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Better Higher Ed Conversations for 2021

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One of my perennial hopes, but one that is especially pertinent to the coming year is that we can have better, more productive conversations about the future of higher education.

For example, I would like to see us stop discussing the problems that institutions have with generating revenueand instead focus on how we are not providing them with sufficient funding. With this framing, we can see that schools that serve students of color needing a “fairy godmother” to grace them with tens of millions of dollars is a problem of structural inequities.  

Rather than focusing on how to bolster the creation of fairy godmothers, we should be talking about how to make the need for fairy godmothers obsolete. 

A focus on revenue suggests that these problems are solvable through particular institutional strategies. While this framing has allowed a small handful of schools to be relative “winners,” the competition among institutions in the chase for revenue has proved incredibly costly, with many of those costs being passed on to students. 

They also cause institutions to take risks looking for outsized rewards. Bold swings like Purdue University’s partnership with Kaplan (Purdue University Global) has now lost over $60 million in its first two full years of operation according to Phil Hill’s reading of the publicly available data.  

Even if major online education plays were available for institutions in search of revenue, there’s very little evidence that they’re anything other than a Hail Mary.

When we look at education through the lens of an ecosystem, meant to serve many with different backgrounds, different needs, and different goals, we can at least begin to understand how to apportion available resources to meet those needs.

That’s the conversation I’d like to have.

I had hoped that we were done with conversations about the “skills gap,” which posited that students were having difficulty finding good paying jobs because they weren’t learning the right things or choosing the right majors while in college. The experience of the labor market following the 2008 recession showed that the problem has always been one of broader macroeconomic conditions, rather than graduating students ill-prepared for the marketplace.

Writing at the Washington Post, Jay Matthews resurrects the “skills gap” corpse through a comically stretched reading of a study by the Strada Education Network, but we should resist the urge to wrestle again with this phantom. 

Preparing students for their futures should absolutely be a focus of higher education institutions, but this preparation is not found in highly specific skills or creating “in-demand” majors.

Consider what has happened to the previously hot major of “petroleum engineer” in a world where oil companies are experiencing a massive contraction in demand. Even if there is an industry rebound, we will have a generation of graduates with their very specific training who were never able to find employment suitable to their training. 

Curriculum must iterate and evolve, but our core mission should be to prepare students for the inevitable uncertainty of the world, rather than stamp them with a credential with a limited utility and uncertain expiration date.

There’s some other conversations I’d like to improve on. Rather than more talk about how to increase the number of tenure track professors as a way to protect the principles of academic freedom, I’d like to see us talking about how to imbue the principles and values of academic freedom into the institution itself so everyone can benefit.

Rather than discussions about how to put more under-represented groups into the “pipeline,” I’d love to see institutions recognize that excellence may look different than the default they’ve become so used to. We need to get rid of the pipeline.

Rather than weighing the effectiveness of online vs. in-person instruction, maybe we can talk about when and for whom these different modes can be employed most effectively. 

I’d also love to have a frank talk about the obvious truth that college athletes in big time football and basketball programs are professionals and the operation of these programs in the midst of an unchecked pandemic is pretty ridiculous. 

Even Coach K. agrees with that.

We need to have these better conversations because we’re running out of time when it comes to putting higher ed on a sustainable trajectory.

I’m hopeful that we can do it. I’m encouraged by the growth around the #RealCollege movement spurred by organizations like the Hope Center for College Community and Justice which has been working to highlight the needs of college students during the pandemic. 

I’m encouraged by coverage in major mainstream publications of the challenges facing institutions that serve working-class students like Indiana University of Pennsylvania. 

I’m encouraged by the growing recognition that cancelling student debt is an appropriate recognition for the fact that we’ve sold two generations a bill of goods on the financial payoff of a college degree.

It’s progress. We need more, but it’s a start.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Monday, January 4, 2021
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Monday, January 4, 2021