All across America two things are happening about this time of year. First, graduates of colleges and universities are walking to the stage to receive their diplomas. Second, high school seniors are confirming their plans to attend, or not to attend, various colleges and universities. This year both of these traditions are fraught with uncertainties that are high by historical standards. Let me explain.
First, for full disclosure I spent my first career in higher education, on the admissions staff and then the faculty of one university, and subsequently teaching for two other universities before I left the education world after fifteen years, for consulting and my work as a full time futurist. I very much valued higher education then, and still do. In fact, I argue to many audiences that one of the central tasks of our time is to figure out how to enable literally millions more people to access advanced learning. I think that in just about any conceivable future more people will benefit more by learning more. As Craig Venter said recently, the future of human society depends perhaps 100% on science, and thus on an learned population.
But at the celebration parties of college graduates, and in the living rooms of high school grads there lingers this gnawing uncertainty – is the payoff worth the investment? For the new university graduate there is the relatively bleak employment picture they face. For the high school grad going to college there is the possibility they will take on mountains of debt, for an uncertain payoff. There are two answers to these dilemas, a short and positive one, and longer and more complex one.
The short answer is that during the recent economic crisis a college degree meant a much better chance of being employed than did a high school diploma. And the pay premium one receives for a college degree is still substantial when compared to high school only. So it is relatively easy to argue that the great advantages to a college education still exist. That is the short and positive story.
The longer and complex story has two related parts. Because of the very high cost of higher education and the fact that state support for students has declined precipitously everywhere, each new class of college students faces the likelihood of taking on larger amounts of debt, in many cases debt that is so large as to be crippling later in life. This is a system that cannot be sustained, and should not be. I tell all young people that if getting the degree means tens of thousands of debt, don’t do it. Find another way.
Which brings me, finally, to the biggest issue of all which is this. Higher education, one of the oldest institutions around, faces an existential crisis, in my opinion. That is, each institution faces the question of why they exist. In March of this year I had the opportunity to address the Society for College and University Planning. The slide deck is below, available for download at Slideshare.
With research assistance from well known futurist writer Sara Robinson, I suggested that each of the traditionally primary functions of higher education are in question in the current and future world. These functions have been:
- furthering knowledge
- sustaining the society’s meritocracy
- arguing for the good life
- providing a physical place for learning
Credentialing is simultaneously being more heavily emphasized by higher education as a form of self-preservation, while at the same time being significantly undermined by the ability of anyone to access real time knowledge on the net. Historically universities were the repository of knowledge – literally where the knowledge was – and you could not access it unless you went there. That world is just about gone. In this century the American GI Bill opened higher education to masses of people. States, for a time, made higher education nearly free in many locales. This contributed to the growth of a true meritocracy where your ability to get ahead depended less on your background than your performance. Recently states have pulled financial resources from higher education, and the well documented growing income disparity threatens to return higher education to its place prior to the 20th century, when it was reserved for the wealthy and served primarily to sustain a fixed class system. As for arguing for the good life, colleges have in recent decades become significantly more focused on their utilitarian purpose – training people for jobs – and less on the concept of the liberally educated person, once the hallmark of modern society. This shift is interrelated with the need for self-perpetuation, as it is believed that this is what the market demands. In addition, there has arisen in the country a surprisingly strong anti-science movement. While suspicion of the “pointy-headed intellectual” enjoys a long history in the U.S., the fact that an entire political party has become quite heavily associated with the rejection of nearly all science is troubling (see Craig Venter, above).
All of this is to say, in ways that cannot be fully summarized in a few paragraphs, that higher education faces both the need, and the urgent opportunity, to reinvent itself. Among the questions I urged the members of SCUP to examine were…
1. What does America (and global society) need from us? What is the purpose of higher education in this part of the 21st Century?
2. What have we been good at in the past? What are we doing that is of no use, what should we let go of?
3. What are the basic values we wish to promote, and how do we best do that?
4. Whom do we serve – students, corporate funders and employers, government, our own careers?
In the end, I believe that higher education is incredibly vital to the future, and that change must come in how higher education serves the future.