Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge: Rethinking Ingrained Assumptions
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Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge: Rethinking Ingrained Assumptions

Entitled “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age,” Shirky wrote that colleges and universities clung to assumptions and expectations that arose during the period of rapid growth that stretched from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, when “the number of undergraduates increased five-fold, and graduate students nine-fold” and when states more than doubled their higher education appropriations and federal research grants quadrupled.

Several “Golden Age” assumptions, now sadly outdated, persist:

1. That demand for higher education is virtually inexhaustible, and, as a result, institutions can take enrollment growth for granted.

2. That full-time, first-time-in-college residential students represent an ideal that colleges and universities should prioritize in admissions.

3. That most students want and need an educational experience that is basically the same as that offered three-quarters of a century ago.

4. That rising costs can be addressed through tinkering, including modest increases in tuition and fees, government aid, and a limited reliance on adjunct instructors.

5. That there was no inherent conflict between tenured faculty’s teaching and research responsibilities; that teaching loads and mentoring responsibilities can fall and research expectations can rise without posing any particular problems for their institutions. 

Each of these assumptions has proven profoundly misleading.

  • Enrollment declines have persisted for a decade.
    This decline poses particular challenges for small and regional institutions in the Northeast and Midwest.
  • Non-traditional students are as important to institutional and societal success as traditional students.
    Students who commute, work full-time, care-give, or who have transferred represent a majority of those pursuing degrees and have different needs than those who traditional students who defined higher education’s Golden Age.
  • Student needs have shifted and intensified.
    Institutions have been forced to devote significantly more resources to financial aid and the support services that non-traditional and post-traditional students needed to succeed. 
  • 2- and 4-year institutions have found it difficult to effectively serve the growth sectors.
    Traditional degree and training programs have had very mixed success in serving students from low-income backgrounds, community college transfer students, and working adults’ needs for retooling, upskilling, and skills training.
  • Higher education’s cost challenges cannot be met through tinkering.  
    To cut costs, institutions have relied increasingly on non-tenure track faculty and under-resourced institutions have eliminated or consolidated programs. To increase revenue, colleges and universities have had to become much more entrepreneurial, admitting more international students (and, at public institutions, more out-of-state students), establishing online professional master’s programs, and treating ancillaries as revenue generators.
  • A caste system has emerged, in which the interests of tenured faculty and non-tenured instructors and professional staff have diverged.
    To reduce the teaching loads of tenured faculty and free them of responsibility for advising and teaching introductory, language, and composition courses, while keeping instructional costs stable, institutions increasingly relied upon lower-paid non-tenure track instructors: graduate students, adjuncts, lecturers, and post-docs and an expanding number of non-teaching professionals (including professional advisors, disability specialists, instructional designers and educational technologists, psychological counselors, and staff to run teaching, math, science, and writing centers).

What made Shirky’s blog post especially controversial was his claim that higher education’s major beneficiaries are tenured faculty and senior administrators, whose salaries rose even during the Great Recession and whose perks now come largely at the expense of adjunct faculty and other contingent staff members.

The argument that  tenure screens out more than it protects by creating a sharp divide between insiders and those outside the charmed circle is now increasingly voiced on the left as well as the right.

As a friend put in response to a recent forum on the future of tenure: “It's like castles in the late Middle Ages -- cannons just mean you build thicker and thicker walls to protect fewer and fewer people.”

As Shirky’s blog entry made devastatingly clear, addressing salary inequities between the tenured and non-tenured teaching staff cannot be met simply by trimming administrative bloat or eliminating waste.

At his institution, cutting administrative salaries by 25 percent would save about $5 million (in 2014 dollars), but raising adjunct salaries would cost $250 million, about 17 percent of NYU’s academic budget at the time.

Reducing inequalities within individual institutions and across higher education more generally will require far-reaching shifts in mindset and priorities.  Otherwise, we are just perpetuating “an arrangement that works well for elites—tenured professors, rich students, endowed institutions—but increasingly badly for everyone else.”

So how, then, can higher education adapt to students’ changing needs and new demographic, economic, and cultural realities?

Solutions aren’t easy. Unionization can, to a certain extent, address some inequities in salaries and working conditions, but can also result in unanticipated outcomes. At CUNY, for example, a contract that significantly increased the pay of part-time adjuncts had the effect of reducing their numbers while increasing reliance upon untenured lecturers with full-time appointments, who were cheaper on a per class basis.

Other pressures are brewing,  We’re witnessing:

  • A push by state legislatures to cut college costs and expedite time to degree by encouraging completion of gen ed classes during high school as a way to cut college costs, making the community college transfer process more seamless, and requiring 4-year schools to enroll more transfer students or allow 2-year institutions to award applied bachelor’s degrees.
  • Growing demands that deep-pocketed private institutions increase their enrollment, either modestly or radically.
  •  The emergence of cheaper, faster paths to employment, including short- term, non-credit, and corporate-sponsored certificate training programs.

What should colleges and universities do to adjust to our post-Golden Age realities? Some strategies are obvious:

  • Hope that the Biden administration will provide the funding necessary to sustain and strengthen the current model through a combination of debt relief, expanded federal financial support, and encouragement of the enrollment of international students.
  • Make greater use of personalized, adaptive courseware, auto-grading, and peer evaluation to allow faculty to scale gateway courses and of degree maps, degree progress monitoring tools, and data analytics to track student progress, prompt timely interventions, and supplement person-to-person advising.
  •  Increase online course sharing to ensure access to specialized or difficult to staff programs.
  • Expand offerings of career-aligned certificates and certifications, which can be embedded into career paths or pursued separately.

There is, however, an alternative that I think is worthy of attention: Change the game.

Perhaps you remember the conclusion to the 1983 American Cold War science fiction techno-thriller WarGames: “The only way to win is not to play.”

Sometimes, the way to win is to change the game.

As a thought experiment, let’s think of how we might change the game to better serve students with very different needs, levels of preparation, circumstances, and aspirations. We might:

  • Expand enrollment at the more selective institutions,
    Not by expanding facilities, but by rethinking the academic calendar, having juniors and seniors live off-campus, and adopting a hyflex model for the delivery of the most popular classes – while hiring more faculty to maintain quality.
  • Create an educational journey less centered on traditional lectures courses and seminars.
    There are alternate ways to deliver those classes’ content, for example, by using courseware supplemented by online lectures and various forms of support, or through novel kinds of blended experiences that involve less time in formal classrooms.
  • Make experiential and project-based learning much bigger parts of the undergraduate experience.
    Downplaying traditional classes might free students to devote more time to other educationally impactful experiences: Taking part in internships (some of which should be on-campus in various institutional offices); working on supervised research projects, either alone or in groups; participating in field-based and service learning activities; or contributing as team members to a faculty project.
  • Ensure that every student is part of a learning community, not just in their first semester or first year, but at a number of points in their education.
    These communities might offer a space where students can undertake projects, make presentations based on their findings or creative endeavors, and critically reflect on their learning.
  • Fund public institutions in ways that take account of their students’ needs.
    Let’s alter the current model in which there is an inverse relationship between students’ learning needs and the level of public support.

The biggest challenge facing higher education is our willingness to rethink entrenched practices and legacy assumptions.

When I arrived at Oberlin College in the fall of 1970, the new president made a modest proposal: To eliminate almost all requirements and make students responsible for designing their educational journey. His goal: To produce more self-directed graduates.

Times have changed, and higher education needs to adapt to new realities: To the diversity of our students and to the financial and equity challenges faced by most colleges and universities. The solution, I am convinced, lies in our willingness to think outside the boxes that narrow our sense of possibilities.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin



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