The best of higher education worlds


During the first session of my first class in college, the professor warned me and my classmates against the worst sin a graduate student can commit: trying to demonstrate how badly we are. were smart in destroying the books we had to read.

He called it “the steamroller technique” and emphatically said that if these books were as flawed and flawed as we thought they were, then we obviously did not understand or appreciate the arguments and contributions of the authors.

Worse yet, if the luminaries of the profession wrote such imperfect works, how could we hope to do better?

Good advice, I still think, almost half a century later. Whenever I feel tempted to critique a book or article paragraph by paragraph, I remember that I almost certainly misunderstood the author’s statements and assertions.

I recently read Arthur Levine’s latest book, The great upheaval: past, present and uncertain future of higher education, co-written with Scott Van Pelt, and it reminded me of that first lesson.

If you just read the headlines in the academic press, you’d be forgiven for thinking this book was a defense of MOOCs. Here is the title used by EdSurge: “Could Coursera Become as Prestigious as Harvard. Or a call to universities in the cloud (“Digital natives, analog universities”, this is how Brandeis Magazine formulated the book’s call to redo higher education).

In fact, the book presents an entirely different argument that institutional leaders must take into account when guiding their institutions forward.

It would be easy to quibble over some details of the book, such as a very schematic history of American higher education that divides that story into “seven messy, overlapping stages” that culminate in dissemination, standardization, and updating. scale of practices and innovations that originate from the most prestigious institutions before spreading widely.

Then there’s a rather nebulous discussion of how technological innovation, globalization, and demographic shifts have converged to create “vast new challenges, opportunities and uncertainties” for colleges and universities.

Also, some of the book’s arguments will sound a bit familiar, such as the rather hyperbolic claim that the U.S. economy is in the midst of a transition as deep and far-reaching as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution or as a model. Analogue industrial higher education, designed for a very different context, must be abandoned in favor of approaches better suited to today’s global knowledge economy.

Then there are the general predictions of the book:

  • That the post-secondary education market is about to be disrupted as new providers enter the higher education industry and offer cheaper and faster routes to a marketable degree.
  • That the proliferation of new providers places unprecedented power in the hands of learners, many of whom prefer more affordable and convenient online options, posing a serious threat to many community colleges, small private institutions and regional universities.
  • These results will replace credit hours and sitting time as a measure of student learning, and these degrees will lose their value as a dominant academic credential as more students seek “fair education.” on time ”and more and more employers are accepting industry certificates and other alternative degrees. .

Whatever the flaws or limitations of this book, Levine’s mind is nonetheless to be reckoned with, and we reject his opinions at our peril.

To think about Levine’s career is to confront a multitude of contradictions. He is a former president of Teachers College, who is perhaps best known for his damning criticisms of schools of education, which he ridiculed for their low levels of admission, study and graduation, teachers disconnected from practice, limited interaction with K12 schools, and a large gap between the theories they teach and the real challenges teachers face. According to him, educational leadership programs range from “inadequate to appalling»And Ed.D. diploma should be abolished.

He is an advocate for radical educational reform who has held top positions in the educational institution, including a 13-year term as president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (now the Institute for Citizens & Scholars).

There, he launched initiatives to transform STEM teacher preparation programs, recruit teachers with strong STEM backgrounds to work in high need schools, and help states create MBA programs for administrators in the field. education. He even created a new problem-based, skill-based education college.

In addition, he chaired the Higher Education Program and Institute for Educational Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Foundation and the Carnegie Council for Policy Studies in Higher Education.

As president of Bradford College from 1982 to 1989, he reorganized the program around liberal applied and practical arts with great success. But just eleven years after he left, the heavily indebted college closed, apparently due to a subsequent president’s misguided plan to increase enrollment.

To really understand why Levine’s views are worth debating, it’s important to note that over the course of several decades he has published three major studies on changes in the values, aspirations, and needs of students who were based on extensive quantitative and qualitative research. In each case, he offered powerful suggestions on how colleges and universities should restructure in response to these changing realities and better prepare their graduates for the jobs and responsibilities of adults.

In other words, he is as much a performer as he is a thought leader, and unlike many innovators who describe themselves, his advice is not simply “improvised.”

The great upheavalThe main argument of s is that unless the leaders of the country’s community colleges, small private institutions and regional universities address four pressing challenges, their institutions will face a gradual erosion of enrollment and quality. These are the challenges:

Challenge 1: Growing diversity in what students look for in colleges and universities
According to Levine and Van Pelt, the higher education market is diversifying not only in terms of race, ethnicity or class, but also in terms of student needs and aspirations. A growing portion of the current and potential student body neither needs nor wants a traditional in-person experience.

Many students prefer less expensive, unbundled, more flexible, and more practical, job-oriented education. If traditional institutions do not expand the options they offer, then other providers will meet those needs.

Challenge 2: Worsening inequalities
There is a serious danger, which Levine and Van Pelt recognize, that current trends in post-secondary education will worsen inequalities. In addition to the inequality in the actual educational experience (which pits a residential education, with many extracurricular opportunities, against a commuter experience), there is a deep inequality of outcomes (evident in graduation rates and employment and income after graduation).

Unless colleges and universities invest substantially more resources in students with the greatest academic and financial need, today’s calls for fairness will be pointless.

Challenge 3: growing competition from non-traditional suppliers
According to Levine and Van Pelt, traditional colleges and universities can no longer largely monopolize college education and accreditation. Museums (such as the American Museum of Natural History), archives and institutes (such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the New-York Historical Society), and media and high-tech companies (including Amazon, Google and Microsoft) alone or in partnership with existing institutions have begun to offer lower-cost degrees with real market value.

Traditional institutions will have to decide whether to partner with or compete with these providers. Unlike for-profit universities, which could easily be attacked as predatory institutions offering worthless education, these competitors have the brand and reach that will make them very attractive to potential students.

Challenge 4: High desire for Personalization and flexibility
Personalization, convenience and choice are the watchwords of today’s economy, and shouldn’t education consumers, too, be able to choose from a wide range of options? options and being able to switch from one supplier to another in complete transparency?

As more and more students move from one college or university to another, the idea that each institution has the absolute right to accept or refuse transferred credits and to define its requirements for transfer. he graduation as he sees fit is in question. Obstacles to a successful transfer are increasingly difficult to defend.

So how can traditional higher education institutions better meet the needs and expectations of today’s students? Here are the answers from the book:

1. Increase course availability anytime, anywhere, without the constraint of fixed 15-week semesters and a few start dates.

2. Place more emphasis on learning rather than teaching by providing higher levels of instructor-student interaction, more active, experiential and project-based learning, and more robust support services.

3. Supplement traditional degrees with a variety of shorter, less expensive non-degree credentials and “just-in-time” offerings closely aligned with the needs of the workforce.

You may remember the phrase The Borg said on the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Resistance is futile.” These three words could well serve as a slogan for Levine and Van Pelt Great upheaval.

If community colleges, regional universities, and most small private institutions are to thrive, these colleges and universities must adapt to the new world of higher education. The alternative is probably not bankruptcy, but rather downsizing, a declining reputation and diminished quality.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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