We’re no good, we’re no good!
We’re no earthly good,
Like the best of us is no damn good!
The trouble is he’s crazy.
The trouble is he drinks.
The trouble is he’s lazy.
The trouble is he stinks.
The trouble is he’s growing.
The trouble is he’s grown.
Krupke, we got troubles of our own!
Gee, Officer Krupke,
We’re down on our knees,
‘Cause no one wants a fellow with a social disease.
– “Gee, Officer Krupke,” West Side Story, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein.
In my last post, I listed the large range of readings I’ve absorbed on the subject of the crisis in American  higher education. And I offered to follow up with a post of commentary on that literature. Here it is.
Opinions about the ills of American higher education are almost as diverse as the causes of juvenile delinquency in 1957, when West Side Story was first produced. The consequences of this diversity are important, as I’ll discuss in this survey. The field of criticism is simply vast; much of it is repetitive. My aim here is to highlight some prominent themes as a foundation for an informed discussion among concerned citizens. It pays to think critically about the mountain of research and opinion: along the way I will comment on the critics and their criticisms. Some overarching conclusions are that:
· There is a crisis in higher education in America. Academicians love to mince words; but whether you call it a crossroads, crunch, climacteric, critical situation, or crisis, virtually no one thinks that the present situation is acceptable or that it is likely to get better. What is at issue are the dimensions of the crisis, their materiality and priority, and who is accountable.
· No stakeholder in higher education escapes unscathed. There is plenty of blame to go around. A sophisticated reading of the field entails knowing who is bringing what interests to the debate. Many stakeholders don’t seem to recognize the plurality of claims and interests; and, many amount to single-issue advocates, which complicates the conversation.
· The criticism of higher ed varies enormously in quality. The best material is very well-researched, objective, exquisitely-written, and guides the intelligent reader to reasonable conclusions. The worst material is superficial, wreathed in betrayal and polemic in nature, like being yelled at for 200 pages. Such critics will tell you your house is on fire, but not where to point the fire hose to good effect. See the just-previous blog post for an annotated list of books and articles on which this commentary draws (references to books are given in numbers, to articles in alphabet.)
At the end of it all, most objective observers would conclude that American higher education faces a “wicked problem”: restoring the effectiveness of American higher education and putting it on a sound and sustainable path entails reaching some alignment on the causes of the crisis, who is accountable, and where are the points of greatest leverage for setting things right. Even the notion of “right” invites a debate about who should decide what is “right” and how? Given what one can read about the problem it is no wonder that boards of trustees, professors, administrators, journalists, public officials, students, parents, and other stakeholders are pulling in different directions.
Overview of the Field
Higher education in America is big business, so to speak. As of 2012, there were 4,706 colleges and universities for whom students were eligible to receive federally-funded financial aid. In 2011, these schools had 21 million students enrolled, or 5.7% of the US population. According to the National Science Foundation, total spending on tertiary education was 3.1% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2007—though not the largest industry in America, it is very influential on culture, growth, and innovation.
Higher education is highly segmented. Of the 4,706 schools, prominent rankings pay attention to about 10%. For instance, US News & World Report covers only 300 universities and 250 liberal arts colleges. An even smaller percentage of schools are deemed “research-intensive”: only 60 U.S. universities and two Canadian universities belong to the prestigious American Association of Universities, a group of leading research institutions. Smaller numbers of schools are regarded as “selective” in their admissions or have sizeable financial endowments. Other dimensions on which to subdivide the field are public/private, religious/secular, four-year/two-year, etc. This means that the reader should be wary of generalizations across the entire field. One size does not fit all.
For instance, the view of many observers is that the crisis in higher education will not substantially threaten the “elite” schools (top-ranked, best endowed, most selective, etc.) or the community colleges. Rather, it will have its greatest impact in the big middle ranks of the field.  I have blogged before on the problem of being “Stuck in the Middle.” But others (see ) predict that that regional publics, like James Madison University, are in the best position to grow and adjust to changing demographics and financial constraints.
