The Future of Higher Education

by David Crabtree


Higher education in America is experiencing upheaval. Everyone senses that change is coming, but it is not clear what that change will be. This much is certain: our colleges and universities are going to look quite different in a few years.

As president of Gutenberg College I have been learning of various aspects of the change for many years now. Most of the factors of change are talked about in the public sphere, and so you are probably already aware of many of them. But it was not until I viewed a short YouTube video, The Future of Education: Epic 2020, that it became clearer where these forces seem to be leading. This video becomes highly speculative toward the end, but the scenario for where higher education is headed in the next few years seems plausible, if not probable.

The crisis in higher education is being driven primarily by economic issues. Several years ago, under the Clinton administration, Congress increased the amount of federal aid to students to encourage more young people to get higher education. This aid typically came in a combination of scholarships and loans. With more young people willing and able to pay tuition to get a college degree, colleges began to compete more vigorously for students because more students meant more revenue. Colleges spent those additional revenues in different ways, but a disproportionate amount went to construct more attractive dorms, classrooms, and other facilities. The motivation for this kind of spending was to lure more students in order to increase revenues even more. With nicer facilities, colleges then felt justified in raising tuition, which translated into even more revenue. As tuition increased, Congress responded by increasing federal financial aid to students. But as time went on that aid shifted more and more in the direction of federally guaranteed loans and away from scholarships and grants. With low fixed interest rates, loan money was extremely attractive, and more and more students took out more and more money in loans. In 2000 the average amount of student loan debt was $17,616. In 2010 that amount had gone up to $27,204. This is a fifty-four percent increase over a ten-year period. As a result, total student-loan debt in America is now greater than total credit-card debt; last May it passed one trillion dollars and continues to rise sharply.

Meanwhile the recession has made it difficult for recent college graduates to find gainful employment. Students are therefore hard pressed to pay those loans, and the recession has left many parents less able to help. Add to this the fact that the burden of student loans cannot even be relieved by filing bankruptcy. For some students, then, student loans have become an overwhelming burden. We probably all know at least one recent college graduate who is saddled with significant student loan debt. Under these circumstances it is not difficult to understand why so many people are now asking the question, “Is college worth the cost?”

At the same time as the cost of a college education kept going up, an alternative to the traditional college education began to emerge. For a few decades now colleges have experimented with a variety of on-line instruction formats in an attempt to use the computer and the internet to provide high quality instruction that is more flexible and more cost effective. This on-line instruction has made it possible for many students who were not able to pursue a typical in-residence college experience to nevertheless gain higher education. On-line programs are significantly cheaper to provide than in-residence classes, largely because of the disparity in the need for facilities. However, since most on-line courses were provided by existing colleges who did not want on-line courses to take students from the in-residence programs, tuition rates were usually the same for on-line and in-residence courses. As a result, students in on-line courses were particularly significant in revenue production. The resulting fierce competition for on-line students is not surprising, especially in a time of increasing federal financial aid.

The availability of federal financial aid was an impetus for the emergence of another alternative to traditional college: for-profit colleges, institutions operated by private, profit-seeking businesses. These colleges were developed in an attempt to provide a college education more cheaply and more conveniently than the typical college. For-profit colleges proliferated starting in 1992 when their students were made eligible for federal financial aid.

Once it became apparent that for-profit colleges were here to stay, the partisans of traditional college began to attack for-profits on two main grounds: (1) they do not provide an education comparable to that provided by a traditional college; and (2) they use fraudulent recruiting practices to get as many students and as much federal financial aid as possible. This squabble between the traditional colleges and the for-profit colleges has been particularly acute during the last decade. And although Gutenberg College is neither a traditional college nor a for-profit college, we have, in a sense, been caught in the crossfire because this conflict has impacted accreditation.

The Federal Department of Education recognizes two major kinds of accreditation: regional accreditation and national accreditation. Regional accreditation—so called because historically the nation was divided into regions with only one association granting federally recognized accreditation in each region—is older. Most traditional colleges have regional accreditation. Regional accreditation is very restrictive. Existing colleges are not motivated to encourage the founding of new colleges, and so regional accrediting associations make it very difficult for new colleges to become accredited. The standard of “sustainability” is one example. One of the purposes for accreditation is to assure the public that a college is sound and sustainable. However, a new institution is inherently less sustainable than one with a long history and reputation, and regional accrediting associations have tended to make the standard for sustainability very high; a college has to show it has enough resources to operate for at least four years. New institutions that cannot meet this standard cannot be accredited by a regional association, but without accreditation it is very difficult for a college to raise funding and to recruit students. Thus the situation is a catch-22.

In an effort to break this monopoly, in the mid 1990s the Federal Government created an alternate means by which colleges could become accredited. The government decided to recognize non-regional accrediting associations provided they met the same federal standards laid out for the regionals. These new associations are generally known as national accrediting associations, and they typically have their own distinctives. For example, Gutenberg College is accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), which is a Christian accrediting association. Many for-profit colleges elected to gain accreditation from national accrediting associations.

