Higher Education

higher education's multiple futures #futureEd

I’m participating in Cathy Davidson’s Coursera course on the History and Future of Higher Ed. It’s just week one, so we’ll see how it turns out; the introductory material was, well, introductory. She covers a lot of history (beginning with the invention of writing) to establish our current moment as revolutionary in terms of media/information. There was nothing really surprising there, and it sets up the primary task of the course which is to imagine a future for higher education. In related news, Clay Shirky has a post on “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age, which also makes a familiar argument: that the public funding of higher education has been on decline since the 1970s (and really takes off after the end of the Cold War). Since then we have had a series of rearguard actions trying to preserve a state that cannot work: “Our current difficulties are not the result of current problems. They are the bill coming due for 40 years of trying to preserve a set of practices that have outlived the economics that made them possible.”

In short, it’s a brave new world out there, which we already knew. One might expect Shirky to applaud technological solutions, but he takes a different rhetoric tack: “The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.” I would take this back a step further. Why are all these people going to college? Let’s, for the moment, agree with the premise that we have left behind the “golden age” (and there’s plenty of evidence for that claim). Then we also must leave behind “golden age” values and ambitions (which were only ever fantasies anyway, ubi sunt). In particular, we should leave behind the claims that higher education supports democracy, creates citizens, or otherwise strengthens society by educating better humans. First of all, does anyone actually believe that ever happened in any consistent way? And even if it did, it has only primarily happened for a very small, white, male, and wealthy portion of America. And we all know what great leaders they’ve been of late.

Obviously most students go to college to get a job. Most people view the function of higher education as preparing students for a career. But higher education isn’t really about career preparation, or at best that’s only a small part of what we do. So maybe the answer is that the future of higher education is the expansion of institutions that are willing to respond to the consumer need for job preparation and the shrinking of institutions that will continue to provide a different kind of education that leads toward graduate and professional degrees. Maybe the same university will contain both kinds of institutions as separate colleges. The technical-vocational degree would probably be a kind of terminal certification. It would give you the basic skills needed to get that entry-level college job. Maybe that kind of training is done without much faculty, but with more modestly trained support staff and tutors, along with some masters level faculty. It would be more like a community college but without the community college’s mission of providing entry into 4-year colleges. These institutions could partner with corporations to provide specific kinds of training needed by those businesses. The corporations would underwrite some of the educational costs. In turn, qualified students could go to work for those corporations upon graduation to pay off some of their student debts, like a kind of indentured servitude, but really not that different from paying off student loans today and there’d be job security (only slaves have better job security than indentured servants).

Maybe that modest proposal isn’t to your liking though. I guess the question one has to ask is whether or not students really want to define their education in terms of the job they will get at the end. Because if they do then what they are really doing is defining their education in terms of what corporations want. And my sense of what corporations want is that they want students weeded out and sorted. We can say that higher education underserves many American students, as Shirky claims, but if want they want are jobs, if what they want is what corporate America wants for them, then we aren’t underserving them. They are getting exactly what they want; they are just not happy with the result because they ended up on the sharp end of the stick. Shirky talks about higher education’s desire to stretch out a golden age long after it stopped working. Maybe we are doing the same thing with higher education. When 30% of Americans have four-year degrees then it becomes a pathway to job security and better income. If 50 or 60% of Americans get four-year degrees, do we really think the degree will have the same value? Or will college degrees stop leading to jobs? Or lead to less desirable jobs? The same job you would have had 20 years ago with just a HS diploma.

If you believe that higher education should be a democratizing force that offers opportunity to people, then I agree with you. If you believe that we should offer that opportunity to more people by getting more people into and through college, then I agree with that too. However, I think we have to realize that increasing the number of people who can compete for the opportunities a college education provides will also increase the number of people who lose out on that competition. The future of higher education is that a four-year degree will be less and less valuable every year while simultaneously becoming more expensive because of the increased demand for the degree. I suppose that if you imagine that marketplaces are rational that at some point these things will all even out, though I’m not sure why we need to bring in rationality at this late point.

Shirky believes there is no point in trying to convince governments to increase their funding of higher education, and he points to 40 years of failure in this effort. Maybe he’s right. It does seem to be the case that voters don’t want to make funding higher education an issue. Everyone thinks its important but no one wants to pay for it.

I wish I was more optimistic, as Davidson’s class seems to be. I just can’t get myself there. I see a future with more costly, junk degrees and an increased divide between elite education and what everyone else gets. I think that if you’re in the top 10-20% of first world students, you’ll probably still be able to get a great education at a cost that is reasonable long-term in relation to what you might earn as a future professional. Those are the folks that will go on (for the most part) to do research, run corporations, serve in government, and perform other key professional roles. As for the rest of the population, as long as education is tied to short-term job needs and corporate whims, as long as no one is particularly interested in supporting that education, I don’t see anything great happening. Maybe this Coursera MOOC will change my mind (heh).


7 replies on “higher education's multiple futures #futureEd”

The impossible scenario that this — “If you believe that we should offer that opportunity to more people by getting more people into and through college, then I agree with that too. However, I think we have to realize that increasing the number of people who can compete for the opportunities a college education provides will also increase the number of people who lose out on that competition.” — presents, borders on being a koan. And koans are frustrating.

In another one of your posts (the next one, or one after that…), you allude to this idea of dispersed means to getting this large number of people what it is that they want — namely a job. But after we’ve weeded out the badge-getters and the vocational-ed pursuers, who do we have left attending college? (I guess that I am just landing here in the no-future for brick-and-mortar institutions of higher ed, but since I don’t believe in that inevitability, I am working with the assumption that there are those who will still pursue a more traditional degree route. Just like there are people who still listen to the radio and read print texts). What is it that we say we offer, if not that creation of a strong, democratic citizenry of engaged critical thinkers that, as you point out, has not consistently happened? And more importantly, how do we not create a kind of elitist, classes division between those who pay for the brick-and-mortar and those who attain certificates or badges at a much lesser cost?

