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Only an obtuse observer could deny the ailing state of America’s universities. Our maladies are legion, and are easily diagnosed: exploding student debt, decreased state investment, the decline of the college graduate income premium, and disruptive demographic shifts. Consider, for example, student debt. The amount owed by American households tripled between 2001 and 2016. Today, 43-million borrowers owe $1.6 trillion. Student loans have eclipsed credit card debt and auto loans, and are now second only to mortgage debt. Less than half of borrowers who started college in 1995-1996 had paid off their balance within 20 years of their first semester.
As popular support for colleges wanes, tuitions and indebtedness are rising just as the perceived value of a diploma falls. The college graduate income premium has eroded steadily since 2000, thwarting upward mobility. Damningly, a degree from most institutions offers scant insurance against a slide down the socioeconomic ladder. The middle-class future students and their parents sanguinely envisaged now appears aspirational — if not illusory. Unsurprisingly, students are gravitating toward vocational training or, at least, majors with an apparent (though often superficial) connection to the futures they covet. Even those equipped with bona fide credentials, however, discover that the number of graduates outstrips the high-skill, managerial, or otherwise well-remunerated jobs available in the American economy.
Things only stand to get worse. As Nathan Grawe has shown, the college-age population will decrease in the coming years, foreshadowing fierce competition for students at tuition-dependent institutions. Some regions, like the Midwest and Northeast, will be struck with staggering ferocity. Tuition revenue will decline along with enrollment, threatening the survival of many institutions. Robert Zemsky, Susan Shaman, and Susan Campbell Baldridge project that 60 percent of colleges face “little or no risk,” but 30 percent will “struggle” and another 10 percent face “substantial market risk.” These unfortunate latter groups, they contend, “need to rethink curriculum, prices, and modes of instruction.” If Zemsky and his colleagues prove prescient, higher education’s contraction could become a gruesome spectacle.
And yet colleges have repeatedly metamorphosed to meet the moment. A cottage industry of diagnosis, prognostication, and “reinvention” flourishes. Contingent faculty claim to have the answer, as do a growing chorus of consultants, EdTech executives, and even college presidents. Some in academe read about the industry’s challenges in the pages of the Chronicle or experience them firsthand and become resigned and passive. Others double down on current strategies, engage in utopian thinking, or occasionally hit on pragmatic-yet-sweeping ideas. The question on their minds: Can higher ed save itself?
Most commentators believe that higher ed can save itself — some grudgingly, as they assail its corporatization and bemoan its concomitant ills. But for all of the angst and alienation, there are fewer Cassandras than one might expect.
Pundits diverge, however, on the strategies and tactics needed. They fall into three broad categories. First, there are defenders of the status quo, who assert the fundamental solidity of the existing order and the wisdom of keeping calm and carrying on. Second, there are utopians — self-appointed guardians of long-cherished values — who gaze nostalgically back to a lost golden age or await some exogenous panacea. Third, there are reformers: proponents of pragmatic yet sometimes sweeping change. This final group is subdivided between those who focus on the microdynamics of curricula and program design and those who seek to recast higher education’s role in society writ large.
This typology is, of course, merely a heuristic. Reformers draw liberally from utopian ideas. Sometimes utopians offer incisive criticism of the status quo or presciently point out the folly of grand visions of change. Defenders of the status quo, by and large, observe these debates with amusement, wondering when they can get on with their work.
It is unlikely, for example, that further privatization will produce significant transformation. As Christopher Newfield argued in The Great Mistake (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), privatization promised more efficient educational delivery — a promise that went unfulfilled. Instead, such strategies “increased their costs and shifted resources from the educational core.”
Labor costs, too, have already been trimmed. An ever-shrinking number of faculty enjoy the protections of tenure and the benefits of long-term employment. About three-quarters of faculty are off the tenure track, the preponderance in contingent positions, in part due to the overproduction of Ph.D.s. The abolition of tenure — the full monty — remains an option, but the irreversible damage to higher ed’s brand would far exceed the savings realized. (Still, some like the Kansas Board of Regents are tempted.) As the futurist and higher-ed guru Bryan Alexander points out, employing a chess analogy, austerity often culminates in the “queen sacrifice”: Universities dismember fundamental parts of themselves in pursuit of the chimera of efficiency, but such masochism is cruelly counterproductive.
