11/04/2013 10:08 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Higher Education: Working Together to Imagine the Possible

For many who think and write about American higher education, the quality of the industry-wide conversation on how best to accommodate change seems increasingly defensive.

It often appears that the strongest defense is a weak regurgitation of "look at me... look at me" rather than a deeper understanding of how pieces fit together to provide a comprehensive education. We seem to be trying to save the trees without any understanding about how to manage and nurture the forest.

History is important and a relevant indicator of lasting value. As their proponents suggest, the liberal arts are the foundation upon which future generations of scholars and thinkers will continue to rely. Global employers understand value that comes with an ability to write, articulate, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in collaborative settings. Proponents of the liberal arts need to sharpen their case. They must also appreciate, however, that global society cannot be based upon a world that they wish existed. Life is tougher outside the college gates.

Technology now intrudes upon older Socratic methods of teaching. Higher education must appreciate that its students will come to them with new skill sets and knowledge obtained in ways different from the more traditional delivery methods sanctioned and measured by liberal arts colleges. It's not that these schools are not incubating innovation; rather, the question is can they innovate fast enough while still protecting their core asset represented by the liberal arts curriculum?

Is there a danger that liberal arts colleges will separate into two groups?

If so, the first will be the oversubscribed country clubs for the talented and sometimes wealthy where resource rich, personalized mentorship and good alumni networks will train American social, economic and political leadership in the future. The second will be the rest of the pecking order. In this second group, innovation and outreach, badly supported by capped tuition dollars, undifferentiated and hastily established programs, and a declining admissions pool, will aggravate rather than solve a growing financial crisis.

Public institutions face a different set of problems. Like their private counterparts, they are faced with declining revenue from tuition and long-term spending by state governments and in Washington. Many remain undifferentiated with weak alumni networks.

At community colleges, there are still vacillating signals between the need for workforce preparation and better persistence and graduation rates. At research universities, there is an inherent tension between undergraduate and graduate programs made more uncertain by the lack of long-term federal commitments to research and development exacerbated by the political dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

Added to this gurgling, worrisome stew of uncertainty is the growth of the for-profit sector. Whatever weaknesses exist here, for-profit leadership got a number of things right.

They understood not only consumer demand but also consumer preference. For-profit leaders recognized earlier than their nonprofit colleagues that new financial modeling was essential and must be linked to consumer preferences and demand. In addition, they appreciated the importance of providing education by linking higher education to workforce preparation. And finally, for profit leaders saw the power and promise of technology in developing online learning platforms.

The growth of the ed tech community in cities like San Francisco and Boston has added a new wrinkle to the continuing evolution of American higher education. The blizzard of new technology programming is only beginning to impact admissions, advancement, student services, and of course, online learning. Coursera is one early example in broader online programming strategy and tactics.

As we gaze into the future, the direction of higher education is likely to be more about the whole produced by the sum of its parts. No one type of learning will predominate. It is likely, however, that higher education will move toward a blended platform.

If this hunch is correct, will higher education have the ethos, guiding principles, visionary leadership, programming, financing and assessment tools in place to keep up with the pace of accelerated change?

There may be a lesson from how New England -and especially the City of Boston -related to how the Boston Red Sox won the World Series last week. Like higher education, what one colleague calls the "Smith Brothers Cough Drops" brigade representing Boston didn't have all the pieces fully fine-tuned and in place. And yet they won.

Fans liked what they saw in the Red Sox. Theirs was a storied franchise badly tarnished that had regained its sense of self. Each individual contributed differently while sharing a common purpose and focus -- to imagine the possible. It worked.

If higher education is to fully contribute to the global economic engine, its parts must react less defensively and work more collaboratively. Both groups contribute and learn from the other.

The alternative will stratify by type, wealth, need, and purpose, reduce higher education to differentiated brands and consumer slogans, increase state and federal regulations, and diminish its impact in society.

The decentralized system of American higher education must continue to depend on its idiosyncratic mix of history, culture, innovation, and adaptability. No single group of educational providers can claim the crown. There are no cardinals among bishops.

Like the Red Sox, it's time that higher education worked more closely together -- collectively, purposefully and with enthusiasm -- to imagine the possible.