Koans can only create circular thinking, so I realize that there is no solution to all of this — otherwise, there would be no need for a MOOC like #FutureEd, I guess.


Without being too cynical, I hope, it’s only frustrating for the people who don’t succeed. So my institution admits around 3200 students and graduates 2200 of them in six years (70% graduation rate). If we admitted 4000 and graduated 2500, would that be an improvement? Or would it be better to admit 2600 and graduate 2000?

Or here’s a different angle. Let’s take the B-average high school student who attends a regional state college. She gets weeded out of the professional degree program she wants (because she’s never performed well as a student) and ends up with a 2.8 GPA and a liberal arts BA of some kind. With some 20 million full and part-time students in the US right now, I’d bet there are millions of students who graduate each year who fit this general description. Is our objective to have a couple million more? Or do we imagine there is a way to take these students, who have never done well in math, dislike writing, and have avoided science as much as possible over their entire educational careers and transform them into professionals that demand these skills?

I don’t mind students coming to college in pursuit of some career. My concern is the equation of the degree with a job. Not every student gets into the best schools. Not every student gets into the most desirable major. Not every student does well in college, even if they end up with a degree. And not every student gets a good job as a result.

Are those problems we need to fix?

I know we don’t like the word “elitist,” even though every college is striving to be “elite.” But higher education is meant to be meritocratic at some point, right? We identify the best students and send them to graduate schools. Employers are obviously looking for the best possible employees. More mundanely we give grades based on performance. There is no doubt that the system has built-in injustices and that the social problems surrounding ethnicity, gender, class, and so on do not magically disappear when one steps on campus.

However, I wonder if there is a problem with the basic principle that higher education seeks to identify and reward the students it defines as “best.” And if there isn’t, then how many “best” students can there possibly be?


The questions you ask at the end are so tough. Another koan. I actually meant that these quandaries are frustrating to faculty members and others who work to make higher education a “better place” (for whatever that means) — and that is not to say that it’s not frustrating for students in exactly the way that you frame it here.

And when you ask those “would it be better” questions in the beginning of your response, the next question has to be, “for whom?” Generally for admin (at least at my institution) enrollment trumps most other things (even, seemingly at times, graduation rates). I guess all of this points to the not-so-secret issue that so many of us working in higher education are scared to face — and that is our jobs drying up. If we effectively (and honestly, as you’re pointing out) disconnect the degree = job (not that the public hasn’t already figured this out…), then what are going to be able to sell? And who will buy it? And then, the inevitable, what will happen to our jobs? Again, the public has already figured out that the degree = job promise isn’t all that it’s made out to be; however, if higher ed were to be a lot more explicit in confirming that, then we’d really have our potential population running scared. And like I said earlier, I don’t think that this kind of sifting and dispersing of a potential student population would necessarily mean the end of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, but like every other industry that has seen such monumental shifts occur, only a few will be left standing (Barnes and Noble, amazon, The New York Times (for now…), and so on…).

You’re right — we don’t have control over the economy that actually controls us. So I guess that all we have control over is how we teach within that economy, which means teaching to that economy, and I am not sure how we do that without it equating to job training.

I’d like to think that my belief in the importance of a college education (and for me this also means a liberal arts education) isn’t merely some archaic ideal that I hold for fear of not having a career. The #FutureEd thing for me is about figuring out a way to articulate that importance in this contemporary moment.


I find the education crisis a little hard to fathom. In some ways it has to do with what we imagine we should be. There are 800 more 4-year colleges now than in 1980, about a 40% increase. Nearly half a million more people, a 38% increase, got college degrees in 2010-11 than in 2000-01. There are more people in college now than ever and many more who want in but can’t find a seat.

Yes college is more expensive than ever. Yes, with more admissions we get more dropouts and more people who get degrees and don’t find jobs. Yes there are social pressures for higher education to deliver on the American Dream.

I think that if you’re a professor in STEM or business, you aren’t overly concerned about your profession disappearing, especially if you are at one of the top 10-20% (say 600 or so) 4-year colleges in the US. On the other hand, if you are in the arts, humanities, or social sciences, you might have reason to be concerned.

As a rhetorician I float in a space in and around those liberal arts fields, but rhetoric has always been as comfortable in the pragmatic marketplace as it has in the courtroom, the senate, or the seminar room, which is to say that everyone sees us as a necessary evil. I agree that the liberal arts need to discover their relevance for the contemporary moment. That has to be a question about how those disciplines will change, not how the world will change. In my experience with my colleagues, they would rather go down with the ship than change. And who am I to deny them their moment of martyrdom?


“…what are going to be able to sell? And who will buy it?”

If this was in my marketing courses they’d talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’m sure other disciplines have similar theories. In this model, you’re selling self-actualization before the students have dealt with security issues (employment). Vocational training on the other hand speaks directly to where the students are at: securing stable employment.

In that context, maybe the question is structural. You’re simply pushing something at the wrong time in the students life. They aren’t ready to hear that sort of message.

If you believe the hierarchy, ideally you’d want to sell liberal arts to married homeowners with stable jobs. That’s the point where people ought to be ready to seek that sort of education, at least according to the model. Perhaps it’s the middle managers in their 30s who need exposure to the liberal arts, rather than the 18 year olds. Come to think of it, aren’t those the people creating half the problems anyway?

Terrible background for the picture, so I’ll label it here: Top blue = self actualization, purple = esteem, teal = love/belonging, red = safety, and orange = physiological.


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