Navigating the Crisis in Higher Education

By Manfred Werner – Tsui (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Unemployment, student loan debt, and protest are colliding with rising education costs, endowment building, branding wars, and labor outsourcing. At this tumultuous moment in higher education, this course asks students to reflect on the fate of liberal arts education through a focused analysis of its past and present. Specifically, how do economic pressures and technological innovations impact the sustainability of liberal arts values such as social justice, serving the public good, and cultivating a “life of the mind”?  Students will debate and synthesize arguments about the value and sustainability of liberal arts education by viewing higher education from the perspective of private corporations, governments, college administrators, faculty, parents, and students. In so doing, students will learn to situate their personal experiences within broader institutional, historical, economic and political contexts. Through reflective essays that incorporate both primary and secondary sources, students will develop critical thinking skills, authorial voice, and a sense of ownership over their own education.

Future of College: Opportunities and Difficulties

The future of college and colleges face an uncertain future. More and more today the conventional idea of college that we have had for the last few decades is changing. One opportunity that seems obvious for the suture of colleges is the advancement in technology. Technology, if incorporated correctly, can provide significant benefits to college students all over the country. It also allows institutions to run more efficiently, reducing costs that are eventually burdened by the students. Many of the classic brick and mortar four-year colleges where students live on campus and go to class taught by professors have been reluctant to using online and more technology in their curriculum. I think these schools will suffer, while the schools that implement online coursework and technology in teaching will survive and thrive in the future. The number of people who are going to college today and desire a college education is also a huge opportunity. Its really becoming the norm for everyone to go to college, and schools that can learn to serve a variety of students efficiently will ultimately thrive. In terms of difficulties that colleges face, costs and peoples return of investment provide a difficulty. College (un)bound explains people are more often factoring in the earnings of graduates when choosing colleges to apply to and attend. Because college is now extremely expensive, students and prospective students are being forced to focus on graduate earning statistics more than others in the past might of had to. This will force colleges to change a lot in terms of how they attract students to their campuses as well as how and what they teach. There are majors that are known to earn more than others. Schools might start offering less majors by focusing on only offering majors that are proven to make students the most money in there careers. Therefore a challenge many institutions will face in the future is they way they attract students as people increasingly look to maximize “return of their investment” from attending college.

Why Are College’s Going Broke?

College costs have been on a constant rise for the last century. But in the last few decades, the cost has soared beyond what anyone outside of the last two generations could comprehend. Where many colleges have doubled, some even almost tripled, the cost of attending, students and the school alike are put through a series of events from economic strife that result in “rising costs or declining quality” at these schools (Feldman).

These most expensive colleges are being forced to compete with the more “practical” options, such as vocational schools, community colleges, and online schools. Where they have to offer “the simple and practical way” (not exactly quick and easy), private liberal arts colleges have to offer critical thought and a materialization of the future of all disciplines. The latter just happens to have a much more hefty price tag. Not because it was always innately so, but because more and more students are abandoning schools like these. Likewise donors are stopping their funding of these schools. In the end, these colleges are forced to decide between closing, or raising their cost to continue the competition and maintain the resources they have for their students. All the support colleges such as Occidental had in the past in quickly withering away as our society constantly moves in the favor of the cheap and immediately practicable alternative. So they are forced to function on their own dollar, which they don’t have many of. Hence, they go to the students.

Feldman and Archibald make the reason quite simple for us. They explicitly say that “economic growth itself is the driving engine of cost in the still artisan-like higher education industry.” Until higher education is able to remove itself from this capitalist toxicity and place value back in to learning with integrity, this problem will not be solved.

The Future Of Higher Education

The future of higher education is quickly escalating the ladder of controversy. At this point, it is relatively considered one of the more pressing problems in our nation, hence classes such as this one existing. The future of higher education is in jeopardy simply because higher education is becoming not about education. This may sound confusing, but with the influx of closing/diminishing of private liberal arts schools and the growth of community colleges/online schools, it is clear that “higher education” is taking a step away from academic knowledge. I believe that higher education should be about learning, without bounds. Interpreting thought, critiquing thought, adding new thought. However, the growth of community colleges and vocational programs is making education more about interpreting thought, internalizing thought, and practicing thought.

