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The Revolution in Higher Education Is Already Underway

Some revolutions take place with all the stealth and subtlety of Fourth of July fireworks. But others take place silently, and when they’re over, their triumph is so invisible and so complete it’s as if they never happened.

In retrospect, these revolutions seem inevitable, inexorable and irreversible.

That latter kind of revolution is transforming higher education. We’re all aware of certain aspects of that revolution, but its full scope and implications rarely draw the attention they deserve.

The revolution that is currently transforming higher education isn’t, of course, the first. During the 20th century, we witnessed several:

  • The shift from elite to mass to near universal higher education.
  • The rapid growth of vocational, technical, career-aligned and pre-professional programs at the undergraduate level (alongside greatly expanded master’s, doctoral and professional programs at the postbacc level), displacing the traditional liberal arts core—apparent in the rise of programs in architecture, business, communication, engineering, hotel and restaurant management, journalism, nursing, social work, and technology.
  • The rise of the instrumental university—the shift in higher education’s mission from the narrowly educational to human capital and regional economic development, applied research, and public policy research and advocacy to solve social problems.

What makes today’s revolution fundamentally different from its predecessors is that it is taking place across multiple dimensions—demographic, organizational, curricular, pedagogical, staffing and more—and it’s contributing to a deepening stratification in institutional missions, student preparation, resources and outcomes.

That a revolution is occurring is not a secret. Just think of the various ways authors discuss the contemporary university:

  • The rise of the neoliberal university: The tendency of universities to act like private sector corporations, which is evident in shifting patterns of institutional governance, the adoption of enrollment management and other practices designed to maximize revenue generation, the relentless pursuit of ancillary income, the growing emphasis on return on investment, and the perception of students as customers.
  • The rapid growth of fully online universities, typically characterized by a narrow, job-aligned curriculum, standardized classes, often asynchronous and “self-paced, self-directed” courses that require a great deal of self-direction, and the replacement of traditional faculty members with less expensive staffing models.
  • The increasing role of vendors and third-party providers in delivering core institutional functions.

Then there are those changes in the student body, the professoriate, institutional staffing and cost that we all recognize:

  • The decline of the “traditional” college student, between the ages of 18 and 22, who attends college full-time and has very limited work and family responsibilities.
  • The desperate quest for new student markets, including international students (among those institutions that accept 90 percent or more of the international student applicants are Loyola University Chicago, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Kansas, the University of Toledo, Kent State and Colorado State; among those whose student body consists of 20 percent or more international students are Mount Holyoke, St. John’s in Santa Fe and Annapolis, Bryn Mawr, and Earlham).
  • The increasing division of the faculty in terms of access to tenure, teaching and service responsibilities, and full- and part-time status.
  • The rapid growth of nonteaching professional staff, responsible for advising, career services, psychological counseling, learning support and student life.
  • The transfer of costs of higher education to families and the federal government and the sharp increase in student debt burdens.

Taken together, these developments need to be understood as parts of a far broader revolution that is creating a higher education ecosystem that is highly stratified and highly differentiated, with institutions targeting distinct student demographics.

What, then, is the nature of this revolutionary transformation?

  • Whereas the earlier revolutions sought to democratize access to an earlier collegiate model, the current revolution is producing a far greater range of educational models that target distinct demographics.
  • The deepening disparity in the education that institutions provide is widening in terms of access to faculty, majors, advising and support services.
  • At a growing number of institutions, especially Research-1s, the university’s undergraduate education function is increasingly taking a back seat to other functions.
  • Students, especially at the less selective institutions, are voting with their feet and are concentrating in several broad areas—business, education and health—with a very small proportion in the humanities or social sciences (within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, just 4 percent of students major in the social sciences).
  • The relationship between students and their institutions is growing increasingly transactional, with growing numbers of students swirling among multiple colleges and universities.
  • Government is assuming a more active (some would say, a more intrusive) role in oversight and enforcing accountability and demanding more information, especially about costs, debt and graduation and employment outcomes.
  • High schools, in increasing numbers, offer early-college/dual-degree programs and electives that (in theory) are equivalent to introductory-level college courses, while third parties (including museums and major technology firms) offer certificate, certification and in certain instances degree programs either separately or in collaboration with existing institutions.

