Insights · October 14th, 2013

By Sara Robinson

Americans share a broad understanding that their educational system is overdue for a major overhaul. The visions of what a new system should do, and what it needs to accomplish for both the student and for the sake of our civilization, are a subject of increasing debate. But the fact that the debate is now raging everywhere reveals at least one clear point of consensus: the old industrial-era model that’s been in place for the past 150 years is no longer delivering the goods.

While much of this furor is over K-12 education, our universities are also looking ahead to a rapidly-changing landscape. Faculty and administration are grappling with challenges they’ve never seen before, and are trying to figure out what comes next.

This is the second in a three-part series examining the nature of the deep transformation that American universities are now confronting. In the first part, we looked at the mission and purposes of the university as we’ve understood it in the past. This second part looks at some of the biggest disruptive forces that are driving a radical re-alignment of this mission, and forcing university leaders to confront the inevitability of a very different future. Next week, the third part will consider the questions we need to be answering now in order to begin re-visioning the university and re-tooling it to survive in the information age.

Though this list of trends is long, it’s hardly comprehensive. But, seeing these forces laid out together in one place, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that higher education is in the grip of an epic realignment that’s undermining the model that’s served us so well for so many centuries. Here are some of the forces of change that are re-shaping higher education in this century:

Erosion of the meritocracy. In last year’s book, “The Twilight of the Elites,” Chris Hayes documented the ways in which our old ideal of an equal-access meritocracy is failing in America; and also the ways in which our university-educated elites are failing America in turn. He argued that meritocracy is failing in part because it’s increasingly harder for people from the lower classes to get to college. A two-tier public education system, exploding tuition, an SAT testing regime that’s being gamed by the rich (who can afford tutors), the atrophy of our public universities, and the threat of overwhelming student debt are increasingly making college what it was a century ago: a luxury only for the wealthy.

The result of this, he argued, is that our national leadership is drawn from an increasingly narrow band of elites; and these elites lack the perspective to lead the country well.   The result is pervasive failures across the entire landscape of America’s leadership, in almost every field. For exampled, Hayes cites the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the economic meltdown as a direct result of this narrowing, along with the failure of journalism to inform the American public (leaving a gap that was filled by bloggers and Jon Stewart), and even the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Everywhere we look, he argues, the people our universities have credentialed to look out for us are falling down on the job.

As a result, the American public is losing faith in a great many credentialed professions, and the institutions they represent.

Objectivity Under Attack. As documented by Allan Brandt in “The Cigarette Century” and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in “Merchants of Doubt,” there’s been a 60-year campaign by major corporations to systematically undermine Americans’ faith in science. Started by PR firms seeking to cultivate public doubt about the tobacco-cancer link, this campaign has now moved on to undermine our collective understanding of evolution and climate change as well. On a wider level, this campaign is actively encouraging the mass of Americans to reject science entirely, and discount anything they’re told by scientists — a trend that will make it harder for science faculties to justify their political existence to a skeptical populace or have a positive influence on our culture going forward.

Our universities are our only real line of defense against this deliberate campaign of ignorance. This study shows that US high school graduates are to a large degree scientifically illiterate. Americans who have been through university-level general science courses (even 100- and 200- level courses) are far more likely to understand and accept important concepts like evolution and climate change.

Similar revisionist efforts are afoot in the teaching of American history and economics. In particular, political conservatives are endowing university chairs in an effort to perpetuate discredited ideologically-driven theories that are at odds with the factual basis of both disciplines.

Science For Sale. Over time, university-based scientific research is funded less by government and more by corporations — which are then empowered to dictate what will be researched, by whom, and in what way. In this way, corporations are exerting more control over what gets funded and published within the academy, crowding out pure research.

There’s also abundant evidence that funders favor researchers who are willing to skew results toward a preferred conclusion; and that funded research tends to yield results that tend to reflect the best interests of the funders. Funders — both private and governmental — are also more aggressively attempting to interfere with the peer review function of scholarly journals.

All of this limits and compromises the scientific discussion, which in turn significantly affects the quality of the research that gets done. It also plays into the hands of those who are seeking to undermine public faith in science. (Over the long term, it will actively undermine people’s trust in their doctors as well — something that should deeply concern the medical profession in particular.)

