I’m starting a newsletter about innovation in the institutional form of higher education. Every noun in that last sentence cuts my potential audience in half, but there you go; the heart wants (to write about) what the heart wants. In my case, that’s the peculiar and accidental genius of the American higher education system, namely that it isn’t one. No one planned it and no one runs it; to the degree it’s any kind of system at all, it’s an ecosystem.
This lack of any systemic approach is the source of our vitality, and also of our problems: rising tuition and with it debt; lousy support for adult learners; a drop-out crisis; the purgatory of Some College/No Degree. Since these are side effects of business as usual, some sort of change is needed. However, while our institutions are amazingly adaptable, they are also amazingly resistant to directed change.
Compared to modern institutions, colleges and universities are medieval. I don’t mean that in the “We’re so olde fashyon’ed!” way, I mean it in the “The university was designed by literate Catholics in the 11th century” way. We are not organized around goals, we are organized around constituencies. We exist to support the varied and often competing interests of faculty and students. This lack of coherent goals means that while colleges and universities are businesses, we are not revenue-maximizing ones, or in fact anything-maximizing ones. This cheerful refusal to optimize for any objective in particular is what makes our institutions so maddening to most outsiders, and to many insiders. This doesn’t sound like an obvious recipe for survival, but the astonishing longevity of even undistinguished schools suggests a surprisingly deep cultural fit.
The crawl at which colleges and universities change leads to the common but inaccurate complaint that these institutions are hopelessly static. This is not and has never been true. For all the illusion that college represents some cohesive and unchanging ideal – an illusion, it must be said, we ourselves sometimes sell to the public – our institutions have been continually altered for centuries. We adapt over the long term mostly by adapting in the short term, most importantly in who we admit into the community. What we teach is downstream from who we hire; the old European canon didn’t change when new kinds of books showed up, it changed when new kinds of professors showed up.
The public conversation about higher ed suffers from an obsessive focus on a few dozen elite institutions, distorting the public picture of what college is, who it’s for, and how it works. No argument that includes the phrase “Take Harvard as an example…” is worth bothering with. No description of undergraduate life that evokes Dartmouth but not Southern New Hampshire – whose student body is 3000% larger – describes what college is like for most people. No one perseverating on the cost of the climbing wall can explain why community colleges, 99% climbing-wall-free, have also raised tuition above inflation. The actually existing college experience needs discussion in ways that obsessing about Oberlin or Stanford don’t address.
That’s what I want to write about – college as it exists for most people, and the tension between the need to make higher ed more effective and less expensive for a wider range of students, versus the complexities in making those changes. I’m aiming for a couple of essays a month, but it’s an experiment, so who knows? The essays will be free to read and share, but there is also a conversation for members – if you want to be a member, it’s $3 a month, which I think will cover the costs of communal infrastructure. (I’m using Revue, which doesn’t yet have an annual subscription model.)
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Since I am proposing to write about transformation in higher ed, I need to make some educated guesses myself. I think there are three deep changes underway: first, the continued and surprising vitality of student success as a new organizing principle; then the long shift in the core model of faculty solidarity from guild to union; and finally the potential growth of networked institutions:
The first time I heard the phrase “evidence-based medicine”, it made me wonder what we were doing before. Student success is like that. The phrase sounds anodyne, but as a goal, it is a tacit admission we were not previously organized to help students persist and graduate. Colleges used to be run for the benefit of faculty; instruction was offered, but learning was the student’s problem, and faculty were mostly not blamed if the students didn’t. (The gentleman’s C took the sting out of indifferent performance by upper-class students.)
Concerns with improving graduation rates came about because the gap in outcomes between people with and without a degree made completion more imperative; because a diversifying student body exhibited stratifications of race and class that became increasingly uncomfortable for the host institutions; and because the rising cost of college raised the stakes for students and their parents.
The logic of in loco parentis went into abeyance in the 1960s. As it returns, we are no longer policing sex and drinking, we are worrying about mental health and degree completion. This might seem like a minor change, but the idea that schools should be evaluated on how well our students do – academically and personally – is a tectonic shift. Everything from university governance to how faculty teach to student engagement is being rethought. There is no other principle operating now that involves as deep and wide a reconsideration of academic and administrative practices as student success.
