07/08/2013 07:08 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

The Boat Just Sailed... Somewhere

When they opened, American colleges and universities offered a classical curriculum drawn from older education practice that balanced the needs of an agricultural economy -- often deeply religious -- with a small commercial class.

The Industrial Revolution transformed higher education in the 19th century. Education served new masters as the demands of a growing, industrializing economy forced it to adapt to new industrial work rhythms and the beginnings of professional specialization.

Something happened after World War II as America readjusted to a peacetime economy, heightened levels of prosperity, and new promises exemplified best by the G.I. Bill. While the majority of Americans did not attend post-secondary education, the promise held as millions entered American colleges and universities under new understandings within the social contract offered by federal and state governments. Returning veterans, women, and soon their children, swelled the numbers dramatically. Policymakers worried about how to promote access, and in many cases, guarantee choice.

While doing so, America moved to a post-industrial economy with an eroding manufacturing base, increased specialization, and new job growth demanding technical skills. Somewhere in this evolution the justification for a liberal arts degree as the best way to prepare for rewarding professional and personal life no longer dominated the rationale on why to seek a college diploma.

Colleges and universities failed collectively to demonstrate that the liberal arts prepared a thinking public to write, articulate, use quantitative methods, working in collaborative settings, and apply technology. They lost much of the battle of the liberal arts as an expression of the greater public good.

As the justification weakened, a technology tsunami swept over higher education. The public no longer believed unfailingly in education for its own sake. New strategies and programs emerged from online providers and for-profit companies seeking a robust bottom line. More important, technology changed the way that students learned.

These changes force us to re-examine where American higher education is headed today. It is simplistic to argue that higher education will move exclusively to a technology-based platform that kills all but the most resilient colleges and universities whose sterling reputations will continue to keep their admission classes full. At the same time, it is likely that American colleges and universities will need to reassess what they offer in light of how students learn, where the workforce needs exist, and how they reconcile pedagogy, technology and outcomes.

A colleague expressed it best in a meeting recently when he said that it's a little bit like what Wayne Gretzky once argued -- you don't play to where the puck is; you skate to where the puck will be.

To do so, American colleges and universities must accept a new reality.

First, the boat just sailed... somewhere.

We are not likely to return to the days of time-honored lectures delivered from yellowed sheets in honest efforts to impart wisdom learned from decades of curiosity and intellectual sweat. It is imperative that higher education leadership and the faculties who govern the academic program see the need to protect the historical integrity of the program and the duty and responsibility to innovate and re-imagine it.

Second, academic program leadership must never narrowly cede pedagogical development to business and industry.

Yet, that having been said it is absolutely critical that academic leaders work with senior administrators to provide "out of classroom" practical experiences to link college and university offerings more explicitly to the needs of a global workforce. Engineers must function as articulate, collaborative employees who can write, understand foreign language and culture, and work in collegial settings.

The same is true for those who graduate with history, English, sociology or psychology degrees. It's time to make the promise and potential of a liberal arts training "pop" to ensure that the degree means more because the training is broader and deeper. There should be less discussion by state governors about how they will back STEM graduates to the exclusion of college graduates. Is it really the goal of state policy to produce engineers who can't write, explain, or work together? Do they really want CEOs who can't place what they do and why they do it within a historical context?

Third, there must more inclusive, collegial and collaborative discussions among ed tech innovators, state and federal policymakers, business leadership and the higher education community.

Wherever the boat is headed, it is already clear that each impacts the other in dramatic ways. Students enter higher education with different expectations, technology-based learning practices, and differing consumer preferences.

The solution will be to blur the lines of distinction among these groups. One outcome may be that in the end Americans want the same thing from higher education. They will continue to demand that America keeps the promise that it made to their parents and grandparents in the last century. The game to watch will be whether American higher education is nimble, creative and entrepreneurial enough to protect its core values by establishing guiding principles to keep the boat on a steady course.