11/27/2012 07:09 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Not Only... But Also

The pace of change is accelerating within American higher education. The debates raging over MOOC's, the impact of specific programmatic strategies like Coursera, the role of for-profit providers, and the arguments laid out recently in defense of the liberal arts tradition illustrate this point. The Obama administration's efforts to increase access and college-going rates and their bully pulpit criticisms of high tuition sticker prices suggest that federal officials will force themselves more directly onto center stage. It is likely that new federal priorities put forward in the second term will extend federal influence and establish clear policy and funding priorities. The new realities go well beyond Pell grants, subsidized loans, tax exemption and government regulation. The implication now is that there will be winners and losers.

Vartan Gregorian's call last week for a presidential commission to guide U.S. higher education at a moment of dramatic change indicates the seriousness of the situation. Dr. Gregorian suggests that there is a need for a guiding hand to shape 21st century higher education policy. He believes the impetus should come from the federal government and be national in scope. Dr. Gregorian's position, as president of the influential Carnegie Corporation, carries weight and brings these new realities into a harsher light.

There are two ways to view it. The first is to argue that higher education is fiddling while Rome is burning. The second is for higher education to treat these new realities as a seminal moment of unprecedented opportunity to step forward to address the policy, practice, programming and pricing issues that divide it.

We live in a free market economy where consumers -- students and their families -- vote when they accept their admission offers. As a result, the pricing policy will ultimately take care of itself. The fragile financial model upon which higher education is built -- including heavy reliance on tuition, fees, room and board at all but a handful of institutions -- imposes a price ceiling at most institutions. Those institutions that continue to increase sticker prices disproportionately will hit this ceiling. Worse yet they will become irrelevant as higher education lumbers off in a different direction. At these institutions, boards of trustees will grapple with fundamental policy questions -- do they honestly wish to become a collection of exclusive country clubs, with disproportionately white student bodies, trading off old boy alumni networks whose members are slowly dying off? Do "catch up" post recession comprehensive campaigns really matter when the end game is to protect a world that they wish still existed?

For the rest of higher education, there is much uncertainty but only one clear path to follow this early in the game. The forces that have produced disruptive system change have largely emerged from the outside, brewing deep within the knowledge-based economy. Individually, America's colleges and universities are powerless to stop or slow down the changes for two reasons. First, these changes are market driven. Most colleges face financing issues sufficiently serious that cannot withstand the cost to defend the status quo. Second, these new educational realities more closely align with the way students learn which is sometimes quite different from how they are taught. In a sense, we did it to ourselves by creating an educated workforce in a free market economy that imagined how technology and education intersect sooner than most of us.

The news is not all bad. The programmatic changes produced by the new technology have a common denominator. They are almost uniformly collective efforts. As such, they share concept, cost, assessment and public perception across institutions. This notion of partnership -- in a sense the fundamental underpinning of Vartan Gregorian's call for a federal commission -- is likely to dominate subsequent growth and design. As education practices nudge closer to the way that students learn, those institutions with the greatest impact will only achieve the scale required by competing through collaboration and in common partnership with one another. Essentially, this is one example where the whole is likely to be more than the sum of its parts.

Yet the parts that factor into the design are essential. While credentialing is the door through which groups like Coursera obtained quick legitimacy, the line is already eroding as accreditors and institutions accept on-line courses. Happily, there seems to be a critical recognition that learning and technical training are different. Embedded in these discussions remains a core belief in the liberal arts tradition. Since the consortial partners are the institutions that participate, the hallmark of a liberal arts education -- the ability to articulate, write, work cooperatively, apply quantitative methods and use technology -- infuses much of the best course design. And therein lies the dilemma. The solution must soon be an accommodation in which higher education leadership, especially faculty leadership, agree that when the liberal arts touches technology the answer is "not only... but also."