It seems very likely that as people increasingly reject the authority of the meritocracy, they’re also going to take a dimmer view of the institution that is most responsible for certifying and perpetuating it.   As a long-term, deep trend, allowing university research to be co-opted by moneyed interests represents a serious political and cultural challenge to the perceived legitimacy of the academy in its current form.

Cost/Benefit of a University Education. Over the past year, state and national politicians have proposed gathering “return-on-investment” (ROI) information on degree programs, so that students and lenders can have good consumer information about which degrees will yield the highest income return after graduation. Some national politicians have suggested that federally-insured student loans should be preferentially granted to “high-ROI” degree programs.

While these initiatives are presented as pro-consumer efforts to help families spend their education dollars more wisely, there’s a darker flip side that should also be part of these discussions: Policies like this also hasten the evolution of the university into a glorified trade school. If the government no longer funds students who want to go into the arts, humanities, and social sciences, universities will face strong pressure to shut these departments down.

As a result, as a society, America will have far fewer linguists, musicians, Sinologists and Arabists, anthropologists, poets, and so on.   These professions may not pay well; but the arts and humanities are the heart and soul of all great civilizations — and no civilization has abandoned the teaching of them and survived for long. These are the fields that develop people’s creativity, broaden their perspectives, cultivate their imaginations, and inform their moral sense. Losing them will cost us not only the things that make life worth living; they will also, in the long run, cost us our edge on the technology, innovation, and even national security fronts as well.

The Shrinking Middle Class. Unfortunately, the above cost/benefit calculation is being made in almost every middle-class household left in America. Given the high cost of college and the prospect of a lifetime of student debt, parents and students are re-thinking the value of university education altogether. Many of our top high school graduates are cobbling together the education they need from other, cheaper sources. They’re opting to learn more lucrative hands-on trades, informally apprenticing to experts in fields they’re interested in, or relying on online courses and shorter certification classes. This situation is loudly demanding that universities argue for more strenuously for the value that they bring to society, and work harder to justify the cost of their offerings. Their survival depends how many Americans honestly feel that they have easy access to a college education, and how much real lifetime value they believe that education will have.

The Changing Purpose of Education. At the root of this conversation is a pervasive tension — do we value private goods that benefit only ourselves, or do we also believe in the larger common good? As long as a university education is seen as a private good (with benefits that redound only to the student), universities will be forced to justify themselves in terms of their economic value alone.

The answers to this question are shifting. There is a deep-level trend, especially in the younger generations, toward the re-emergence of the common good as a shared American value. Since most universities were founded during eras when the common good was a paramount value — and much of their value to civilization is only tangible when viewed in terms of the common good — universities always do best in these eras.

We are at the nadir of a 40-year cycle in which the rights of individuals have been given primacy over those of community, which is why market values are being imposed on every institution, including universities. But, as a nation, we are starting to turn away from this. And the pendulum will likely continue to swing as the (very collectivist) Millennial generation ascends to cultural dominance over the next decade. Universities should position themselves to capitalize on the Millennials’ instinct for the common good, and revive the idea that there are some things that have essential cultural value apart from market values.

Here Comes Everybody. At the same time Americans’ faith in the university-educated meritocracy is declining, the Internet has fueled a resurgence of a longstanding cultural belief that everybody is entitled to an opinion, regardless of their familiarity with the topic. (In fact, this is one of the core levers used by the anti-science campaign: the idea that real Americans shouldn’t listen to experts — like scientists — but rather work out the answers to important questions for themselves. “Who’s better qualified to decide? You, or some IPCC climate scientist? In a democracy, it’s you!”) Again, this serves to erode the status of experts — like professors and researchers — and with it, ultimately, the general willingness of our society to support them.

Learning and the gift economy. Stewart Brand once famously said that information wants to be free — which means that anybody who’s in the business of brokering information is facing the possibility of having to survive in a gift economy at some point in the future.   Our landscape is already littered with the corpses of businesses that have succumbed to this new reality. Newspapers are dying largely because classified ads fell to Craigslist, and journalists were supplanted by bloggers. Real estate agents are being forced to re-define their role in an era when home buyers do much of their house and mortgage shopping online. The only travel agents left are the ones who’ve specialized to serve specific markets. All bookstores are Amazon now; and retailers are battling “showrooming” as shoppers move online to locate a far wider selection of goods.

And universities will not be immune from this trend. As the number of venues through which people can acquire needed knowledge and credentials increases — and the price of acquiring those things decreases — the level of cultural support for vast university campuses and expensive faculties (and the willingness to pay ever-spiraling tuition costs) will decline.

