American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges.

Reviews of Recent Books Concerning Current Issues in Higher Ed: No. 2

Altbach, Philip G., Patricia J. Gumport, and Robert O. Berdahl, eds. American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges. 3rd Edition. Eds. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins U P, 2011.

In selecting the essays included in this collection, the editors have attempted not only to provide an overview of the major issues confronting America’s colleges and universities, but also to suggest how at least some of those issues are affecting higher education on an international scale.

The authors collectively address several paradoxes. First, although the American system of higher education has long been and still remains the best in the world, there is a growing sense that its future is more uncertain than it ever has been–and may be perilously uncertain. Second, although higher education has always been defined by some degree of continual flux, there is a growing sense that the changes that are currently occurring are more definitive and more irreversible than previous cycles of change. And, lastly, the movements toward more specialization in the curriculum and toward more contingent employment among the professoriate seem to have reached critical tipping points, beyond which it will be increasingly difficult to readjust institutional missions in response to shifting political, economic, and cultural pressures.

The collection includes seventeen essays, which are divided into four sections: The Setting, External Forces, The Academic Community, and Central Issues.

The authors of the essays in the first section trace the great expansion of higher education—in particular, public higher education–in the post-World War II era, attributing that expansion to unprecedented economic growth both in the U.S. and worldwide, to the spread of English and the development of electronic technologies that have combined to expedite the communication of scholarship, and to the changing expectations of the workforce due the development of an increasingly information-driven economy. Although the corporatization of higher education has created a professional administrative class in high education, which is consuming an increasing proportion of institutional revenues, faculty have responded to their decreased administrative influence with increasing activism—in more extreme cases increasing attention to issues that they deem critical by enlisting the assistance of national organizations such as the ACLU and AAUP.

In the second section, the authors of the essays focus of several dichotomies at the core of the major dilemmas facing higher education. They note that, paradoxically, as the demand for access to public higher education has accelerated, the governmental support for public colleges and universities has declined dramatically over the last three decades in response to economic downturns and has not been restored because of pressures to increase allocations to the prison systems, healthcare programs, and defense and homeland security. As a consequence of the reductions in federal funding and in state subsidies, students have been asked to pay higher tuitions, which, especially during economic recessions, has led to accelerated levels of student-loan debt. This debt has led to political pressure on institutions to improve graduation rates and the job-readiness of their graduates. As institutions have tried to compensate for the loss of federal aid and state subsidy by attracting increasing research-related funding and grants for initiatives from private foundations, they have increased their accountability—or lost some of their autonomy—to external agencies.

The authors of the essays in the third section, delineate the changes that have occurred among faculty, students, and administrators as constituencies within our institutions. The increasing reliance on part-time and non-tenure-eligible full-time faculty has arguably led to a steady de-professionalizing of the professoriate. At the very least, it has divided the faculty into more privileged and much less privileged classes. So, as the unionization of faculty has increased, especially among tenure-eligible faculty, the ability of those unions to influence institutional decision-making has very often not increased proportionately. Likewise, although the number of high school graduates pursuing higher educations has increased dramatically, those students have become much more likely to be part-time or intermittent. Some of this change is due to rising tuition and housing costs and the need to rely increasingly on student loans, but some of it is also due to a shift in the perception of how a college or university degree may impact an individual’s subsequent employment. These changes in student demographics have increased the difficulties in assessment for college and university administrators, but to suggest that those difficulties are driving the burgeoning numbers and costs of administrators and administrative staff would be an overstatement. Indeed, administrations are struggling with the conundrum that administrative bloat runs counter to the increasing need to streamline decision-making while effectively including input from faculty and students.

In the fourth and last section of the collection, the authors of the essays enumerate the major challenges currently facing our colleges and universities. Institutions must, ideally, expand their sources of revenue or, at least, maintain existing revenue sources while limiting increases in tuition in order to maintain access. They must determine which developments in electronic technologies will enhance their accomplishment of their missions or open new possibilities for their institutions, which will create external challenges to their ability to attract and retain students, and which are simply distractions. Institutions with graduate programs must confront the reality that fewer and fewer students who earn advanced degrees are finding sustainable employment in higher education. And all institutions must find a way to balance the needs of increasingly diverse student populations with demands for increasingly standardized curricula and methods of instruction.

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