THE BLOG
05/02/2014 03:47 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2014

The Higher Education Paradigm Shift

Throughout the '80s and '90s, one of the most popular topics of discussion on university campuses was the enigmatic paradigm shift. Students in almost every discipline of study -- from the hard sciences to business economics, from information technology to political science, and from the philosophies to the humanities -- were warned against the dangers of being caught off-guard if they were ever faced with such an upheaval of facts and opinions as to constitute a paradigm shift.

University instructors were quick to cite disastrous and tragic examples of how lives had been ruined, businesses destroyed, and governments crippled when they did not heed the warning signs or adequately respond to changes in their markets or among their clientele and constituents. History is filled with examples of new technologies, understandings, and methodologies that have redefined our paradigms.

I find it curious though that when all the evidence seems to be telling us that a major paradigm shift is occurring within higher education itself, the very persons who once cautioned others on this subject are now strangely silent and unconcerned. I have seen very little action on the part of the academic community to anticipate or to respond to growing societal factors that could soon force significant changes to some of their long-held academic and instructional paradigms.

In fact, they appear to be completely unbothered by the tell-tale signs of disapproval within some of their major constituent groups and even attempt to deny that a problem exists. But something is seriously wrong with the traditional higher education paradigm in the U.S. today. Consider the following unpleasant facts:

  • Recently, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) reported that the cost of college tuition has gone up more than four times the rate of inflation since 1980.
  • And that as of 2010, outstanding student loan debt (830 billion) has surpassed outstanding credit card debt (825.6 billion) in the U.S.
  • The CCAP researchers also found that 8 out of 10 college graduates move right back in with their parents after graduation.
  • In 2011, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York announced that 37 million Americans were carrying student loan debt, and 5.4 million of them were past due on their payments.
  • Citing Census Bureau findings, the Associated Press reported that about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 in 2011 reported themselves to be unemployed or underemployed.
  • In a 2012 policy paper, Twelve Inconvenient Truths about American Higher Education, the CCAP reported that as of 2008, there were 17 million college graduates working in jobs that did not require a degree.
  • The report drills down to tell us that this over-educated workforce included more than 323,000 waiters and waitresses with university degrees, as well as more than 115,000 janitors, more than 83,000 bartenders, and 80,000 truck drivers.

Is this the result of our higher education practices and paradigms? Should a college degree leave a graduate indebted, over-educated, and underemployed? All the evidence shows that college students are paying too much for their education and being overburdened with school loan debt, yet college tuition continues to rise unabated. Every indication tells us that university graduates are struggling in the job market like never before -- even settling for low paying jobs just to make ends meet, yet universities continue to produce graduates by the tens of thousands every year with bachelor degrees in majors that are of little value in the modern workplace. This paradigm is unsustainable.

Where are all the educators who once warned their students so correctly about the dangers of paradigm shifts? Why are they not demanding reform and accountability within higher education today? Why are they not restructuring their own courses and curriculum to make their university degrees more relevant in today's job market? Is it possible that they have they been caught off-guard by their own paradigm shift?

Whether we choose to accept it or not, higher education is affected by the job market. Students go to college to become something more than they can become on their own -- to achieve something higher than they can achieve on their own, and for many college students, this means obtaining employment in their chosen field of study shortly after graduation and being compensated with a livable wage.

This is the basic expectation of most college-goers and outside constituents/stakeholders. When college graduates cannot find jobs with their traditional degrees, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. This is the yardstick by which higher education will be measured. The job market has shifted for new college graduates, and thus the paradigm has shifted for higher education.

Will higher education, as we know it, become the next example of an industry that failed to react in time to save itself from a paradigm shift? I sincerely hope this is not where we are destined.