I am not saying that vocational, applied, or small-scope study are wrong, but that they should not be the only exposure to higher education one receives. Selingo relays this same messages as he writes, “We need an expanded notion of what constitutes an education after high school. The definition should include on-the-job training and apprenticeships, coupled with learning across a range of subjects, as well as experiences before college that improve the often difficult transition from highly structured high schools to freewheeling college campuses” (162).

This disconnect between status quo higher education and gain learning and production of knowledge is only worsened by the demands of the employment world. The employment world, for the most part, adds pressure on the account of the student to be able to have expertise in whatever it is that they plan on doing. This influences students to abandon 4-year universities and getting a generally encompassing education. Instead, they see it better to dive right into their future career, whether that means going to a trade school, community college, online school, etc. Not only are these options considered more practical for socioeconomic mobility, but they are also much more practical in terms of cost efficiency. These options are all much cheaper than private liberal arts colleges.

At bottom, there needs to be a paradigm shift in society where we are able to place more value in higher education. And by higher education, I mean what Selingo describes as, “[gaining the] ability to learn how to learn. In other words, the capability to find the answers to the questions of tomorrow that we cannot envision asking today” (149). This would require the valuing of one’s ability to think critically and produce new knowledge, not their ability to regurgitate given information and produce mediocre replicas.

What challenges and opportunities exist for the future of college?

There are many challenges and opportunities for the future of college. Selingo says “the definition of education has expanded, and with it, so too has the market of providers” (119). I think this touches on a huge challenge and opportunity for college. It’s this idea that college is no longer traditional. What we think is a traditional college continues to shift and change. This is a challenge because traditional colleges can no longer count on being the only valuable option within the higher education field. It’s becoming more and more acceptable to pursue online education or to attend for-profit schools, all of which guide students away from what we consider to be the typical college approach. How can current colleges remain popular and remain modern when there are increasing numbers of alternative ways to receive an education? It is a lot less expensive to take online courses than it is to attend a physical college, let alone a liberal arts one. Can current colleges prove that their degree is somehow worth more or that the experience is worth the higher cost? That’s a challenge that colleges have to meet sooner rather than later.

This is also an opportunity for colleges to realize they need to change in order to stay competitive. What worked 10 years ago might not work now. Graduates face debt, high unemployment rates, and a host of undesirable outcomes when they come out of college. This is an opportunity for the ‘traditional’ colleges to prove their continued and existing worth. Can they continue to prove that they are relevant? This is also an opportunity for students to demand more from their college, more financial aid, more support, more whatever they need as colleges are going to have their hands tied. Colleges should be made for the students. The typical college student is evolving, which means colleges should evolve to fit them.

Selingo hits such an important point that the educational field is so temporary and new in a lot of ways. What’s working now might not work next year, but the field is expanding and there’s no denying that.

“Necessity” is arbitrary.

We are obsessed with college. Long gone are the days where higher education was seen as simply one path among many, a place for academically adept students to study arcane subjects. Nowadays, college is touted as a cultural and economic necessity. a universal stepping-stone into adulthood and employment. According to popular wisdom, this transformation was brought on by increased technological sophistication of the labor force, resulting in a job market that could only be filled by college graduates. From this perspective, college has taken an irreversible step forward into the public spotlight. Assuming that Neo-Luddites remain a  fringe minority, the intersection of society and technology is unlikely to regress. Therefore, the future of higher education in America will likely end up hinging on the populist interrogation of every nook and cranny of our current system; problems that may have once remained concealed high atop the ivory tower decades ago are now becoming increasingly visible to all.

