August 26, 2012
Amid all the calls for change in higher education, the pregnant question is what form will the changes take? Or, better, what forms? Because the nature of the changes is not clear just yet.
To their credit, members of the LSU Board of Supervisors set aside time recently for a thoughtful presentation from Jeff Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national newspaper on colleges and universities.
His theme: new technologies and new students, in terms of demographics and expectations, require a level of openness to change that will shake the ivy-clad walls of many institutions.
Government funding support to higher education has dropped, tuition is on the rise and people have started to question the value of the traditional university setting, he said.
He stressed the importance of dealing with the Internet. One estimate is that a third of students are taking at least one online course. Even elite schools are dipping into these delivery systems, a far cry from the days of chalkboards and bow-tied lecturers.
An important advocate for higher education is the Council for a Better Louisiana, and it has followed up the Selingo presentation with its own analysis of the importance of change in today’s systems.
CABL quoted Kevin Carey, an expert who works at a national think tank called Education Sector. He points to the collapse of major Wall Street banks and the bankruptcy of once mighty automakers and sees similarities in higher education:
“It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion,” he said. “Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.
“In combination, these two trends threaten to shake the foundation of the modern university, in much the same way that other seemingly impregnable institutions have been torn apart,” he said.
Lest all this seem to be too much of barbarians-at-the-gates alarmism, Carey’s first point is worth noting: America has a world-beating system, one that remains a very valuable industry in the purely literal sense that students from around the world pay handsomely and compete vigorously for places in American institutions.
CABL noted that although change is coming, “that’s not to say that there won’t be a market for the traditional college experience. There will. And there’s really no clear replacement in sight for universities that do significant research and teach more demanding upper level and graduate classes. But what about the many schools in Louisiana that focus primarily on baccalaureate degrees and the liberal arts? They’re much more sensitive to the online market.”
That online competition can be from the University of Phoenix in the private market, or institutions far away, such as the University of California, in the public market.
If there is an impact for such smaller four-year institutions, then the impact may be greater on community colleges or other institutions that “cater more to working students and those who simply want to earn a degree as quickly as they can so they can get a good job,” CABL suggested. “Would they stand to lose traditional enrollment because their students have other options?”
With all this said, there remain far more questions in this debate than answers — kind of like a philosophy seminar, one might say. But in that old-fashioned seminar there is a “high touch” element of personal connection between teacher and students, a level of interaction that might be impossible online.
Even if the old-form seminar is superior, it remains dependent on institutional support to pay the professor and keep the lights on in the seminar room.
How institutions manage those challenges is what the questions are about, but not yet are there clear answers.