Dimensions of the Crisis in American Higher Education
The evidence of a crisis is hard to ignore. It seems to be material, pervasive, and increasing. Observers will argue about facts, research methodologies and conclusions. Cast your eyes down the following points and decide for yourself:
· Dropout rates. Barely more than a third of students who start a degree program finish it. Ranking America concluded, “According to the OECD, the United States had a tertiary (college and university) graduation rate of 36.5% in 2007. This rate was low enough for the United States to rank fifteenth out of 30 countries in this category. Iceland ranks first with a tertiary graduation rate of 63.1%.”  Even for the field at large, the US lags in the ability of higher education to produce graduates at the Bachelor’s degree level.
· Vaulting cost of attendance and rising student debt. Tuition has been rising at rates well in excess of inflation for 30 years. The price of a four-year college education averages more than $100,000 and is forecasted to exceed $250,000 by 2025. The class of 2013 graduated with an average of $35,200 in debt per student—the face value of all student debt now exceeds $1 trillion. 
· Disappointing learning. Recent reports of research of what students actually learn in college show scant gains in writing and analytical skills. Richard Arun and Josipa Roksa  found that 45% of college students made no gain in writing, complex reasoning, or critical thinking during their first two years in college; by graduation, that percentage was still high: 36%. They wrote, “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”
· Rising vocationalism and low employment. Increasingly, students come to colleges and universities out of a desire to get a job, rather than an education. Yet, in recent years new college graduates have not found the employment they hoped to gain. One assessment claimed that “53% of recent college grads are jobless or underemployed.”  High unemployment should always be a concern to civic and corporate leaders—but do current unemployment levels presage a secular worsening of employment among college graduates, or are they an artifact of the Panic of 2008 and the Great Recession?
· Declining public support and bad press. The long term trend of declining government support for higher education in America mirrors worsening public opinion: one survey interviewee said, “Higher education has been knocked off the pedestal of public opinion in recent years because of the perception that colleges are not doing enough to innovate and keep costs low for students.” 
· Leadership turmoil. Public friction and instability among top leadership is a classic sign of stress in an enterprise. In 2014, University of Texas—Austin witnessed a fight between the President versus the Chancellor of the UT system, and the Governor of Texas. Prominent universities including Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Wisconsin have seen their leaders retire or resign under pressure from boards of trustees. In 2012, University of Virginia witnessed a similar resignation under pressure—and then a reinstatement. The average tenure of a college or university president fell from 8.5 years in 2006 to 7 years in 2011. 
· Worsening finances, bond ratings, and state support. Moody’s [Q] recently issued a report questioning the financial viability of many colleges and universities. Revenue growth for many schools is nil or negative: net tuition is expected to decline at a quarter of all schools; in 2013 net tuition was flat or declining for three quarters of public colleges and three-fifths of private colleges, and most schools feel unprepared for MOOCs and other digital technology.
· Winner-take-all economics. In a previous blog post (“Higher Education When Winners Take All”) I presented a range of data showing a highly asymmetric distribution among schools of a range of outcomes such as research grants, pricing, endowment wealth, and stature. It seems that the rich keep getting richer. Perhaps this means that the sunny results for American higher education accrue from a small number of elite universities and are not characteristic of the entire population—this has led Kevin Carey [F] and others to conclude that “Americans think we have the best colleges. We don’t.”
· Exits and disruptive entrants: Instability or displacement of many competitors is another classic indicator of turmoil. Annually, we see only a small percentage of schools closing their doors or merging with other institutions, typically for reasons of financial failure. Antioch College was one prominent example, closing in 2008 and then reopening in 2011. Incumbents may be experiencing a share-of-market displacement with new entrants in higher ed. The appearance of for-profit schools (e.g., Phoenix, Corinthian, Kaplan) and online competitors (e.g., Coursera, Udemy) challenge conventional models. Amanda Ripley wrote in Time, “Elite universities…are unlikely to go away in the near future, as even Udacity’s co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens concedes. “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” he says. There a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”…It seems likely that very selective—and very unselective—colleges will continue to thrive…The colleges in the middle, though—especially the for-profit ones that are expensive but not particularly prestigious—will need to work harder to justify their costs. Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all their distractions of higher education—the brand, the price and the facilities—and remind all of us that education is about learning.”([S], p. 41.) Of course, stripping away the distractions may strip away important avenues of student learning and growth, through leadership opportunities, socialization, deep engagement with faculty, and so on.