Philanthropy, while indispensable, is also an unlikely savior. Costs simply outstrip the laudable generosity our sector receives, and the largess is too unevenly distributed to make a discernible difference for most institutions. Sixty-five percent of colleges raised less in 2020 than in 2019, in spite of 2020’s bull market in which the S&P 500 gained about 16 percent. More importantly, the wealthiest, most prestigious institutions enjoy the lion’s share of the giving. Even there, raiding the endowments or changing the tax-advantaged status of universities to force them to spend down their endowments would represent short-term solutions with enormous risks for long-term sustainability.
International students were long the cash cow of American academe, and many institutions were highly leveraged. Then international student enrollment dropped during the Trump administration before nosediving by 43 percent last fall. It may bounce back somewhat, but a return to the halcyon era is unlikely. Why? The countries supplying the majority of students have developed their own academic infrastructure. In China, for example, enrollment has grown a stunning 500 percent since 2000. The country now has 40-million students spread across 2,600 campuses. Thanks to import substitution, an undergraduate degree from most American universities may soon be regarded abroad as an exotic superfluity, an unattractively expensive luxury good.
Other utopians lament the institutional rigidity toward which universities are drifting. Accreditation and regulation are homogenizing forces. The hegemony of market-oriented approaches results in an intellectual monoculture and the shrinking of horizons. In Alternative Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), David Staley urges academic leaders to liberate themselves from the corporate, entrepreneurial, marketized, and bureaucratic mentalities that currently dominate long-term planning. Stefan Collini, in his persuasive Speaking of Universities (Verso, 2017), captures the prevailing sentiment when he argues that, for universities, “making it obligatory to pursue certain narrow forms of economic and social impact in the short term ends up damaging the quality of research and reducing its benefit to society.”
What conditions would permit a recovery of the university’s putative purpose and promise? Some utopians argue that any re-imagining of the university hinges on solving the riddle of college affordability. John Warner’s well-argued Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education (Belt Publishing, 2020) is a prime example. An expert on writing pedagogy and a prolific author who has served as a contingent faculty member at several institutions, Warner asserts that tuition-free public higher education is the only way to reorient around the twin missions of teaching and learning. Without significant debt relief and tuition-free college, little progress toward larger goals can be made.
Undoubtedly, the public’s confidence in higher education must be restored. Between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of adults who agreed that college was “very important” declined to 51 percent from 70 percent. Such impressions can be counteracted through concerted effort, but that may take decades.
While utopianism is appealing, these proposed panaceas are divorced from anything resembling the world we inhabit. States steeling themselves for Covid-caused revenue losses may hasten further disinvestment, even as evidence suggests those losses were not as severe as predicted. The federal government has evinced little appetite for large-scale investment in human capital (President Joe Biden recently balked at Democrats’ call to eliminate $50,000 in student debt per student). “Plans” that insist on such grandiose programs are dead upon arrival.
The restoration of public funding, debt forgiveness at meaningful scale, and universal tuition-free college are all worthy goals deserving advocacy. Similarly, debates on priorities present opportunities to re-examine values. But infatuation with these purported solutions is an extravagant distraction from the possibilities within the control of faculty and administrators.
Unfortunately, Volk and Benedix — an emeritus professor at Oberlin and a professor at DePauw, respectively — will very likely repel the sympathetic, pragmatic readers they ultimately seek. To find their proposed solutions one must endure vapid complaints about the “toxic” mélange of avaricious administrators and cynical faculty. Outrage flows steadily on behalf of the hapless victims of higher education’s dysfunction, the shortchanged students. Meanwhile the book offers jargonized lamentations of “neoliberalism” alongside vague pleas for “integrative,” “authentic,” and “culturally sustaining” practices. This is a road to nowhere.
