Blog Post

Thinking BIG Inside the Box: Redesigning Higher Education for the World We Want

Thinking BIG Inside the Box: Redesigning Higher Education for the World We Want

Thinking Big Inside the Box:  Redesigning Higher Education for the World We Need

The mantra:  If you think technology will solve the problem of higher education, you don’t understand technology or higher education.

The book I am finishing on the future of higher education  (tentatively called "Educating Higher) uses two different forms of higher education—the elite research university and the community college-- to illuminate the world of higher education we now inhabit and to offer us models for the change we need, the impediments to that change, and the possibilities for change as well as the success of a number of individuals and institutions who are leading radical, visionary higher education transformation from within the academy. 

Although it seems as if Harvard and LaGuardia Community College have nothing in common, what they share is a mission of higher education as a public good.  That shared mission also has three shared and intertwined components: first, to train students in the best way possible; second, to support basic research in all fields, regardless of politics or profitability; and third, to lay the groundwork for training the next generation of college professors.

Structurally, they are very different kinds of institutions and their differences are important to understand if we are going to change either in a deep and lasting way. 

Everything about the structure of the research university was designed between 1860 and 1925.  Most of the infrastructure of the modern research university was designed at the height of liberalism and Taylorism and greatly influenced by the “new scientism” of quantifying and certifying expertise. 

However, unlike the movement towards liberalism with its emphasis on private sector investment, by emphasizing that society needed these newly trained and certified professionals, higher education devoted itself to not-for-profit training of the next generation.  For elite, private university, it accomplished this motivated by excellence, hierarchy, and leadership of society.  It based its overarching mission of higher education as a public good on ideals of selectivity, exclusivity, social elitism, standardization, and professional credentialing.  This structure based on selectivity and exclusion yields a certain kind of emphasis on admission requirements coming in and certification going out, disciplines, teaching, rankings, testing, publication, peer review. 

Everything about the structure of the community college was designed during the same period of liberalism and Taylorism, based on the same principle of higher education as a public good, but with a different focus on the training of ordinary citizens to serve their community as competent and productive members of a new manufacturing, industrial, and global economy.   To support its version of education as a public good, it placed emphasis on ideals of inclusion, locale, democratization, and introductory competency to have agency within a hierarchical social system.  This yields a certain kind of emphasis on  open admission, course offerings and majors designed to local demands, learning and student-centered pedagogies, pedagogy. 

There is a huge amount of give within both systems and each has moved closer to the other over time. Not surprisingly, neither is exactly the same institution in 2016 that it was in 1900 when it was designed and different examples of each have moved closer or further from their original intent. 

As we move further away from Research One rankings—either down the rankings or to other kinds of institutions such as liberal arts colleges—we see much more blending. 

Additionally, economic pressures—including the progressive defunding of public higher education under neoliberalism—has resulted in exorbitant tuitions and restricted curriculum and an imperiled future for college teaching as a profession.  The parallel economic pressures mean that the same students encumbered with the highest tuition costs in American history (and one of the highest in the world) also face an economic shrinkage of the middle class, with decades of stagnant wages for middle class occupations and disappearing jobs in the white color sector parallel to the loss of jobs in postindustrialism and the blue color sector. 

While critics of higher education blame its “irrelevance” for the declining incomes of new college graduates, in fact this is a massive social problem at every sector of the economy below the “1%” of those with high wealth or the upper middle class of those largely now in the financial sector, responsible for investing in or managing the finances of the 1%.  Even such formerly guaranteed high-income occupations as medicine and law no longer support subfields that are not directly or indirectly related to the elite (in medicine, for example, a decline in general practitioners, OB/GYN and geriatric specialists, and a surge in areas such as cosmetic surgery and neurosurgery).

For students, this has meant a frantic scramble to be part of selective, elite institutions, with higher and higher selectivity and admissions standards concomitant with (not declining because of) soaring tuitions.  The “Veblen effect” of luxury commodities more and more describes those seeking elite education. 

At the great public universities,  this has resulted in great sacrifices getting into college (extreme studiousness and accomplishment, with the entering student at the University of California at Irvine now having a median grade point average of 4.1 on a 4.0 scale—perfect grades plus AP classes—and perfect test scores plus extraordinary co-curricular accomplishments).  A recent study has shown that some forty percent of students at the University of California also face food insecurity, so accomplishment does not always map onto wealth at our public universities.  Food cabinets and soup kitchens are more and more a way of life for students and on campuses.

There has also been a surge in enrollments in community college which offer lower costs (about half of all students currently enrolled attend community college) and increasing reliance on online education (again half of all students currently in brick-and-mortar college take at least one class online).

For faculty, the reducing of full-time positions to part-time, contingent adjunct positions means financial insecurity as well as lessening of power and impact by the new generation of academics within the universities they should be supported by, invested in, shaping, and transforming. 


Why look at the structure of elite Research One universities and community colleges?

The most visionary higher education reformers end up drawing from principles of each of these institutions and carry out reforms within structures that may or may not easily accommodate their reforms.  However, those who rise to positions of academic power within academe, understand both the core principles and the structures and how they might be pushed and changed, adapted or circumvented in order to fulfill the demands of a new era, changed by the Internet technologies that have changed all of our social, work, economic, political, and every day lives. 

There are also complex obstacles to change built within each.  And those who are reforming higher education have to work hard to get around the basic structural design of each.  Each has much to learn from the other since, at their core, they share the same ultimate goal of providing higher education as a public good. 

That may seem obvious but it is not if, as is done increasingly, the efficacy and innovation of non-profit models of higher education are contrasted to for-profit enterprise models.