On their own, the dimensions of the crisis are serious enough. But, these dimensions have spillover effects of possibly greater concern. Given the association between education and social mobility, civic engagement, productivity, income equality, and employment, the stagnation and/or disruption of American higher education could adversely affect the fabric of American society.
The Paradox: Looks Good, Feels Bad
Can all this be true? Yes, though there are conflicting opinions on the severity of the crisis. Chait and First [I] give a rather bullish perspective on the outlook for private colleges. Cole  lauds the strengths of America’s research universities. Rosovsky  attributes the sense of crisis to exaggerated expectations, nostalgia, and difficult times. On the other hand, Selingo [T] presents some rather downbeat survey results of presidents of colleges and universities, folks who probably have a better inside view than anyone. The paradox is this: higher education in America is criticized on so many dimensions, yet it garners a very high return on investment for students (see my earlier blog post, “The ROI on One’s Own Higher Education”), students who are willing to pay high and rising prices, incredible philanthropic support, the most selective admissions, high levels of satisfaction among many alumni, and the highest rankings in the world. Former President of Harvard, Derek Bok,  wrote,
How can writers condemn our colleges so harshly if students, parents, and graduates value them so highly? On this point, the authors are silent. Whether they are simply unaware of student opinion or consider undergraduates incompetent to judge…they fail to explain why those attending college do not complain more loudly. Are the critics right and the students wrong? Or is it the reverse? Or are both right or both wrong? (p.7)
How you look at Bok’s paradox invites a range of remedies. Consider five possibilities:
1. Fraud. Perhaps there is a “vast conspiracy” to dupe constituents on all fronts. Conspiracy theorists might argue that the lovely outcomes would disappear were all parties to fully understand the true state of things. In the belief that sunlight is the best disinfectant, they will lobby for external reports, benchmarking, more rankings, and even government inspection and accreditation. The intensifying focus of government on the for-profit institutions seems justified in terms of billions of dollars in government-subsidized student loans and recent news reports about very low graduation rates and inflated promises. But can a focus on the not-for-profit institutions be far behind? Touted remedies: more regulatory reporting, standards, and jail for fraudsters.
2. Bad thinking. A second possibility is cognitive error on the part of various stakeholders. For instance, perhaps students are irrational in their consumption of educational services. Research has documented a host of behavioral influences on decision-making that cause consumers, investors, managers, and employees to deviate from rational decision-making. By this argument, some will suggest that government should intervene to direct students, faculty, and capital to their proper places. Touted remedies: Behavioral guidance for the decision-making of students and parents; more regulation for institutions.
3. Uncertainty: education is risky; and courses and schools are not easy substitutes for each other. To some extent constituents engage in a discovery process about their preferred habitats in the field: some students ought to study cosmology at a leading research university; other students should study cosmetology at a trade school or community college. If students and schools pair up in the wrong way, one or both will be unhappy. Not all career paths beyond school are equally remunerative. Plus, students will change their minds as they mature and learn. No school guarantees graduation or employment because these depend heavily on student effort and ability and on market conditions. Recent data on trends may be skewed by the Panic of 2008 and Great Recession. Is the recent record on employment temporary or permanent? Touted remedies: more risk-reduction and safety nets for students.
4. Complexity: colleges and universities have grown in size and in mission reach. This makes it hard to understand the institutions or to make wise decisions. Touted remedies: simplification, streamlining, cut non-core activities, fire administrators and faculty, ditch tenure, etc. The more radical critics advocate simply letting the system implode and rebuilding it anew.
