Institutional Reform | Viewpoint

Is Higher Education Ready for 'The Education Bubble?'

American higher education--the jewel in the global crown of universal education, with nearly a quarter of the total number of higher education institutions in the world, and including graduate programs that are the envy of the world--is facing the prospect of being the next bubble to burst. Technology is both a culprit and a promising ally.

The spread of information technology, and its infusion into our culture, has opened the world to learning opportunities--raising expectations for college graduates and changing the terms of success.

Is American higher education ready to either prevent the bubble from bursting or to weather the storm when it does burst? And what is the bubble?

The bubble is financial: tuitions rising significantly each year despite economic conditions and students taking on student loan debt they then cannot pay off. It is practical: the degree no longer guaranteeing a job and a majority of employers saying that college graduates lack the skills for today’s marketplace. It is cultural: college professors in four-year colleges traditionally educating “for life, not for a specific job” even though today’s college students need job-related education. It is economic: the nature of work in a knowledge economy requiring skills unlike those of graduates of just 15 years ago. It is institutional: a professoriate confronted with so many changes and demands with insufficient background or support to make changes beyond their ken or abilities. The question, “Is college worth it?” has gained a currency that should be troubling to college and university administrators.

The bubble, as we can see by all the dimensions just described, is, in fact, a potential “perfect storm.” How should institutions address this danger? Though community colleges may be better prepared than four-year undergraduate colleges and universities--because many of their courses are aimed at a job--they are not immune from the effects of a burst bubble. Graduate programs in general are so strong and vital, they must just continue to do more of the same. Yet, graduate programs most often don’t pay for themselves but are supported by undergraduate programs, and community colleges are strong, in part, because they are seen as a path to a four-year program. The undergraduate programs are therefore the vital core of the entire higher education enterprise. Yet, they are least prepared to deal with the education bubble.

Why is this so?

· The professoriate (and I am part of the professoriate and have been for decades) is grounded in teaching approaches all of us went through college with. And, now, we teach as we were taught. “Pedagogy” means a study of or the practice of teaching. Yet, we are in an era of focus on learning and many of us understand why this is necessary. A “passive learner” is an oxymoron. We know that. But how do we change when all we know is the predominant but tacit learning theory? In my graduate programs, I never heard even a mention of learning theory. We focused entirely on disciplinary research. I was never told, nor would I have known to seek out an answer, about what kind of learning theory we worked within. This is unfortunate, although unavoidable, since our tacit learning theory has never been challenged systematically. For, now, it may well be that behaviorism (the theory within which we mostly work) no longer works as well as other learning theories. Still, we faculty members don’t even know (excepting our education colleagues) what behaviorism is or what alternative learning theory to change to. We faculty members are being asked to “buy in,” but to what?

· The business model for undergraduate four-year colleges is based on the assumption that a teacher has to be involved directly or proximately in all learning. As a result, personnel costs are high but still increasing constantly because of the cost of benefits. Health care costs affect all sectors of our economy and seemingly will continue to do so. If the assumptions behind the business model for undergraduate education persist (they don’t have to; there is an alternative), tuitions must continue to rise until the bubble bursts.

· Uncertainty about and resistance to information technology throughout the four-year college undergraduate enterprise in this country means that the one direction that higher education could be following productively to ameliorate the effects of the bubble is closed off. The very technology that has altered so many conditions--speeding up change, creating a new economy, distributing learning opportunities--and is therefore part of the problem, should instead be the main solution.

What do we know, then, about avoiding the education bubble?

We know that we faculty members need more than technology workshops. We know that the changes around us are much deeper than anything we’ve faced since Gutenberg. So, we know that business as usual is probably a path to trouble. It would seem time, therefore, for faculty and administrators, almost all of whom were at one time and still are faculty members, to be brought up to speed so we are aware of the theory of learning we have practiced all of our professional lives but were unaware of.

