Future of Higher Education

Tonight, I went to a panel on the Future of Higher Education at The New School. The topic was specifically the future of small private higher education institutions, and particularly how they are affected by the economy and technology.L to R below: David Van Zandt, president of The New School, moderated. The panelists were Stephen J. Friedman (president of Pace University), Debora Spar (president of Barnard College), and Robert Scott (president of Adelphi University).


First David talked about how private institutions have felt the effects of the 2008 financial crisis only recently. First, the heavily endowed institutions were hit hardest, having cash flow problems because of the recession’s effect on their investment income. Next, state institutions had revenue struggles because state governments began to cut back on their budgets, particularly in higher education. Finally, in the past year and a half private institutions have been affected by falling enrollments as students reassess their priorities and either don’t enroll in college, or enroll in less expensive institutions. Since private institutions are tuition-driven, decreases in enrollment are critically problematic.

Some of the options discussed were:

  • cut costs broadly in order to offer cheaper tuition
  • focus on the programs you do well and cut the others
  • raise class sizes from 20 students to 30-something or 40-something (courses with 6 students or less should be independent study)
  • use facilities more efficiently by scheduling classes better
  • look at European university model of few to no student services and activities, focus on instruction (seek student input on what services are used least and should be cut)
  • focus on student success and make all decisions with this in mind (prioritize instruction-related costs over recreational facilities and athletics)
  • transfer large-enrollment lecture courses online
  • move from a four-year undergraduate model to a three-year model with summer coursework
  • accept more MOOC (massive open online course) credits (particularly to make the three-year model feasible)

One of the most interesting ideas was more cooperation among colleges and universities. This was presented as a way to enable institutions to provide the second option, focus on programs they do well, without disadvantaging the students. For instance, Debora talked about how Barnard College students can take courses in Arabic from Columbia University. Agreements like this can provide an efficient division of labor and resources. There are two big hurdles to this kind of cooperation and program reduction: antitrust regulations that don’t allow certain collaborations, and tenured faculty (institutions must wait until faculty retire to eliminate certain departments).

My favorite quote of the night came from Robert Scott, about the nature of private liberal arts education: “We are as much about character and citizenship as we are about careers and commerce.”

The discussion about the nature and purpose of liberal arts education was interesting (and affirming for me–I loved my liberal arts undergrad experience). Stephen Friedman said that people tend to think higher education as a false dichotomy, that institutions are either trade schools or teach critical thinking. He called this “a significant error of thinking,” and I have to agree. Debora Spar said that liberal arts education has two major objectives: to create a pathway to opportunity, and the moral responsibility to create educated, informed citizens. All of them emphasized that recent media statements that liberal arts education isn’t effective career preparation are either misguided or false.

I have to agree. In particular, as an academic librarian, I have to say that critical thinking is one of the most important skills we teach in higher education. Critical thinking isn’t (and shouldn’t be thought of as) a skill reserved for some elite intellectual class. It’s crucial to a skilled, effective workforce and as such should be present in institutions of all types, including vocational programs (and often, it is). If we can teach our students how to think critically, they’ll be able to use library resources more effectively, be able to learn more deeply, question and form their opinions, make informed political / social / community decisions, and be more effective and skilled workers in any profession. It’s the soul of what we do in higher education.



2 thoughts on “Future of Higher Education

  1. Kathy says:

    During a recent debate here in Texas about the value of higher education, an administrator (can’t remember where he was–perhaps UTSA?) remarked how wrong it is to think of education as a commodity. Instead, it’s a “personal transformative experience.” And how do you put a price tag or value on that?

  2. Starr Hoffman says:

    And there’s the crux of the debate for public funding. I think both sides of the debate are right, really–higher education undeniably benefits the individual. But having a highly educated population, informed citizens capable of critical thinking, and (the real heart of the matter to me) making education accessible for a broad range of people, not just the wealthy elite–all point to a great public good. There are no easy answers, but for me, the greatest strength of American higher education has always been its variety of institutional types and models that make many different kinds of education possible.

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