5. The “Old Normal.” Since at least the 12th Century, higher education has always been this way, with some variation through time. Periodic upheavals are followed by periods of silent advancement. When hasn’t higher ed been in a crisis of some kind? The “new normal” is really the “old normal.” Remedies: let the schools figure it out; they’ll eventually adapt in appropriate ways.
There is evidence to support all of these explanations for Bok’s paradox. This guarantees a bubbling stew of controversy.
Who is accountable for this crisis?
The sense of many critics is that if we can identify the parties accountable for this crisis, the remedies should become clearer and the miscreants held accountable. The mass of writers (see the suggested readings in the previous blog post) focus especially on eleven targets. In the discussion that follows, I’ll simply cite an author’s last name and a number [X] to point the interested reader to a particular source.
1. It’s the professors’ fault. In 1988, Charles Sykes  sparked a firestorm of criticism of the professoriate for inattention to students, laziness, self-serving behavior, infidelity to the missions of their institutions, problems with academic tenure and the caste system of professorial ranks. Sykes marshals an abundance of foibles, facts, and outrages. But he over-reaches with a polemic style and questionable causation. Kingsley Amis  lampoons the agonies of a junior faculty member going through the tenure decision—in the end, “Lucky Jim” is fortunate in that he doesn’t get tenure and therefore won’t spend his career in the company of petty and vindictive colleagues. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus  describe a professoriate that is simply sour on the work they do: “Though often exceptionally well paid and able to exercise more control over their lives than the members of practically any other profession, college and university professors often express surprisingly low levels of job satisfaction…Whether we were in Berkeley or Boston, the talk was similar: the students are semi-literate; the school’s president is anti-intellectual; the new parking rules are inequitable; and there’s this boorish colleague who filibusters at meetings. At the end of the day, this strange little world often alienates the genuinely smart and idealistic.” Less polemic and more research-based are Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa  who document a decline in student learning and write that, “many students have been left academically adrift on today’s campuses. The typical student meets with faculty outside of the classroom only once per month, with 9 percent of students never meeting with faculty…their inflated ambitions and high aspirations have not institutionally been met by equivalently high academic demands from their professors, nor have many of them found a sense of academic purpose or academic commitment at contemporary colleges.” (pgs. 88-89) Arum and Roksa explain, “when faculty have high expectations and expect students to read and write reasonable amounts, students learn more. In addition, when students report that they have taken a class in which they had to read more than forty pages a week and write more than twenty pages over the course of a semester, they also report spending more time studying; more than two additional hours per week than students who do not have to meet such requirements. Thus, requiring that students attend to their class work has the potential to shape their actions in ways that are conducive to their intellectual development.” (p. 119) Teaching is not the whole focus of most professors. David Damrosch  focused his critique on the research mission of the faculty. He argues that professors produce a great deal of work oriented mainly toward a narrow circle of other professors. This specialization is costly, in terms of social isolation, organizational dysfunction, and alienation. It was not always thus in universities. He calls for a return to more collaborative, integrative, and interdisciplinary engagement within the scholarly community. Louis Menand  points to the “professionalization” of faculty, who identify more with the research mission of their discipline than with the welfare of their students. Gerald Graff  indicts professors for rendering their audiences “clueless” by failing to communicate well to those outside academe. Former Princeton President, Harold T. Shapiro , and former Harvard Dean, Harry R. Lewis , suggest that faculty and administrators have forgotten or been distracted from their foundational obligations to build the character of their students.