Such an undertaking, to reveal the secrets of our enterprise learning theory, obviously cannot be undertaken by existing faculty development staff (except in rare cases), but is more appropriately managed in each discipline in coordination with disciplinary associations and accrediting bodies. But this effort must also result from a presidential-level decree: “The learning theory that fit so well in our culture and with the dominant technology pre-1995 (print-based and paper-based technologies), now is not working very well for any of us, so we have to change. Each of you on campus has sincerely and devotedly committed yourselves fully to learning, but now we know that our learning epistemology is less and less appropriate. This is not your fault; it is simply a time of incredible human growth; it is a time of rapid evolution in our culture; a time of re-shaping our economy. We must transform or become irrelevant.”

Therefore, we know that extraordinary coordination among professional associations, institutions, state governments, and accrediting bodies must occur and must occur soon.

For years, we have chipped away at “talk and test” and berated faculty members who did not become, instead, “guides on the side.” This pattern now seems an absurd trivialization of the issue. It is time to stop blaming faculty members for not making a transition that is actually the responsibility of the entire institutional enterprise. We can keep chipping for decades and make no progress at all because that chipping ignores the underlying problem.

Using technology, the classroom can extend to the world. Using technology, students can be active in their learning. Using technology, students can be more in charge of their learning and can create valuable evidence of their accomplishments for the sake of a much more valuable resume for getting a job. Using technology, faculty can guide a larger number of students. Using technology, assessment and evaluation no longer needs to be the exclusive province of the faculty member doing the guiding. Using technology, undergraduate education can be transformed to fit with current research-based learning models developed in the fields of cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and other fields. Using technology, undergraduate students can provide much more of the energy needed for their own learning progress. Using technology, in sum, means students do more of the work of learning and fewer faculty members are necessary. Technology can take on the management work of faculty while leaving faculty members to design and guide.

This short, suggestive description of the role of technology indicates a direction for higher education, but it also suggests how unprepared the professoriate is to go in that direction. Re-conceiving an entire learning design for the institution--when we faculty are not even aware of the design we have now, its rationale or its underlying assumptions about human nature--is impossible. You can’t move from here to there if you don’t know where “here” is.

We faculty members have not been asked, ever, to formally research learning theory. And, how can that expectation--doing research about learning theory--be retroactively imposed on us? We feel betrayed: All the work we have done for decades, for which we may have been honored, and which produced students who went on to succeed in the world, was bogus? Or we must accept that the way we have worked for decades is now inappropriate?

No one knows, until it happens, that a bubble will burst. So much is invested in current efforts that the impulse is to try harder at doing the same things--in our case, imposing “accountability” measures, increasing the frequency of standardized testing, and raising the stakes for institutional or programmatic re-accreditation.

But the writing is on the wall: A recent article in the New York Times (based on a study the Times conducted), “Many With New College Degree Find the Job Market Humbling,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/business/economy/19grads.html?hp) points out:

“Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years, as have starting salaries for those who can find work. What’s more, only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is 'worth it' after all.”

In business terms: Our product (the diploma) is declining in perceived value while we continue raising the cost of getting one.

We also know through an oft-cited Association of American Colleges and Universities study that most employers are not happy with college graduates today. The study points out a number of failings: inability to work with unstructured problems, inability to work in teams, inability to write convincingly or even relevantly, and other issues.

Can institutions that have invested so heavily in a guiding concept of learning transform themselves? Probably not. Institutions work to preserve the status quo; preserving the status quo is perhaps the main goal of any institution: After all, one fundamental purpose of “institutionalizing” anything is to make it permanent.

Can institutions survive that don’t transform themselves? Probably “yes” because the traditional four-year residential campus provides such a multitude of indispensable life experiences that the curriculum is actually a small part of the college experience. Alternative learning opportunities such as service learning, internships, learning communities, and so on are increasing in number. Also, many faculty members are in fact transforming their learning designs.

Not changing the curriculum will continue to reduce the value of that part of the college experience and also continue to diminish the employment possibilities for students who go through the legacy curriculum. The major re-shaping of higher education around a new learning epistemology that is best for this century is yet to begin.

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