disinvestment. The “fifth wave” isn’t a visionary ideal — it’s an attempt to stylize as intentional trends that may work in Arizona but have been hurting higher education more broadly.
There are much better ways for higher ed to evolve. The United States needs to create at least two or three more “mega-university complexes” like those that now exist in Boston-Cambridge and the San Francisco Bay Area. Those geographical centers of knowledge production and venture capital are vital to the future competitive position of the country relative to the European Union and, especially, China. The country also needs to build capacity in the middle range of universities — those in the U.S. News top 100 but below, say, the top three dozen. We should double the Pell Grant (Biden has proposed a smaller Pell increase), and create a comprehensive system of income-contingent loan repayment. Adjunct instructors should have access to permanent teaching posts based on the criterion of excellence in the classroom. Remote education should continue to play an auxiliary rather than a leading role, and fully online degrees should be priced to reflect their lesser value relative to the on-campus experience. Finally, instead of continuously shifting resources toward technical fields while starving the rest, university administrators should think again of the arts, humanities, and social sciences as more than instruments to advance current political agendas.
Those changes would not be easy to accomplish. They would require money and mobilization and a willingness to confront the interest groups that are holding our universities back. They would require engagement in all corners of the university, not just among senior administrators. These changes would not culminate in the sparkling surfaces and hyperbolic rhetoric of the “fifth wave,” but they would begin the hard work of constructing institutions of more authentic and enduring value.