A new higher education narrative: the kettle is boiling …

Frog In The KettleIn addition to the tectonic shifts we are confronting within the church and biblical higher education itself (see my recent series of posts, beginning with Anchoring Against Mission Drift) additional currents are swirling within North American higher education in general. A new narrative dominates the air waves. It appears in articles from both the political and ideological left and right, both in print and in near-viral digital forms such as EPIC 2020 and 2012 The Tipping Point. The narrative is propounded in the mainstream media, political speech and governmental policy, and propagated through major grant funding awards intended to shape reform and incentivize innovation according to its dogma. The tone of much of this narrative feels increasingly urgent and the pitch sounds alarmist and shrill, if not outright dismissive and triumphalist.

For starters …

  • Here are some of the central claims of the new higher education narrative:
    • America (and Canada) is forfeiting its technological and economic supremacy to emerging nations, China and India in particular.
    • Our technological and economic supremacy is the primary basis of our global cultural and political leadership.
    • Higher education is the pathway to economic parity and prosperity (asserted or at least implied to be synonymous with human flourishing).
    • Our educational system, particularly our postsecondary educational system, is the primary culprit in the erosion of our global leadership position.
    • In particular, North American student enrollment, student achievement (i.e., test scores) and system productivity (i.e., number of PhD’s) in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines is in critical decline.
    • Major resources and policy initiatives must be invested in STEM disciplines in order to reverse the above trends and secure our future global leadership.

And furthermore …

  • Higher education as we have known it, the narrative continues, is characterized (or should I say caricatured) by …
    • Monopolization of credentials through the system of postsecondary degrees and diplomas;
    • Guild-driven gatekeeping through the, at best inefficient and, at worst corrupt, quality assurance mechanism of accreditation;
    • Escalating college costs, runaway inefficiency, and declining “productivity” in terms of undergraduate instruction because this core activity is subsidized by indulgent faculty promotion and tenure schemes that prize and prioritize research output and graduate education;
    • Unconscionable levels of student debt and scandalously spiraling student loan default rates;
    • Dubious achievement of relevant, real-world competencies on the part of graduates who are under- and ill-prepared for “real world” employment;
    • Employer dissatisfaction with college graduates’ preparedness for the workplace; in particular, employers cite dissatisfaction regarding college graduates’ lack of “soft skills” (e.g., self-discipline, punctuality, empathy, emotional intelligence), critical thinking skills, and their sense of entitlement.

The end is near …

In light of the above realities, the narrative continues, higher education as we have known it in the 20th century will be obsolete by 2020–or at least its landscape will be altered in revolutionary proportions. For example:

  • The established currency of higher education, the credit hour, will be supplanted and rendered obsolete by “badges” and other forms of competency based education.
  • Instruction will be “unbundled” from the traditional experiential and socializing aspects of undergraduate higher education–both because it is irrelevant to increasing numbers of non-traditional students and to the essential nature and purposes of higher education (namely, to produce workplace competencies and ensure economic prosperity).
  • The majority of future postsecondary education will not be campus based.
  • Anywhere from 20% – 50% of the 4,000+ existing North American postsecondary institutions will fold.
  • Online education has undergone an order of magnitude change in instructional effectiveness; so-called Online 2.0 will introduce features such as asynchronous, adaptive instruction and customized personal and career advising.
  • The present amounts to a “Copernican moment” in which the center of higher education’s universe irrevocably shifts from campuses to students and society.

Ready to boil over?

What about this narrative? The logic seems impeccable, the trajectory inevitable. In my opinion, while many of the above assertions must be reckoned with, several key premises are debatable, others deeply flawed. In upcoming posts, I will seek to identify some propositions we must vigorously reject and some realities to which we must awaken. Failure on either front will seal our fate as surely as that of the frog in the kettle.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


Recruitment Effort Priorities: Fresh 2015 Report 

Our friend Jeff Suderman passed along this helpful Ruffalo Cody (formerly Noel-Levitz) e-Expectations study. Make sure your enrollment management team gets this link. They would profit from subscribing to Jeff’s blog. Better yet, make sure someone from y0ur institution is signed up for Jeff’s February 10, 2016 annual meeting workshopEnrollment Planning – Seven Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them.

What is Oprah leading us to believe?

Here is a simple and straightforward analysis of the new kind of “belief” Oprah Winfrey is touting. I wonder to what extent your students (dare I say your faculty) have absorbed, even adopted this definition and are importing it into their professed relationship with God?