THE BLOG
01/13/2015 02:33 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

'American Higher Education in Crisis?' -- A Fact-Filled and Thought-Provoking Must-Read

"Whatever a university looks like today, it seems certain that the universities of 2030 will look very different."Nature, 16 October, 2014

"Change is on the horizon, and the obstacles to innovation in higher education will be overcome one way or another."Lloyd Armstrong, 2014

Goldie Blumenstyk's new book, American Higher Education in Crisis?, should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of higher education -- faculty, trustees, executives, and government officials, as well as analysts and pundits. Chock full of facts and analysis in a clear, logical and generally objective narrative context, this tightly crafted book is an in-depth exploration of the question posed in the title.

And while Blumenstyk comes down clearly on one side ("Yes," she writes, "Higher education is most assuredly in crisis"), she follows with an assurance that "It certainly does not ... spell doom for the thousands of colleges that make up American higher education."

But what is abundantly clear from her impressive and exhaustive marshaling of recent and relevant data is that higher education in America is at a crossroads.

And while this is not the first time economic, political, demographic, and technological forces have exerted transformational pressure on higher education, it is a time that will likely result in some of the most dramatic changes in its U.S. history.

No Clear Answers

Few of the pressures at play are clearly positive or clearly negative in their effects on higher education itself, or on the students it serves and the society and economy in which it operates.

Yes, decreased public funding is raising tuition and adding to record student debt. But economic pressures are also driving efforts (some effective, some concerning) to measure and ensure that students, their families and taxpayers are getting value for their higher educational investments.

Yes, rapidly changing demographics present serious challenges to our ability to educate across the full range of the current and coming student population. But it also shines a bright light on inequities in opportunity, access, and quality of education available for different socio-economic groups, which in turn is exerting pressure to find answers.

And while rapid technological advances are spurring innovative delivery systems with potential to make a college education more widely affordable and obtainable (e.g., MOOCs, distance learning, etc.), it may also be exacerbating socio-economic inequalities, or, as Blumentsyk puts it, creating a "more commodified and less-enriching version of higher education -- a faster and cheaper 'college lite' for students who are not wealthy or sophisticated enough to make another choice."

Call to Action

The book provides much to surprise us about the state of the world's best education system. Some examples:

  • The U.S. is ranked fifth in the world for percentage of adults of all ages with college degrees, but drops to 12th among younger adults, aged 25 to 34 (p. 160, Kindle Edition).
  • "Only about 17 percent of all public four-year colleges rejected even half of their applicants in 2011- 2012, and among private four-year colleges, fewer than 20 percent did so" (p. 20, Kindle Edition).
  • In 2012, an undergraduate with a minimum wage job would have needed to work 61 hours per week every week of the year to pay for the average cost of attending a four-year public college, nearly triple the hours it would have taken in 1980 (p. 60, Kindle Edition).
  • Today, tenured professors are not the norm as many believe: "[A]djuncts, including those hired to handle a class or two plus others on full-time annual contracts (also called 'contingent faculty'), now collectively make up about 60 to 70 percent of the professoriate" (p. 102, Kindle Edition).

But the main value of the book is its role as a logical and fact filled ... Call To Action. It is a clarion call to those of us in higher education (and those outside) to understand our situation, and embrace change and transformation. Urgently and now.

Barriers to Change

As Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus and University Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, so eruditely states in his recent analysis for the TIAA-CREF Institute, among the multiple barriers to change in higher education, the belief that we are the best post-secondary educational system in the world is one of the more difficult to overcome, as it creates a great degree of complacency around the status quo.

Armstrong goes on to remind us that much of the value of higher education, particularly that of its individual institutions, is what economists generally consider to be a "credence good -- one whose utility impact is difficult to determine by the consumer in advance of consumption, and remains difficult to determine even after consumption."

As a result, while there are many reasons change is resisted in higher education, one key barrier is that our past success has led many faculty, staff and executives at universities and colleges to believe, often exaggeratedly, that major (or even minor) aspects of the current business model of higher education define its excellence. And so any changes in these key (and not so key) aspects of how we deliver and manage education are often considered a "step back" from excellence. In essence, too many of us believe that the status quo business model of higher education defines its excellence.

To paraphrase American business consultant, author, and lecturer Jim Collins, change in higher education will require that we in this business sector face the ugly truths, the brutal facts -- while never losing faith in our mission and power to improve the future. Ms. Blumenstyk's fascinating book helps ensure that stakeholders have and understand these hard, brutal facts within the context of our time and our challenges.