Traditional colleges resent for-profit colleges, but for-profit colleges have enough support in Congress that they cannot easily be destroyed using governmental power. Traditional colleges, therefore, have a bias against national accreditation because they associate national accreditation with for-profit colleges and assume that national associations accredit substandard institutions that are not “real colleges.” Some regionally accredited institutions have even adopted a policy of not accepting the degrees of students who have graduated from nationally accredited institutions. Many good graduate programs have accepted Gutenberg students, but some will not. Those institutions that draw a hard bureaucratic line and only accept regionally accredited degrees will not accept a Gutenberg degree. But any institution willing to assess a Gutenberg degree on its merits has decided to accept it. A few graduate programs have even responded enthusiastically when they learned what kind of education Gutenberg provides. When Gutenberg first received accreditation, we had no idea that national accreditation would have so much difficulty gaining equality with regional accreditation.

While traditional colleges and for-profit colleges have been squabbling, the Federal Government has been making its presence felt more and more at the higher education level. During the Bush years, the Federal Government made a major push to improve the quality of K-12 education nationwide with the “No Child Left Behind” act. Having done that, the Bush administration began to turn to higher education, entering a sphere where the Federal Government had traditionally not interfered. The government felt justified in doing so because so much money was being spent on federal financial aid. In the last decade, the Federal Government became increasingly interested in implementing regulations that affect colleges across the country. Over the last few years, a spate of additional federal regulations have been imposed on colleges through accrediting associations, and there is every reason to expect that this trend will continue, if not accelerate, over the next few years.

As the Federal Government becomes more involved in the regulation of higher education, political forces that have a vested interest in what changes are made come into play. The most significant forces are the traditional colleges, for-profit colleges, and college students and their parents. But even while these forces wage war over accreditation regulations, a new development threatens to bring down the whole system of accreditation.

As the Epic 2020 video chronicles, a new era in on-line education started in 2006 when the Khan Academy began operations. This on-line academy offers training in a wide variety of subjects, progressing incrementally from elementary to college level. The courses consist of a series of short videos, accompanying exercises, quizzes, and instant rewards for achievement. All of this is made available world wide at no cost to the student, who can chose the time and pace of learning. The Academy is supported by donors, with Bill Gates and Google leading the way.

Then in 2011, Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, taught an on-line computer science class in parallel with his regular class. The on-line class was phenomenally successful, with many of his Stanford students preferring it to the in-class version. In the wake of this success, Thrun founded Udacity, one of the first private educational organizations offering MOOCs (massive open online courses). Udacity offers a variety of courses in computer science and engineering absolutely free. There are now several such organizations, including edX, Coursera, and Academic Room.

Like the Khan Academy, Udacity is funded by donations, but it has developed another funding source as well, one with significant implications for the future of higher education: employers. The Udacity curriculum attracts a huge number of students from all over the world. As the students progress through the curriculum, Udacity can identify the most gifted students and connect them with employers looking for students with certain training. In exchange for this service, Udacity receives one fifth of the first year’s salary.

The potential for this business model is huge. Employers have long complained that colleges are not providing up-to-date training appropriate for the workplace. This business model motivates Udacity and other organizations offering MOOCs to provide the kind of training that employers want, and in exchange it provides employers with well prepared, cream-of-the-crop workers. This model could be expanded to a wide variety of professions, providing free, appropriate training to a vast number of potential employees.

If this were to happen, it would have enormous implications for colleges. Businesses would be hiring employees on the basis of test-determined competency rather than college degrees. Many high school graduates would by-pass an expensive college education and would instead receive free training for the workplace on line. Accreditation would become largely irrelevant, and colleges would be scrambling to find a way to attract paying students. This would constitute a major transformation of our system of higher education.

Would all of this be a positive development? In many respects it would be. Vocational training would be affordable to anyone who can gain access to a computer and the internet. This is an amazing possibility. It would allow those who are able to thrive in the on-line education environment to rise to the fore and gain access to jobs that would otherwise have been unthinkable. All of this is probably for the good.

I have one very grave concern, however. Education—real education—would fall by the wayside. No longer would there be any cultural mandate for young people to learn anything outside of their narrow vocational training. This would just be the final step in a trend that has been long in process.

Our culture has concluded that education ought be nothing more than vocational training, which largely consists of the transmission of knowledge and skills. Much of that kind of training can be done on line as well or better than in a classroom. So why not do it through a MOOC, since that is far more cost effective?

But education, real education, old-fashioned, traditional education is a vital activity for any culture. Traditional education is the process whereby the older generation transfers to the younger generation learning skills and the accumulated wisdom and values that have stood the test of time. Whereas vocational training has a very narrow and specific goal—that is, to prepare young people to be workers—traditional education is essentially training about how to be a human being. This kind of education includes a wide range of skills and wisdom. It includes learning to deal with success graciously and failure gracefully, learning to interact with others respectfully and constructively, learning the subtlety of human language and the complexity of human thought, learning the principles by which a healthy economy and a healthy polity operate, and learning what it means for a person to make peace with his or her creator. A liberal arts education, like Gutenberg College offers, embodies this approach to education.

Many who would agree that education in this sense is important for every child think that grade school and high school can adequately provide it. While I would agree completely that the education young people receive in these early years is very important, I do not believe it is adequate. Many important things simply cannot be learned until an individual has had enough experience of life and maturity to learn. Based on my experience, young people are rarely ready for the kind of real education I have described before they have graduated from high school. This is why the nature of higher education is so important for our culture.

Our culture has neglected real education for several decades now, and our colleges began dedicating themselves to vocational training. A turn to the MOOCs would, therefore, just be one more step in the direction that our society has been going. I just hope that our culture recognizes the need for a vehicle for passing on the art of living life to the younger generations before it is too late. Like many important arts, the art of living well takes several generations to learn, but it can be lost in one.

Copyright March 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree