11/12/2012 09:36 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Taking Stock

It has been interesting to watch the reaction to the Huffington Post blogs on higher education each week. Almost all of the comments have been useful. As expected, some deal with the specifics of the topic -- the role of alumni and trustees, the need for stronger career centers, and how the election will shape the future direction of higher education -- to name a few. Other readers speak more narrowly along political and ideological lines. I thought it might be interesting this week to take stock of what we learned.

Two themes emerge collectively from readers. The first is that Americans see education as a priority that they value. The second is that we are at a tipping point determined by the collision of pedagogy, technology, value and price. To illustrate, I'll borrow some imagery that reflects the media hype on the mega storm now sweeping into the Northeast. In many respects, higher education seems like a ship that had broken loose from its mooring and is floating aimlessly adrift as the waves and storm surge from the impending gale move toward it. It is clear that there are bright and committed people manning the ship. What is unclear in the buffeting is how they can bring the ship into a safe and protected port.

The answer may be that they should spend some time in the rough water less in search of a port and more in observation of whether the ship is seaworthy. If the vessel is well-constructed, it will withstand the storm. If the ship is equipped with technology, it may make the navigation easier and the journey smoother. If the captain and his crew have a healthy respect for the traditions that govern the sea, then the ship will likely find its way because they understand what is facing them.

I'm betting that the ship will make it through the storm.

Here's why. The United States is moving in two directions. In one sense, it remains anti-intellectual in mindset and approach where the life of the mind plays second fiddle to the exploits of actors and athletes, on and off the stages and playing fields. How many families bank their child's future on athletic prowess translating into scholarship, fame, and an NFL career? In this world, education is a means to an end.

At the same time, America has become a knowledge-based economy. In an important way, the innovations that have produced the technology dominating American life have made the value of an education more critical today than ever. Practically, the jobs of the future will require some combination of credentials and degrees -- and the two are very different. Credentials are mainly about training, employment and pay grade. Degrees are about knowledge. They are an admission ticket to the kind of social mobility that only a "big idea" like the G.I. Bill and the Pell Grant has made possible.

This leaves us with a choice to make. Do we continue to support programs that are the bedrock of our commitment to one another today like the Pell grant? Should we be incrementalists rather than dreamers of big thoughts, since small steps produce less spectacular failures? Do we support core liberal arts traditions as the "breadth" upon which technical and professional training is based? Is the ultimate threat from technology that it will swamp the boat, causing us to abandon the traditions which have made American higher education such a desired global commodity?

In the end, the answer is not always a dumbing down to a call for more federal and state money. In fact, one part of the solution will be to create basic efficiencies and economies of scale across American higher education to reign in operating costs, lower tuition, and fund new ideas. Another part will be to refine existing programs, end or transform duplicative ones, and rethink who has basic responsibilities to make the changes necessary. Is it the role of the state or federal government to support students? If faculties govern academic programs, can they strengthen what we learn through technology by choosing when and where to use it as the faculties think through their own role in the debate between credentials and degrees?

The four words that best describe the future of American higher education will be change, innovation, partnership and cost. While institutions, foundations, and the state and federal government fund promising pilots, they must quickly come together with more intentionality to connect the dots, innovating nationally to achieve scalability. When pedagogy, technology, value and price collide, failure to do so imperils the national well-being.