Again, the core, shared mission of both the Research One and the community college is higher education as a public good.  The three shared components of that mission that constitute higher education as a public good are: first, to train students in the best way possible; second, to support basic research in all fields, regardless of politics or the profit motive; and third, to lay the groundwork for training the next generation of college professors.

The ideal and commitment both kinds of institution share, intrinsically, is education as an intrinsic, public good which requires freedom from the profit motive or ideology.  It means being responsible to students, faculty, and the public.

Whether supported by private philanthropy, tuition, state support, or local support, all colleges and universities ultimate share the same goal of education to which academic freedom and basic research—without concern for profit—are definitional:  those are its endowments.


A Third Model: For-Profit Higher Education

The contrast is the for-profit university that, while it may espouse those principles with all the best intentions, has a fourth structuring principle that overrides and underlies all the others:  profit.   A for-profit university must repay its venture capitalists, donors, investors, and shareholders to exist.  It can provide wonderful and important services, flexibility, creativity, and imagination.  What it cannot, by definition, support is an endowment of academic freedom and commitment to basic research regardless of profit.  It may endorse those but they are secondary to its structural dependence on profit to exist.  Shareholder capitalism is its endowment.

That changes everything.   In the end, for-profit universities can offer benefits, even extraordinary ones, to students, faculty, and the public, but they cannot exist without first tending to their chief responsibility to those who seek profits by investing in them.

In this book, I follow out the implications of these models and highlight those visionary institutions and individuals who are transforming higher education from within the structure, endowments, and responsibilities of higher education as a public good. That is what I mean by "educating higher."



Elite, Community, and For Profit models of higher ed are both old and new, but no longer reflect the cultures they once did. Ivory Tower, and the controversies over adding tuition to Cooper Union put a new context to the historically gentle discussion of financing and structuring higher education. Both the foundation for that controversy - expanding space at the direct cost to students - and the results - resignations and relocation of a President and some of his allies on his Board, and who knows how many students - suggest problems that go well beyond the purely academic standards of Ivy League, community college, and entrepreneurship models. Too many universities compete when they should collaborate, and too few administrators recognize that money is a byproduct - and unreliable one at that - of quality.

While I'm very sympathetic with your view that education is a social and moral mission, those are no longer the standards to which most post-secondary institutions aspire, in practical if not in intellectual terms. When College Presidents make well over $800,000 a year, with buy-outs modelled from venture capital, "free higher education" will merely replicate the greed-is-good doctrine of big pharma's exploitation of Obamacare. That improves very little in student value.

I strongly urge you to examine the future of higher education from the perspective of students - rather than academics - and measure changes in student terms: both academic, entrepeneurial, and emotional. Start with strategies like Early College High School, or MOOCs, or how students use a Kindle rather than how a university justifies its tuition. Look first at what those students want, need, and can use, and only when that is clear can you - or anybody - see how to meet those needs within and outside the traditions of higher education as we know it from the days of Carnegie. This is no longer a factory-based economy, and the world of work today requires a very different range of career literacies than it did even twenty years ago. While it is difficult to forecast some changes with much reliability, it would help immensely to talk with 25 year olds - both with and without degrees and certifications - before framing new options.

I also urge you to look at some new models that are just beginning to emerge that build on the diversity of the postsecondary spectrum rather than earlier forms. The Pierce County, Washington, model, for one example, is a consortium of very different institutions working together to enhance the social, economic, and cultural mobility of their communities. Too many colleges compete where and when they should build upon each others' strength - I live equidistant from Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Lesley University and Bunker Hill Community College, and I can see the cost of that competition in pricing, access, mobility, careers and in student despair.

From that same issue of Inside Higher Ed, you might also look more carefully at the Hamilton College model of focusing on diversity - not just "affirmative action" but thinking of others as we do of ourselves - and how such a focus can give students skills critical to creating and maintaining community, whether in housing, careers, economics, or any other dimension.

I don't mean to merely promote one journal, however, since I'm sensitive to the themes you're raising independent of these idiosyncratic innovations: my concern really is how we can learn to work and live with each other in an increasingly diverse world economy. And neither John Dewey nor William James faced what now we face. Change - "disruptive innovation" - has already occurred. While universities have a tradition of "maintaining traditions," that mission can obscure the value of learning how to see traditions change, and to help each other adapt to new rules, just as we help create rules that reinforce common values while empowering individuality. When a ten year old can access encyclopedias with a smartphone or a senior can carry around 4,000 books on a Kindle or a merchant translate across thirty languages, it's indeed a different world than the age of Eliot or even Derek Bok.


Hi, Joe, Thanks for taking the time to write.  Needless to say, I've spent the last 15 years advocating student-centered learning (which is why HASTAC Scholars are students, leading the way to Changing the Ways We Teach and Learn) and my forthcoming book is very much about students.  It's also about changing institutions and that requires giving faculty and administrators successful models, histories, explanations, possiblities, networks.  This blog was taking the conversation to a different level of structural explanation and abstraction  (my book is a lot of stories, not theory) for an upcoming meeting of higher ed administrators.

These are great points and I agree with most of them.  I know most of the institutions you mentioned and am profiling at least one--but some are new to me so thanks for this content-filled message.  The book is very much from the point of view of the students.  Thanks again.

This blog, though, confrtongs the meta-level because I'm talking about the difficulty of systemic change precisely because these archaic infrastructures are embedded deeply within the structures of selectivity, admission, graduation, rankings, accreditation, peer review for faculty--and a whole host of K-12 concomitants that cannot change if higher education doesn't change its values.    Thanks again for a thoughtful comment.  (I should mention my book is for general readers, unlike this blog which I used to think through some structural issues, not pedagogy.  In the book, I focus on institutions which have changed or are changing and individuals making it happen.  I am happy for additional nominations and appreciate these.)