2. It’s the administrators’ fault. Financial problems and mission drift are due to “administrative aggrandizement,” according to Benjamin Ginsberg . This professor at Johns Hopkins points to the rising number of administrators per student, rising costs, proliferation of bureaucracy, decline of faculty governance and autonomy, and spread of left-wing political correctness or right-wing corporatism. He notes that in 1975 there were 250,000 university administrators; by 2005, the number had grown to 750,000, eclipsing the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty. Administrators are the principal stewards of a university’s resources. Therefore the spiraling costs must point to the failure of administrative leadership—thus says Richard Vedder , a prominent economic critic. But William J. Baumol  presents a counterpoint: maybe universities suffer from a “cost disease” in which expenses perennially rise faster than inflation because of the labor intensity of their activities. Productivity improvements are difficult because schools are like string quartets: after 400 years, it still takes four performers to play a Haydn quartet. Another charge against administrators is that they focus too much on safe and sustaining investments rather than grappling with larger and riskier opportunities. Clayton Christensen coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” in which great firms decline by “aggressively investing in the products and services that the most profitable customers want” ( p. xxiv) and thereby fail to invest in the new disruptive products that the next generation of customers want—Christensen suggests that such products tend to be better in some respect (cheaper, simpler, smaller, more convenient) but may not be consistent with the mind-set of prevailing customers. But in industry after industry, disruptive innovations worm their way in, grow, and eventually dominate—higher ed seems ripe for disruption. On the other hand, enthusiastic application of the concept of “disruptive innovation” to a variety of fields has drawn the cogent criticism of Jill Lepore [P]. Nevertheless, transformative impact of digital communication seems likely to collide with the immutability of traditional service delivery in higher education. Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring  argue a larger point, well beyond technological disruption: most colleges and universities are spending their resources inappropriately, trying to emulate Harvard and other elite research universities, in pursuit of rising prestige. They argue that the solution is to shed the superstructure of high-end research and refocus on the core teaching mission of higher education. The larger point is that administrators have succumbed to an “arm’s race” in spending, or like a game of musical chairs to see who can outlast the others, as resources become more constrained.
3. It’s the students’ fault. Tom Wolfe  portrays college as four years of entertainment, alcohol, and, well, fornication—students aren’t mature enough to demand anything more like an immersion in ideas, growth in critical thinking, or a transformational learning experience. In the opening pages of Wolfe’s novel, a character calls DuPont University a “MasterCard” implying a device for immediate gratification with deferred payment—this is a theme presaged by David Reisman  who decried rising student “consumerism.” What should students demand? Derek Bok  surveys the dismal record of student learning over the past few decades. And he offers a profile of a great college education: learning to communicate, learning to think, building character, preparing for citizenship, living with diversity, preparing for a global society, acquiring broader interests, and preparing for a career. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa  write that the amount of time students spend in class and studying has fallen from around 40 hours per week in the 1960s to 27 hours per week recently. (pg. 3) They write, “Many students have come to believe that they ‘should enjoy their college social life since they will obtain a great job and salary after graduation.’ This stems from their expectation that they will be employed soon after graduation and that all they need to secure that employment is a college degree.” (p. 88). Perhaps the rising vocational focus of students today reflects a generational shift in culture—and it is the reaction to their environment. Perhaps this begins during the college admissions sweepstakes: Lloyd Thacker  writes of a “student-unfriendly marketplace” characterized by marketeering of education, rankings, “customerization” of students, radical use of financial aid to boost schools’ admissions yields, consultants, test-preps, falsification of applications, and out-of-control parents. William J. Bennett and David Wilezol  sustain the view that the value of getting a degree is not what it used to be and that too many people are going to universities when what they should be doing is going to vocational or technical schools.
4. It’s the fault of the alums. Graduates of a school form a powerful constituency of influence and philanthropy. They shape and amplify public opinion when the school is both doing well and when it isn’t. Rarely do they speak with one voice, for instance: young vs. old, domestic vs. international, quants vs. poets, East Coast vs. West Coast—in consequence, they can give conflicting advice to institutional leaders. And some may want to preserve the institution as they knew it at a certain moment and therefore can impede the adaptation of a school to its changing times. Just as often, they want their friends and children to enjoy access to the experience they had. As Henry Rosovsky  describes with candor, schools respond to alumni demands for legacy favoritism in admissions in hopes of reaping donations—a similar pressure can come from government officials toward state schools.  Legacy policies have drawn powerful criticism in recent years as promoting cronyism, bias, and worsening economic inequality in America. 