And yet we should not dismiss the tangible ideas behind such fervent calls to arms. Volk and Benedix, like Warner, boldly raise issues the bare mention of which flirts with apostasy. They give unvarnished acknowledgement of the existential threat facing higher education, a grim prospect most faculty ignore or deny. Volk and Benedix use this in service of a call for radical change and openness to risk-taking. (While their book principally addresses liberal-arts colleges, their proposals are broadly applicable.) They bluntly ask whether sclerotic campus cultures can overcome their inertia to transform themselves in the face of convergent crises.
Volk and Benedix criticize visceral aversion to change as short-sighted. For them, for instance, academic departments have outlived their usefulness. Liberal-arts colleges have erred in organizing themselves around the specializations spawned and perpetuated by research universities. The resulting disciplinary emphasis results in stasis and inhibits experimentation.
Micro-level reforms, however worthy and well-intentioned, are insufficient.
In pursuing this line of argument, Volk and Benedix join a venerable tradition of generalists, one traced by Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth, in Beyond the University (Yale University Press, 2014). William James, for example, doubted whether students benefited from a focus on finding “some little peppercorn of new truth worthy of being added to the store of extant human information on the subject.” The inaugural President of Johns Hopkins, Daniel Coit Gilman, believed that the best research would be built upon the “foundation of a broad and liberal culture.” The authors of Harvard’s 1945 Red Book endorsed this view, voicing hope that a student would “transcend his specialty and generate a liberal outlook in himself.”
In our own time, Cathy Davidson has influentially argued that “the real action at most universities and colleges is happening outside these traditional areas, in institutes, initiatives, and interdisciplinary groups that typically span the inherited structures.” And Jonathan Cole has observed that “the absence of integration reflects the current structure of the university, which is divided into ‘knowledge units’ that are defined by individual disciplines rather than by the knowledge needed to address complex problems.”
Revoking the power of departments, Volk and Benedix argue, would unleash creativity conducive to student learning. And yet their proposed solution seems half-baked. In place of departments, some nebulous agglomeration of studies would proliferate. Beyond the risks of methodological promiscuity and questionable coherence, would this interdisciplinary pell-mell benefit students? Dismantling old structures deserves a hearing. But it is far from obvious that students should pay for the privilege of recreation in an anarchic epistemological sandbox.
Volk and Benedix also question tenure’s utility and viability. They suggest that long-term contracts would release the latent energies of faculty, clamoring for a faculty comprised of “risktakers, agents of change, and producers of new knowledge,” implying that tenure undermines that goal. But tenure exists precisely to encourage such laudable behaviors by providing protection against reprisals.
Warner also pokes at tenure, though from the perspective of a longtime contingent faculty member. “For the large majority of people who work in public higher education,” he argues, “tenure is not an ‘essential protection’ — it is a job perk.” He suggests that the modern university overvalues the research purportedly protected by tenure, and wonders if institutions should stop hiring non-tenure track instructors to subsidize the research labor of tenure-track faculty. “My nontenurable colleagues and I were literal human shields protecting the privilege of the tenured faculty to do their research,” he writes.
Hyperbole aside, it takes some courage to wade in these waters. Institutions will come down on different sides of the tenure issue, depending on their mission and aspirations. Some recent studies highlight the slight differences in student learning outcomes in courses taught by tenure stream and non-tenure track faculty. But a focus on individual courses misses a larger point. Students attend research universities, public and private, to learn from and alongside producers of new knowledge and to participate in the enterprise of their mentors. They do not attend solely to receive superb classroom instruction, in which small liberal-arts colleges and community colleges specialize.
If a university’s faculty are to produce knowledge, the protections of tenure — in some form — must continue. It might be salutary, for example, to expand the scope of activities faculty are encouraged to pursue to encompass public writing, community-engaged research, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and entrepreneurial activities.
If enacted broadly, some of Volk and Benedix’s recommendations would improve the student experience immensely. Unfortunately, these microlevel reforms, however worthy and well-intentioned, are still insufficient.
Public research universities in particular can refresh their mission and expand the number of students they serve. So argues The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), by Arizona State President Michael Crow and William B. Dabars, an Arizona State research fellow. “Fifth Wave” universities pursue two overarching goals. The first is the universalization of access to higher education. According to the authors, universities should aim to “educate to internationally competitive levels of achievement the top quarter or third of respective age cohorts” and use “universal learning” to provide lifelong learning opportunity to more than half of the U.S. population. These universities unapologetically serve the public interest by tackling its thorniest, most intractable problems. “Discovery for the sake of creating tangible progress must be prioritized over discovery for its own sake,” they argue.