For most of the history of higher ed, the principal source of subsidy was faculty willingness to accept meager pay; tenure in that system was a kind of consolation prize for the working conditions. Starting in the 1980s though, the rising wage premium from college degrees alongside falling airfare combined to make higher education more competitive and more national, and one way to compete was to hire star faculty. This in turn drove compensation up and teaching loads down, while creating a mismatch between the amount of teaching offered by tenured faculty, versus the amount of teaching needed for growing student bodies.
Responding to this mismatch, schools could have capped pay in order to create more tenure lines; they could have returned to earlier and higher teaching loads for tenured faculty; or they could have hired cheaper non-tenured faculty to make up the difference. Option 3 was the nearly universal choice, leaving an increasingly large proportion of faculty holding various forms of non-tenured contracts. These newly expanded groups have been unionizing, first gradually, then suddenly. Nearly 200 new faculty unions have formed in the last decade, and because unions have historically represented workers who have standardized job descriptions and routine work, these unions represent an alternate model of faculty work culture.
Union members and tenured professors both recently crossed 25% of faculty – unions going up, tenured faculty going down. With those numbers continuing to diverge, the struggle over how the academic workplace will be governed will get more acute, and no matter what bargains are hashed out, many institutions will work differently than they do today.
Sharing Instruction Between Institutions
Higher education relies on networked collaborations, from scholarly associations and inter-library loan to sports conferences and lobbying organizations. These networks occasionally extend to instruction. There are consortia where students can study at a few nearby schools, like the Claremont schools, Colleges of the Fenway, or the Five Colleges. There is a network for online teaching of less-taught languages. MOOC providers make it possible for students to take non-credit classes from hundreds of institutions. But in the middle of all those models, here’s what students can’t easily do: take regular online classes from more than one school at a time.
Colleges and universities have deep incentives, financial and cultural, not to collaborate on instruction, even in the face of enormous demand. Over a million students a year bring transfer credits with them from one school to the next, but colleges subject these students to inflexible, confusing and opaque processes, even when they are transferring between two schools in the same state system. And amassing credits from more than two is given the derogatory label ‘swirling’.
COVID, though, demonstrated that substantially all colleges are now able to offer remote instruction, at a scale that dwarfs anything that has existed in the U.S. previously. This pivot also allowed for more shared instruction, as when seven of the Big Ten schools decided to let students enroll in an online class at any of the other six. This rapid adaptation demonstrated that cross-listing courses across schools is nothing more than bookkeeping, and requires only a few months’ planning.
There is a lot of pent up demand by students for a mix of in-person and online classes, and everyone has now seen how easy it is for schools to offer that mix if they decide to. Elite schools will mostly decide not to, but groups of state schools, as well as private schools facing enrollment drops, can pool their online classes into supra-institutional course catalogs, as a way to increase the range of subjects on offer, while holding down costs. And as networked instruction increases, it will further weaken the ideal of the alma mater, long a bad fit for many students anyway.
But Wait, There’s More!
Other forces are obviously at work. Community colleges will see a burst of innovation as the last institutions to embrace online learning. The continued regulatory pressure on for-profits will put millions of students up for grabs. The rise of subsidized tuition as a job perk for Amazon, Walmart, and Starbucks could lead to a new wave of enrollment growth. Republican disdain for higher education, which became de facto party policy in 2016, could damage many state systems. What I am most interested in here is not individual trends, but how they may combine to alter more than the structures of a few individual schools.
My dilemma in writing about all this, of course, is finding an audience. There are stories about higher education the public is eager to hear. Unfortunately, there are only two of them: How To Get Your Kid Into Yale, and Burn It All Down. I don’t want to write either of those. Meanwhile, few people want to hear why massive sector-wide collapse is not coming, or why elite colleges will not be forced to repent. (Repenting for what varying by audience.) Few people want to hear that colleges are expensive because they compete for students who prefer expensive colleges. Few people want to hear that online instruction only reduces prices if the college wants them reduced. Those constraints are real, and they affect which sorts of transformations are easy, and which are hard.
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Continual Transformation of Higher Education
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