5. It’s the failure of boards of trustees and their governance. Jeffrey Selingo  faults the “mission creep” of many universities: Trustees succumb to the expansive ambitions of administrators and the lure of greater prestige. The failure of governance perhaps presages the replacement of entire institutions, says Harold Shapiro —he asserts that the test should be the ability of an institution to “articulate and meet society’s evolving needs.” Perhaps the model of governance of universities is outdated: John Sexton, President of NYU, said, “There are 85 institutions in the world today that exist as they did 500 years ago. [These are] the English Parliament, the Papacy, eight Swiss cantons—and of the 75 remaining, 70 are universities.”  Henry Rosovsky wrote that decision-making is not necessarily improved by making it more democratic: “There are basic differences between the rights of citizenship in a nation and the risks that are attained by joining a voluntary organization…rights and responsibilities in universities should reflect the length of commitment to the institution…in a university, those with knowledge are entitled to a greater say…To function well, a hierarchical system of governance requires explicit mechanism of consultation and accountability.” ( p. 265) These are themes that University of Virginia confronted in the events of June, 2012. I have blogged about the importance of consultation and accountability (“To Fight for the Truth,” and “The Importance of Governance and Consultation”). Even Moody’s, the credit rating agency, opined that the UVA episode presages governance pressures in higher education: “For the US higher education sector overall, we expect governance and leadership clashes to increase in coming years as the sector’s ability to grow revenues dwindles, and its emphasis shifts to new operating efficiencies and cost containment. On-line learning technologies will play an increasing role in creating new efficiencies and lowering cost per student.” (Italics added.)
6. It’s the fault of corporations and vocationalism. Andrew Delbanco , Mark Edmundson  and Martha Nussbaum  decry the narrow vocational focus with which many students enter higher education. They argue that vocationalism stifles critical thinking, self-discovery, and curiosity-driven learning—and it prompts an intense focus on getting grades and jobs as opposed to an education. In a classic essay, Alfred North Whitehead  warned that an over-emphasis on technical skills crowds out and ability to lead, direct, and think broadly. The private sector has engaged with universities ever more intensively since World War II, to harvest the bonanza of inventions, to hire the talented graduates, to gain advice, and to win popular approval through philanthropy. This has the effect of influencing student career agendas, curricula, research initiatives, university strategies, faculty hiring plans, endowment investments, and the stance of objectivity and independence of the university in society. It is feared that “corporatism” could divert the university away from its core educational mission toward seeking a profit from teaching, research, and other academic pursuits. Introduction of profit-seeking into colleges and universities may create a conflict of interest: make money versus terminate that failing student, the marginal degree program, or that valued student service. As early as 1918, elements of these fears were articulated by the eminent economist, Thorstein Veblen . Derek Bok  writes, “If there is an intellectual confusion in the academy that encourages commercialization, it is a confusion over means rather than ends. To keep profit-seeking within reasonable bounds, a university must have a clear sense of the values needed to pursue its goals with a high degree of quality and integrity.” (p.6) One could add that government can have a similar influence on the objectivity and independence of universities through the disposition of largess in support of research, diversity, or various other social ends.
