Imagining a Sustainable Model of Higher Education

by Staff Writers

I want to state right up front that I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue an affordable (or free) college education. I believe that the benefits of having a more educated population far outweigh any monetary costs. I'd be willing to support almost any initiative that made higher education universally available. I am not saying or implying, however, that the system we currently employ is the best or even a viable one. In fact, the current model may be unsustainable in the long term. Here's why.

A System Established for Elite Education

We've taken an educational system that catered to elite scholars and applied it across the modern population (Marquis, 2011). Our system dates back to the age when one established scholar worked closely with a select few students to develop deep and meaningful knowledge in a very specific discipline. It was a relationship much closer to apprenticeship than the large format, lecture-based courses that are prevalent in our universities today. What we have done with the expansion of this elitist system in order to make it universal (Clark, Gade & Kawoaka, 1994), is to water down education in order to spread it over more learners. So each student receives far less individual attention and ultimately does not achieve the same level of learning that might be possible under a different system.

Matching Form and Function

What exactly is the intended function of contemporary American higher education – Vocational training? Developing lifelong intellectual interests? Conducting research? Match making? Providing a venue for partying? Producing professional athletes? Making connections for future employment?

I think that there is a lack of focus in much of the higher education landscape. There are distinct foci in many liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and elite, Ivy League-type institutions, but for the public university, this focus seems largely lacking at the undergraduate level. How can we know if university education is effective if it is unclear what the desired outcome is? It is a very realistic possibility that, by attempting to cater to the masses, higher education has lost focus on its greatest societal benefit and what really matters – learning. I argue that the diffuse nature of the higher education audience, and the general expectation that most or all 18-year-olds will attend college, has created a system with far too many functions to be met by the limited number of forms currently available.

Essentially we have taken a system designed for a very few individuals and expanded it to cover everyone. Not only is this unrealistic from a pedagogical standpoint, it is unmanageable from an economic perspective.

Economically Unsustainable Model

Even though the model has worked fairly well historically, there is mounting evidence that the system is cracking from pressure to maintain unrealistic growth. A report by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 showed that 114 non-profit, degree granting institutions were in financial distress (Blumenstyk, 2009). Since the date of that report, five of the colleges on the list closed or were absorbed by other institutions. While that is not an overwhelming number, it is indicative of the larger problem.

My own alma mater, an institution that has been around since 1776, was in financial crisis as recently as 1999, and only righted itself with the intervention of a particularly business-savvy new president. This institution was in crisis despite the fact that it had a healthy endowment ($100,000,000+ at the time), but was still running in the red because of unrealistic expectations created through massive expansion of the higher education system.

With federal grant money (NSF, 2006) and support for public universities becoming increasingly difficult to obtain (, July 24, 2011), there is a very real possibility that this trend will increase to a point where we may face a mass extinction of colleges and universities in this country. One way of addressing this problem is to look at what the actual function of the university is and how they can be brought back in line with meeting that mission.

Time to Innovate?

It is not new to any regular readers of this blog that innovation is the final fertile ground for Americans in the global marketplace and should be the ultimate goal of our education system. The type of innovative thinking skills that a liberal arts education provide are, however, essential to competing in a global information economy. As I said at the outset of this post, I am a firm believer in higher education for the masses. But what should that education really look like? While the liberal arts provide, what I believe are the innovative intellectual skills needed to be thriving members of an information economy, that model seems the least sustainable under the current climate. The goal of the liberal arts is to foster individual, creative thinking to solve problems across disciplines. This simply can't be mass produced. This is why liberal arts institutions have smaller enrollments, but that limitation also drastically limits the amount of money they can garner from tuition.

Having also taught at a large state university, I can say that the massive size, number of students (35,000 undergraduates where I taught), limited contact outside of the classroom, and prevalence of disciplinary silos, work against cultivating this type of innovative thinking. However, I do believe that the component parts are in place for a system that doesn't yet exist that would provide a more sustainable higher education for the masses.

An Innovative New Solution

There is no quick fix for this problem. This is a situation that has been growing worse since the start of the Industrial Revolution and which has deteriorated rapidly since the 1970s and 1980s as attending college became a societal expectation. That is not to say, however, that the situation is beyond hope. Some of the pieces are already in place or are in the pipeline to provide a tenable solution.

  • Mandatory Public Service – Requiring that every American be required to perform 2-4 years of mandatory public service upon turning 18 would serve two purposes. First, it would provide a vehicle for practical learning in our young people, allowing them to gain real world experience (learning) and a deeper insight into how the world works. Secondly, it would provide an outstanding pool of low-cost workers to aid with much needed social welfare programs. This idea could build on the recently announced federal initiative to create 100,000 paying summer jobs for low-income young people.
  • Accreditation of Informal Learning – Initiatives such as the MacArthur Foundations Digital Badges program have already begun to take aim at recognizing real world experiences and informal learning as valid models for education. Incorporating this system into the mandatory public service model above would provide students with hands-on learning that not only teaches creative and innovative thinking, but that could be recognized and valued accordingly.
  • Supplemental Online Learning – I recently examined the ways in which online learning can facilitate the development of individuals that sociologist Malcolm Gladwell calls outliers. While full-time virtual education may not be for everyone, imposing a model in which some online learning is required, either in conjunction with mandatory public service, or afterwards, but prior to attending an on-the-ground university regardless, can help to make the university system more sustainable. The groundwork for this plan has already been laid by the recent decision which requires all high school students in Idaho to take two classes online in order to graduate. Depending on the depth of integration, this concept could benefit college students with great financial savings, better prepare them for college, and enhance the real world experiences they are gaining in public service.

This solution to making higher education more sustainable requires considerable groundwork and an imposition of the model by state and federal governments, but it is plausible. It could lead to a greater focus for traditional universities, while simultaneously providing a useful, innovative educational experience for everyone.


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