Sound-Bite Pronouncements on the Present and Future State of Higher Education

Janet Napolitano, the President of the University of California system recently wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which she argued that, despite the challenges created by unprecedented cuts in state support for public higher education, it is a gross exaggeration to assert that American higher education is in crisis.

Scott H. Levine, the Executive Director of Higher Education Research Consultants, responded in a letter to the editor that Napolitano failed to account for four factors undermining American higher education:

(1) The average student is a working adult, needing completely different services than traditional residential higher ed offers;

(2) Online learning has proved to be hugely successful for some adult learners (not all), and it must factor heavily into the evolving university;

(3) Universities are difficult to manage, due in large part to tenured faculty who simply don’t want to change;

(4) Private, not-for-profit higher education institutions educate more than 15 percent of American students of all ages, and these institutions, with very rare exceptions, are in great trouble.

It may seem snarky to do so, but I think that it is imperative to start emphasizing that educational “reformers”—a category into which Levine clearly seems to fit—need higher education to be “in crisis” in order to have leverage for imposing their own ideas onto higher education. But Levine certainly does not make that case in any meaningful way in his critique of Napolitano’s argument.

On the first point, Napolitano has rightly pointed out that the typical college student is no longer the “traditional” college student entering college directly from high school and spending four years living in a residence hall on campus. That is very true—and probably all the more true at California’s community colleges and at the universities in the California State University system than at those in the University of California system. On the other hand, Levine goes too far in describing the “average” student as a “working adult.” Moreover, I believe that he overstates the lack of services to such non-traditional students since most universities have offices that exist precisely to serve major designated categories of such students—such as military personnel and veterans and displaced workers.

On the second point, Levine greatly exaggerates the success of online education. Although it has very clearly facilitated  scheduling for working adults and even for students who are holding part-time jobs to cover living expenses or to offset some college costs, online education exploded in a gross overreaction to the supposed threat posed by the online for-profit universities. I am not going to chronicle the bursting of that bubble and repeat here the analysis of its implications that I presented in a very recent post [https://academeblog.org/2015/03/28/the-meaning-of-the-failure-of-the-online-for-profit-universities/], but Levine seems to have considered none of those factors very seriously. As far as he is concerned, it seems, online education is still the completely unchallenged, revolutionary mode of the instruction on which the whole future of American higher education depends. And that’s just nonsense. And if he doesn’t believe that it is nonsense, he ought to ask the holders of Apollo Group/University of Phoenix stock how upbeat they are about the future of online education.

On the third point, Levine completely ignores that tenured faculty represent a lower percentage of the total faculty than they have at any time in the last half-century, or more, and that their influence on institutional governance has been undermined by the endless expansion of a separate administrative class, the increase in corporate influence at all levels, and the increasingly aggressive intrusion of political ideology into not just institutional decision-making but into many mundane aspects of campus life. Reflexively blaming tenured faculty for almost anything occurring at present in higher education is fast becoming the equivalent of scapegoating labor unions for anything significant that is troubling a given state’s economy. It is nothing more than ideologically driven scapegoating, and it reflects a certain glib off-handedness about very important issues.

Lastly, although private colleges and universities are facing very serious challenges, the institutions whose futures are most immediately affected by their ability to meet those challenges either have been only marginally solvent for some time or were established to serve a niche population that no longer exists. Although much has been made about whether Sweet Briar falls into the first category, it is unarguable that it falls into the second category—on several counts: that is, it is a very small institution located in a small and somewhat isolated rural community, and it is a “women’s college” in an era in which a decisive majority of students at almost every public college and university are now female. Without being at all casual about the impact of Sweet Briar’s closing on its faculty, its students, and its surrounding community, it is a tremendous stretch to assert that the closure of an institution with such a profile more broadly signals anything truly significant about the state of American higher education.

 

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