7. It’s the fault of big-time athletics. Division I schools allocate a substantial stream of resources toward athletics, and supposedly away from academics. At these schools, football and basketball coaches can earn in excess of $1 million per year, dwarfing the compensation of virtually everyone else on campus.  The investment in plant and equipment is considerable. In return, the schools look to receive broadcast revenues. But as Derek Bok writes , “the mounting costs of maintaining a competitive athletic program have made it difficult for universities to achieve real financial success from major sports. Although many Division I schools claim to make money on their football and basketball programs, many do not, especially if the capital costs of their facilities are accurately counted.” (p.38) And again, “There is no reliable evidence that successful athletic teams raise state appropriations or alumni giving to any appreciable extent.” (p. 50) A recent study by Moody’s [R] reported that 90% of athletic programs at universities require subsidies. And periodic athletic scandals remind one of how distorting a powerful athletic program can be. Paul Barrett [B] reported, that at UNC “the university’s own internal reviews and investigations—limited though they’ve been—have shown that since the 1990s, football and basketball players have been steered into fake “paper classes” that didn’t meet. Grades were routinely altered without authorization, and faculty signatures were forged.” Novelist Tom Wolfe  argues that university athletes are ‘hired’ for the sports business and are not students in a conventional sense. Leon Botstein [D] calls universities a “farm team for professional sports.”
8. It’s the fault of government. Gene Block [C], Chancellor of UCLA, noted that per-student government funding at UCLA fell 60% between 1992 and 2012. The only alternative to tuition increases would have been cutbacks in classes, which would have adversely affected access and graduation rates. Declining government support for higher education has shifted the burden of education from taxpayers to students. Subsequently, Federal government loans to students vaulted to more than $1 trillion. Recently, some regulators proposed rubrics for rating colleges and universities as a condition for eligibility for student loans—here, the criticisms of Diane Ravitch  about standards of evaluation for K-12 schools may become relevant to higher education: such rubrics imperfectly measure learning; and can warp the incentives for teachers and administrators.
9. It’s the fault (or promise) of technologists and/or their technology. The incredible rise of information technology in the past three decades is associated with dramatic strains in American society. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz  studied the stagnating growth rate in American productivity and conclude that it is due in part to “skills-based technological change.” The American workforce has not adjusted rapidly enough to changing technology, thus sidelining parts of the workforce in terms of employment, income, and mobility. This is a message amplified by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee  and Jaron Lanier : new technology threatens to hollow out the middle class. Have educational institutions kept pace with the vaulting advancements in information technology? Probably not. Techno-optimists have turned to higher education with the enthusiasm they brought to K-12 education. A few years ago, Clayton Christensen  turned his attention to disruptive innovation in K-12 education in the U.S. He advocates a turn to “student-centric” educational methods that rely on computer-based learning and the “flipped classroom” in which standardized teaching is abandoned in favor of a more tailored, tutorial approach. But Sherry Turkle  raises a concern relevant to higher education: what if something important, such as deep conversation, is lost in the digitization of human interaction? Last winter, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “MOOCs made no significant inroads in the past year in the existing credentialing system in higher education, calling into question whether they will be as disruptive to the status quo as some observers first thought Still, academic leaders remain worried that “credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.”  Critics also fear the disruption in potential layoffs and school closings as curricula get digitized; even among elite universities there resides a fear that multi-device delivery of instruction will displace the person-to-person learning experience that has been the hallmark of university education for centuries. In previous posts, I have explored the potential and criticisms of digital technology in higher education (“Yes We Have No Nirvanas: The Arms Race in Online Ed,” “New Technology, B-Schools, and Darwin” and “The Frontier of Technology and the Educational Experience”). I prefer to think that technology can augment the learning experience if used wisely, but that it is yet very early in the regime shift that technology will cause and therefore is too early to tell whether our hopes or fears are justified.
10. It’s the fault of foreigners. It is suggested that globalization is altering the ability of higher education to fulfill its mission. The cross-border mobility of students, faculty, and staff has grown markedly over the past decades. Bruner  and Wildavsky  document rising mobility, globalization of American schools, and emergence of strong foreign schools contenting for top global rankings. And the traffic goes both ways: NYU has opened a campus in Abu Dhabi; Yale has founded a sibling school in Singapore. Globalization requires financial capital, and more importantly, greater attention from faculty and administrators—perhaps globalization is diverting resources from the core. Perhaps it indicates mission creep. In the view of some, this has put pressure on access to American colleges and universities—in a recent article, David Leonhardt [N] suggested that access to American schools has grown harder because “colleges are more globalized.” In my own blog post on the subject (see “The Case for International Students”) I look at the facts and conclude that globalization is a net benefit to higher education and American society.
