Ken Burns's recent documentary tells the story of the Dust Bowl, blow by blow: the brutally unrelenting natural challenges, the grim perseverance and astonishingly unfailing hope of Depression-era farm families, and the glimmers of actual relief that were quickly followed by even worse calamities. Staring straight at the camera, one stoic survivor states the prevailing frame of mind with blunt candor: "We figured if we failed, we didn't try hard enough. We didn't do anything different the next year, we just tried harder."
When you know only one way—when you can envision only one way—then failure (or success) must be simply a matter of effort. If innovation is any measure, until recently much of higher education seemed stuck in Dust Bowl thinking. The good news is that seems to be changing.
Last month Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, called for a national commission "to work on the challenges facing higher education," saying that the time had come to deal with issues of coherence and structure in the American education system. Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, agreed, suggesting that modern American higher education was running on a 20th-century model, with 19th-century values.
At least having a conversation about what to keep, what to drop, what to modify, and what to add in the 21st century does not seem too bold a proposal. Indeed, in our risk-averse "follow what leader?" higher-education environment, a call for an objective, big-picture dialogue among diverse, smart, committed stakeholders is a good thing.
In fact, if such an exercise only gives cover for some unconventional thinking, planning, and action, then that is a really good thing. Why wait for market or regulatory forces to drive change? Wouldn't it be far better if vested and knowledgeable practitioners engaged in candid, intentional future-think, bringing the substance of their experience to the table while leaving the comfort of the familiar at home?
The growing concern about the fate of the liberal arts might serve as a bellwether. Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, acknowledged the changing landscape and the challenges to liberal-arts colleges in a speech on her campus in October, and suggested fresh approaches to engaging what appears to be a dwindling audience.
Paying serious attention to change and looking outward are good starts, but the prevailing consumer culture has shifted over time. New audiences in new markets invited to college are pragmatic and hugely practical, and arrive with an underappreciation of classical academic values. And the words "liberal arts" probably create confusion, assuming they receive attention at all.
I think it is safe to assume that few students select a liberal-arts college for the liberal arts. I do know that many students select their colleges for prestige, perceived value, cost (tuition freezes and no-loan policies help), and campus facilities. And I believe that most of those who attend liberal-arts colleges develop an appreciation for this education during and especially after their time as students.
Recently Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar College's president and an expert on the economics of higher education, shared her worry that the liberal arts were heading back to their elite roots. My reply was that perhaps the liberal-arts model for the future might become like European monasteries hundreds of years ago, with sequestered devotees attending to illuminated manuscripts and deliberately paced contemplation surrounded by a brutal and chaotic world outside.
Of course it would be melodramatic to suggest that higher education is facing barbaric assaults, but few people these days are dismissing the potentially devastating consequences of concerns about cost, content, and value.
Having had the great good fortune to spend the past 35 years working in a wide range of colleges and universities, and being privileged to counsel families who represent that diversity, I think Presidents Hill and Chopp are right. I believe that the liberal arts' shrinkage will continue, and I hope that its champions will begin to rethink its value in a modern context that takes into account a lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation in the market. Because it won't do to either dismiss public indifference or pine for the recent good old days.
The future of higher education is important—and unknown—and it will be significantly affected by environmental factors beyond the control of academe. But it can be significantly influenced by leadership from within academe. Of course, that's what Gregorian's call for a national summit is all about. But on the local level, active, experience-guided, and market-sensitive tactics can yield positive results and make institutions stronger with no sacrifice of integrity or dignity. For example:
- I know a college that introduced an honors program it called the "Renaissance Baccalaureate." Despite decent promotion, it drew little attention—and lots of misspellings. It was relaunched as the "Discovery Degree," with exactly the same features, and was an immediate hit.
- In response to public concern over price, a number of colleges have adjusted family expense through combinations of freezing the top-line price (in some cases even cutting it) and reducing family cost through financial-aid discounting.
- Three-year bachelor's degrees and blends of in-class and online learning are being tried at traditional residential colleges.
- Similarly, acknowledging the mounting worry about the cost of an education and the jobs it may or may not lead to, colleges have beefed up career services, alumni networks, and internships.
In fact, the value of a college degree has never been stronger, despite critiques of the quantity and quality of the learning behind the degrees awarded. But for higher education to accommodate our future needs requires leadership that will pay attention to issues of access, affordability, curriculum, and pedagogy—and that will require collaboration, risk taking, and care.
Like the Depression-era Dust Bowl, some of higher education's challenges have been created by its proponents. A mass of good intentions, fueled by seemingly endless resources, set the enterprise on what has become an unsustainable trajectory. Now more and more leaders from within academe are acknowledging the need for re-evaluation. I would rather see those for whom change may be the most difficult play a leading role in changing the system. That certainly beats waiting for the market (families) or regulatory forces (the government) to do it for us.