The adaptive learning and technology-enabled instruction Crow and Dabars advocate promises to enable swaths of the previously excluded to enter universities. Would this deepen the stratification of universities? Is it, in Newfield’s phrase, merely another manifestation of the “fast-food version” of college, “perfectly appropriate for the second- and third-class citizens from whom plutonomy withholds the spoils”?
Perhaps. And yet sadly such a caste system of universities is already the status quo. Raj Chetty’s 2017 research has shown that at IvyPlus universities only 3.8 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. At 38 of America’s pre-eminent colleges — including several Ivies — there were more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. In this light, the expansion of access at scale is preferable to the systemic inaction of the present.
We must also be wary of exaggerating the efficacy of the learning technologies upon which such strategies rely. Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott in The Gig Academy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), warn of the consequences of platforms that are “imposed from the top down, used to pare back labor, and contracted without meaningful participation by their functional users.” There is no a priori reason, however, for widespread adoption of technology to result in the quickening of commercialization, the weakening of labor protections, and the immiseration of faculty and staff. Robust shared governance should preclude such a dystopian outcome.
Given the severity of the threats to higher education, it is baffling that teaching remains neglected at many institutions. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2017 report on “The Future of Undergraduate Education” declared that “widespread inattention to teaching quality in the preparation, selection, and assessment of faculty is a major obstacle to improved undergraduate student learning.” That is not an isolated view. “For a long time,” the former Harvard president Derek Bok observed, “methods of teaching were largely matters for conjecture, intuition, and personal experience rather than careful testing.”
This state of affairs is outrageous. And it is untenable when tuition levels, indebtedness, and the emergence of viable alternatives may cause prospective students to balk. While the pandemic has made an eloquent, if impromptu and unbidden, case for the value of residential education, universities are now under pressure to deliver. What if students perceive the traditional classroom experience as merely marginally better than the screen-mediated, remote ordeal they’ve just endured? Perish the thought.
And teaching quality is something universities have the power to address. As Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, argues in The Empowered University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019):
There are many barriers to a quality educational experience and student completion. The methodology of the instructor who teaches a course should not be one of them. With advances in cognitive psychology and discipline-based educational research, we now have a deeper understanding of how students learn as well as best practices for teaching and learning by field.
Numerous works, from Susan A. Ambrose and co-authors’ How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010) to Carl Wieman’s Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative (Harvard University Press, 2017) to Joshua Kim and Edward J. Maloney’s Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), detail the conditions, course designs, and technology that facilitate and optimize learning. Though widely discussed, these insights and approaches have been applied sporadically, often at the margins of universities. Pedagogical innovation must be brought from the periphery to the center of the university.
Such a transformation will be neither straightforward nor inexpensive. Faculty must be given the necessary training, resources, time and incentive structures to retool and then to apply what they’ve mastered. Tenure, promotion, and other review processes would be revised to take the emphasis on teaching into account in a manner respectful of the plurality of valid methods, academic freedom, and disciplinary diversity. There will also be faculty skepticism concerning a more centralized approach to teaching, something that must be refuted.
Keeping our hands in our pockets, partaking in utopian rebellion, or making modest changes around the edges — which stance is best suited to the present conjuncture? Tinkering is a tempting refuge. Incrementalism lends itself to decentralization, defers to individuals, offers the illusion of change while preserving the status quo, and minimizes conflict. But such an approach, which privileges multiplicity over efficiency and prefers comity and consensus over action, is no match for crises of the scale and intensity institutions now confront.
While it is naive to await salvation from an outside source in the form of universally available, tuition-free college or a student debt jubilee, it is reasonable to expect universities to transform themselves. The abrupt, unplanned shift to remote instruction due to the pandemic made clear that universities can pursue major change swiftly and at scale. Under the less chaotic conditions to come (we hope), and with appropriate consultation and deliberation, faculty and administrators can and must collaboratively reform their institutions. Let’s get to work.