The Future of American Higher Education?

Last week, The Atlantic ran a cover story on “The Future of College.” As we have heard many times over the past few decades, the article lamented the death of higher education as we have long known it, focusing on a future “by stripping it down to its essence.”

In this case, it meant looking to the work of the Minerva Project, a for-profit effort to “replace the modern liberal-arts college.”

Of course, one could ask what the “modern liberal-arts college” actually is. If we look at the thousands of college campuses around the United States, there is little modern about them. Sure, we may have new buildings and have replaced card catalogs with technology, but what is taught and how it is taught is largely unchanged. Liberal arts, as our parents or grandparents may have studied it, is very much like the liberal arts education our children have received today.

We’ve heard many stories like those coming from the Minerva Project. University of Phoenix made a similar promise. Just a few years ago, we were told that MOOCs were going to do the same thing, put the final nail in traditional higher ed’s coffin and usher in a new era of consumer-based higher education.

Years ago, when Eduflack was working in for-profit higher education, I remember having discussions with researchers about why we would expect traditional higher education to change. People will pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to access the current model. Acceptance rates and wait lists tell us that the demand is larger than the supply. That just tells us we should be charging more. There is real hunger for what we have now, so why change it? Why have a “New Coke” moment in higher ed when we all are clamoring for Coke Classic?

The arguments are enough to frustrate even the most aggressive of cynics. Why repair or replace our existing IHEs? Why fix something that so many people don’t see as broken?

We are reminded of why this past weekend in an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune (and was republished in the Indianapolis Star here). Its editorial board looked at the efforts of current Purdue University President (and former Indiana Gov.) Mitch Daniels and his push to reinvent the American university on the Indiana campus.

In its analysis, the Trib noted, in looking at Daniels’ approach to financial management at the IHE:

Daniels isn’t the first college chief to cut costs or hold tuition steady. We know that many schools are pushing hard to make higher ed affordable; a few have even trimmed tuition rates. But it’s big news when a major university freezes tuition, even for a year. Would that such news, accompanied by news of frozen spending, were ho-hum routine at many campuses.


Unfortunately, it isn’t. Daniels offers a chart (reproduced nearby), which won’t shock parents struggling to pay for college. It traces how tuition costs have outstripped inflation since 1990.

“In our view, that game that relied on jacking up costs year after year is over,” he tells us. “The marketplace is beginning to rebel.” Does he worry that Purdue could be unilaterally disarming against other schools still investing lavishly in amenities for students? “It could be that we’ll still lose students to someone with a higher climbing wall, but we are prepared to take that chance.”


Daniels isn’t focused solely on cost cuts. He’s also invested in expanding Purdue’s engineering and computer science programs, among others. In a letter to the Purdue diaspora, he set this goal: “If we can maintain a campus-wide commitment to holding costs down, counting every $10,000 saved as a ‘student tuition equivalent,’ we can fulfill our duty to our students, taxpayers and everyone who chooses to invest in Purdue’s enterprise.”

 It is an interesting approach, and one that is far too unusual in higher education today. Focusing on the students as consumers, and ensuring they are getting ROI and tuition (and state) dollars are being spent wisely and focused on educating the students themselves. Investing in new programs that better provide students the pathways from higher ed to the jobs their communities and states and nation have the most need to fill. And a recognition that just because we have done things one way in the past, and just because our peers may now do it that same way, does not mean it is what is best for our institution, our students, and our nation.

As the Trib summarizes:

The ultimate test of Daniels’ tenure: Will a focus on value help lift moderate-income students into productive lives and careers? Might a degree from a leaner, no-nonsense Purdue gain luster at a time when other campuses project the creature-comforting images of country clubs?


Ultimately students and hard-pressed parents will vote with their feet, and their checkbooks, on whether Daniels has succeeded at making an already fine institution a greater value than it is today.


A greater value, that is, than other major universities that compete with Purdue to educate the best and brightest.

That is indeed the case. When we talk about the future of higher education, it will be decided by the outcomes and byproducts of its work. The universities that will thrive will do so because they will meet the changing needs and expectations of their customers. They will offer a high-quality product that aligns with their students and the career opportunities they seek. They will be prudent with the dollar. And they will realize we must begin to change structures and approaches to ensure we are meeting the future needs of our students and communities, and not simply using IHEs to pay homage to educational days of yore.  

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