The Emergence of the Relationship Economy. What lies beyond the gift economy? The cutting-edge businesses of the 21st century are calculating success not on the basis of number of sales, but rather the number of customers they cultivate long-term relationships with. In this model, customer service is the number one product; all else is subordinate to making and keeping strong, lifelong bonds with your customer base.

Universities are already very experienced at building intense loyalty among their stakeholders. But it may be time to bring the lifelong nature of the student-U relationship even more front and center — start it earlier, support it more strongly later, and loosen the ways in which people can affiliate so that many more people will feel invested and involved. Certain exclusivist academic traditions, like selective admissions and grading, may have to be reconsidered and re-imagined in order to do this at a large enough scale — but turning people’s experience of State U into something more like their day-to-day experience with Amazon Prime is one window into a provocative alternative future scenario.

Changes due to the Internet. Super-professors. MOOCs. The lack of social interaction among and with distance students. The high online dropout rates. Those concerned about our changing universities are already well aware of the challenges posed by the Internet.

To these concerns, I offer two thoughts. The first is that online teaching is a pedagogy unto itself. It can be execrable, or excellent, depending almost entirely on the design of the online platform and the skill of the professor who uses it.   At best, an online classroom can foster frequent and productive interaction between a global collection of students, lots of lively online discussions, critiques of each others’ work, and so on. At worst, it can leave a student completely isolated and without resources. There’s a real and valuable skill set here, and mastering it matters — a lot.

The second is that this problem may have a strong generational component. Boomer and Xer faculty and administrators may well be seeing a problem that the Millennials — as the first digital natives — simply won’t recognize. They grew up forming close relationships online, and doing the bulk of their learning from YouTube and Google and all the rest of it. They move instinctively in the online world; and when they start teaching, they’ll probably have a very clear grasp of how to form compelling learning communities — a grasp that simply eludes those of us who didn’t grow up with smartphones in hand.

Those of us over 40 worry because we grew up on physical campuses, and don’t have the knowledge base required to create online ones. It’s possible that, over the next decade or two, we may be able to trust the kids — who do have this knowledge base — to innovate their way to online education that really works.

The Maker Movement. As noted above, middle-class Millennials and their parents are increasingly skeptical of the value of a university degree. At the same time, Millennials see the acquisition of hands-on making and manufacturing skills as intensely desirable. Not only does having a trade liberate them personally from depending on an economic order they see as unstable, and workplaces that don’t share their interests or values; it’s also sowing the seeds of what’s already turning into a small-scale renaissance in local manufacturing across the country — one that could trend very big over the next several years, especially if the economy doesn’t improve. In their view, it’s far better to be an employed gardener or shoemaker — either solo, or as part of a growing worker-owned business — than an unemployed lawyer.

Universities may find it in their interest to welcome this trend and address it head-on. This generation is already expecting more hands-on learning, and more experiential techniques that get them out into the field. And this desire may, in fact, be part of the antidote to the fear that online education will be isolating. Courses that encourage students to team up on projects where they are in real time, and achieve real things together, can go a long way toward replicating the communities of learning that so many fear are about to be lost.

Look Who’s Coming Next. Finally, starting in the 2018-2020 time frame, there will be a changing of the guard, as the last Millennials give way to the leading edge of the Homeland generation — the kids who cannot remember the world pre-9/11.

This generation will be very similar in style to the Silent Generation that came of age during WWII. They will be just about as cooperative and communitarian as the Millennials; but they’re also going to be more interested in the deeper meanings of things, and capable of enormous nuance, compassion, and complexity. Gradually, between 2020 and 2030, universities are going to find themselves dealing with students who are more willing to ask deep, hard existential questions, and who are also more willing to read and think deeply to find the answers.   It’s going to be a refreshing change — and one that university planners need to bear in mind as they think about their campuses decade from now.

In these first two articles of the three-part series, we’ve looked at the mission of the university as we’ve known it, and the strong forces that are working to re-shape the institution for the 21st century. Next week, we’ll consider some of the central questions that administrators and faculty will want to ask themselves as they start their strategic planning processes, and try to cope effectively with these changes.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a consulting futurist specializing in social change. Her writing has appeared online at New York Magazine, Salon, Alternet, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and many other websites, as well as in print. She lives in Seattle.

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Nikolas Badminton – Chief Futurist

Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

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