11. It’s the fault of the elites. The leitmotif of the preceding ten points is distrust in leaders. Are the elites really worth it? No doubt about it: for the past 15 years, America has been a simmering stew of populist reaction against executives, elected officials, the cognoscenti, and/or the wealthy. Think of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Or think of the anger at the response to Hurricane Katrina, Iraq/WMD, the Panic of 2008, or the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. At record lows recently are confidence in President Obama (24%) and the U.S. Congress (14%). And the pay of academic leaders is a perennial piñata. But the market for talent in academia is pretty competitive; and faculty and staff members tend to sort themselves into different institutions by many attributes including talent, inclination, a sense of “calling,” and work ethic. Pay in academia is highly segmented by areas of expertise, experience, merit, and type of school. It’s not a perfect market, but generally, schools get the talent that they are willing to pay for. And one size does not fit all. If you want a top research university, you’ll have to pay the price. Academia survives on transparency and debate and therefore is an easy target for the populists’ anger. My take on all of this is that academic leaders should do a better job of building trust in themselves and their institutions.
Gee, Officer Krupke
The juvenile delinquents’ song in West Side Story isn’t really a plea for help from Officer Krupke; it’s an ironic satire about their critics. Each critic says what’s wrong, and then places the boys in someone else’s lap. The kids are just getting passed around by advocates of different remedies. Yet the problem continues. Reading the critics of American higher education prompts a similar sentiment.
The crisis in American higher education classifies as a “wicked problem,” which Wikipedia says is, “a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term, “wicked,” is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”
The prominent weakness of the critics is their failure to address the “wickedness” of the crisis: the incomplete and contradictory facts, the interdependence of effects and the strong resistance to obvious remedies. As H. L. Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” To assert that everything will be fine if we just fire some administrators or eliminate tenure or invest in technology or cut research funding is simply boneheaded. We have to tackle the interdependencies within the wicked problem in a coordinated manner. This requires alignment among stakeholders. As in West Side Story, so it is among the critics of higher education: there is little alignment.
Not long ago, a colleague from another department came to see me about all of this. In the course of the conversation, he asked, “How much worse could it get?” The proper answer is, “plenty.” But the path is highly uncertain. An analysis of companies and industries that have endured a regime shift shows wide variance in outcomes—perhaps their examples can offer some insights about the way ahead. On that theme I hope to give some additional comments in the future.
- In this discussion, I focus mainly on America for the sake of focus and brevity. [↩]
- See “Trouble in the Middle,” Economist, November 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/21532269. [↩]
- http://rankingamerica.wordpress.com/?s=college+graduation+rate. [↩]
- Data drawn from Matthews, “Tuition is Too Damn High” Washington Post, September 3, 2013. [↩]
- The Atlantic, April 23, 2012 http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/53-of-recent-college-grads-are-jobless-or-underemployed-how/256237/. [↩]
- See “Public Opinion of Higher Education Continues Downward Slide” http://chronicle.com/article/Public-Opinion-of-Higher/64217/. [↩]
- Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 2012. http://agb.org/knowledge-center/faq/what-average-tenure-college-or-university-president. [↩]
- For instance, see, “Texas Admissions Brawl,” Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2014. http://online.wsj.com/articles/texas-admissions-brawl-1404947400. [↩]
- See, for instance, “Should Colleges Consider Legacies in the Admissions Process?” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204653604577249230164868846. [↩]
- Joel Trachtenberg,  pages 3-4. [↩]
- See “Is Your State’s Highest-Paid Employee a Coach? (Probably)” in Wall Street Journal. http://deadspin.com/infographic-is-your-states-highest-paid-employee-a-co-489635228. [↩]
- “Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise, Survey Finds,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24, 2014, pg A17. http://chronicle.com/article/Doubts-About-MOOCs-Continue-to/144007/. [↩]