As a Ph.D. student researching American higher education, I find it virtually impossible to keep up with the reform literature these days. Just as I finish one book on “Why Higher Education Is Broken” or “What’s Wrong with Colleges,” I catch wind of some new publication. This is frustrating for selfish reasons because it means the literature review of my dissertation proposal is constantly under construction. However, it is troubling for another reason: Higher-education scholars are seemingly on the margins of the conversation.
Dominating the higher-education-reform conversation are those whose livelihoods are tied to the idea that the system is failing or in need of some “innovative” solution. Take, for example, the myriad policy centers and think tanks that have popped up recently to give opinions on higher education’s future. It is the job of these organizations to write papers and convene meetings about the problems colleges and universities face, meaning there is work (and employment) only so long as problems can be identified. This is not to suggest that policy-center staffers invent problems out of thin air. Nevertheless, it makes me wonder about their incentive to solve problems, as well as their interests in the conversation, particularly if the center is housed in a right- or left-leaning organization.
The same is true of another group heavily involved in “fixing” higher education: entrepreneurs. It should probably come as no surprise that some of the most vociferous critics of higher education are those looking to profit from “disruptive technologies” and “new business models” that they believe will improve or replace the system. Again, the point is not that higher education is perfect—far from it. I am simply not convinced that we should take policy advice from people whose profitability is predicated on convincing people that the old “product” is inadequate.
A final group in the mix does not fit neatly in either of the two categories mentioned above, but straddles both worlds. It consists of journalists. This is no doubt a smaller group, but there are a number of journalists who have staked their careers on writing books and articles on problems and solutions in higher education. A few of these books are among the best I have read—they are well researched and easily accessible. Still, the royalties made on the books, the paid speaking engagements, and the range of other opportunities that emerged after publication mean that these journalists have inserted themselves in the conversation and are benefiting from its perpetuation.
There seems to be, in the words of a wise colleague, a vast reform-industrial complex being built around higher education. As more and more doomsday publications roll out, my attention gravitates toward calculating the large amounts of money being circulated between venture philanthropists and talking heads. The questions surrounding higher education’s future demand input from academics whose livelihoods are tied to rigorous scholarship, imbued with an understanding of history, theory, and data, not from policy centers pursuing a political agenda or entrepreneurs shoring up business.
Yet out of the multitude of works on higher education I have read over the past year in completing my exams and writing my dissertation proposal, surprisingly few for general audiences are written by higher-education scholars. A number of books are written by professors—of business management. Similarly, several pieces share insight from high-level administrators who used to be professors, usually in fields outside of higher education. Both groups have knowledge of higher education, certainly, after spending many years in the system. However, I have yet to see convincing evidence that the application of business theories to higher education yields greater effectiveness and efficiency. Nor do I feel comfortable taking reform advice from university presidents. I liken that to taking policy recommendations on fixing the financial system from CEOs of investment banks.
There are, of course, academics who are doing policy and reform-related research, but as is often true of academe, the research is not public or accessible enough. As a student of higher education, I am calling on scholars in my field to step up to the plate. Get more involved in the conversation. Write more articles for the general public, based upon your empirical research. Design more courses that tackle the big problems and dissect the effectiveness of proposed solutions. Simply put, higher education is under siege, and its very legitimacy as an institution is being questioned. Now, more than ever, we need your experience, data analysis, and leadership.
There are several possible reasons why higher-education academics aren’t currently part of the conversation. Among them is that scholars are still married to the idea that they should publish their research in traditional journal articles instead of in more popular publications or nontraditional outlets like blogs and personal Web sites. Another could be that academics have been purposely marginalized in the conversation. For example, in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, 16 policy centers and organizations were selected to offer solutions, but no academics. It also could be that scholars do not buy into the apocalyptic predictions that are all the rage these days and do not feel it is worth their time to become involved in the conversation. Whatever the reason, it is important that higher-education academics recognize that their voices need to be heard.
This call goes out to higher-education scholars in training as well. As we craft our research projects, we need to be involved in providing data-driven examinations of financial aid, student learning, and completion initiatives. We should spend our time investigating the true costs and benefits of new ideas and placing our institutions in their proper historical context. It may also mean getting outside of departments and colleges of education to take courses in politics, economics, and sociology.
Some readers will challenge whether faculty and proto-intellectuals are the right sources of information on reform. They will argue that we are too insulated from the real world, too implicated in the system’s failures, and too accustomed to the status quo. All I can say is that, after spending countless hours swimming through a sea of reform literature, I see little added benefit from yet another publication from the reform-industrial complex. There is a vacant spot at the table for the best thinkers in our field, and I, for one, am eager for them to take a seat.
Kevin R. McClure is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.Return to Top