It’s all too easy to complain about the changes that are taking place:

  • The overemphasis on skills and training rather than upon intellectual curiosity and cultural exposure.
  • The invocation of the language of management, efficiency, outputs, productivity and return on investment instead of the academic language of learning, cognitive development and personal growth.
  • Declining levels of student preparation and diminishing amounts of reading and writing assigned to students.

But such complaints have no more impact than King Canute’s command that the tide recede. I, perhaps like you, enjoy reading books decrying the “managerial” or the “neoliberal” or the “instrumental” university. But what’s missing is a path forward.

So what then needs to be done?

  1. Academics need to speak out more strongly for equity. Whatever the impact of the revolution is upon us (the faculty), its consequences are far greater for students from low-income backgrounds who deserve access to the kind of education best aligned with their interests and aspirations. Cost of tuition and living expenses should not be a barrier.
  2. The faculty needs to understand that their personal interests and their students’ learning needs aren’t identical. Many, perhaps most, faculty prefer to teach squarely (I’d say narrowly) within their areas of disciplinary specialization and research. But many undergraduates would benefit much more from an education that is broader, more skills-focused, more experiential, more interdisciplinary, more project-based and, yes, more relevant and responsive.
  3. “Accountability” isn’t a four-letter word. Irrespective of a higher education’s mounting economic and opportunity costs, the academy owes its consumers an accurate and transparent accounting of an institution’s mission, its programs’ outcomes and the steps institutions are taking to improve these outcomes. It also needs to conduct regular reviews of faculty teaching, research and service, not to undercut tenure protections, but to encourage improvement and ensure that faculty members are contributing equitably to the university’s functioning and mission. This strikes me as the least we can do given the very substantial public investment in the college and university enterprise.
  4. Faculty members in the humanities, in particular, need to better adapt to students’ shifting interests. Why can’t we better align our courses to students’ professional interests, in business, engineering, health care and technology? That’s certainly not to say that every history class ought to focus on business history, environmental history, legal history, the history of medicine and public health, or the history of technology—or on topics of high student interest, including climate change or the history of race or sexuality. But I do believe that those of us granted the great privilege of conducting research in the humanities should focus less on cloning ourselves than on nurturing the skills, knowledge and literacies that students who do not become academics will benefit from in later life.
  5. Let’s liberate access to advanced education and make it more broadly available to nonstudents. Shortly after I left Columbia, several Core Curriculum preceptors established the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Modeled, in part, on Britain’s Open University, History Workshop and Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the institute remains dedicated to community-based education, often offered at neighborhood bars. Now 10 years old, it seeks to integrate rigorous but accessible scholarly study into adult lives, with courses (or roundtables) on everything from Proust and Dr. Seuss to musical Romanticism and gender, culture and geopolitics in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Somewhat similar is New York City’s Institute for Retired Professionals. Founded in 1962 by a group of New York City schoolteachers seeking an opportunity to learn from one another, it is a cooperative learning program offering peer-taught classes and study groups on topics ranging from the Bauhaus to cabaret music, manhood and adultery in literature.

Everyone as old as me no doubt recalls hearing stories of cigar workers who took part in lessons about Kant or Marx even as they rolled tobacco leaves. The most radical of all revolutions would be to ensure that access to advanced education isn’t confined to the academy. Not through MOOCs or MasterClass or public television documentaries, with their lack of interpersonal interaction, but in other ways.

Higher education is too valuable to be monopolized by the young—and postbacc education shouldn’t simply be limited to retraining and upskilling. I believe that learning should be lifelong. But that doesn’t mean that it should be merely technical, practical and vocational.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.