If nothing else, this will lead to a significant shift in the angle from which we analyze college as an institution—for most of the 20th century employment prospects did not depend on higher-education, but nowadays it is becoming incredibly difficult to attain a “good” job with only a high school diploma. As a result, economic outcomes have become the most prominent metric by which we judge the value and pay-off of post-secondary education. The moment that college shifted from being a privilege to a necessity is the moment that it was permanently debased. Students with little-to-no interest in academics are being shoved through our higher education system, only to receive their diploma and then ignore scholarship for the rest of their lives. This is wasteful and unnecessary. Yet universal college attendance remains so ingrained in the public consciousness that to question the college-for-all model is to commit educational blasphemy. With any luck, however, the public spotlight may reveal the cracks in this ideological damn. Increasingly, individuals are attempting to bypass the standard four-year college experience and establish alternative paths to gainful employment. The future of post-secondary education will be determined by their successes and failures, and by the degree to which society as a whole questions the necessity of college.

The Future of Higher Education

How can we determine the future of education as present college students ourselves? In trying to figure out what our futures hold we lose sight of the ever constant change around us in higher education. With online courses and community colleges on the rise with low cost options, more and more four-year universities are struggling to keep their student numbers up and their tuition costs down. As a degree progresses to be that of a title and not that of an experience, students are looking to find the cheapest and fastest way to get a degree and move ahead in their lives. If higher education is to continue as fundamental part of society, we, as a nation, need to redefine the standards of higher education moving into the future so as to

Although higher education isn’t disappearing from the face of the earth anytime soon, society’s need to speed up the process of obtaining a degree and finding a good job has definitely increased and it is because of this increase that I foresee the future of higher education as more simplistic and technology driven. However, the future of higher education most likely will need to be broader for those individuals who do not see themselves as typical college students. Jeffery J. Selingo in College (Un)bound explains that there different kinds of students outside of the “traditional” four-year university student like Evan Burfield (Selingo, 2013). According to Selingo, Evan, after choosing not to attend college post-graduation from a high ranked high school in North Virginia, helped get a start-up off the ground. By not choosing to attend college immediately, Burfield claimed that he was getting hands on experience while “college graduates don’t know what it’s like to work is because they study twenty hours a week and they have their life in college managed for them…They are getting a warped perspective of what life it like” (Selingo, 2013, pp. 165-166). Burfield may be correct in making the assumption that college students are less prepared to handle the “real world”, however the same thing could be stated in reverse; those only receiving a high school diploma are not as prepared to enter the competitive nature of the work force.  Yes, there is the occasional success stories of individuals choosing not to attend college or deferring college until a later date like Burfield, but traditional higher education is going to continue to be a functional social norm until its status can be altered. To increase its appeal to all students, higher education simply will have to be open to the possibility of alternative teaching to increase student admission rates as well as a supportive and ready working class after graduation.

Future for Colleges

In the future, I foresee an array of challenges because as technology gets more advanced, tuition costs will go up. Rising tuition costs not only go up because of advancement in technology, but also because of federal/state government budget cuts and student and institutions’ financial debts. The increased cost of attending college and the growing wage gap between the rich and the poor ultimately makes it difficult for everyone to gain accessibility to higher education. With limited accessibility, colleges will also begin to worry because they must admit a certain number of students in order to keep the institution alive. College nowadays seemed to be geared more towards career and learning how to land a successful job rather than learning knowledge for the sake of learning. And so I believe that liberal arts colleges will be on a verge of distinction because students may no longer see the appeal to learn for the sake of learning because a majority of their peers are attending vocational institutions in order to become more successful when they graduate. With this in mind, the fall of liberal art colleges will inhibit a great deal, students won’t be able to gain the critical thinking skills that can be fostered at these small schools and this is critical to gaining a better understanding of the real world after graduating.

However, I believe that there are many great opportunities that will come for the future of colleges, such as being able to conduct more experiments or gain more knowledge through technology (possibly with Oculus rift). With that in mind, students could make breakthroughs in business, medicine, engineering, etc. Students will be able to learn more than they possibly can and will be able to safely transition to the real world after graduation.

Balancing General Skills and Major Learning

One area that colleges need to decide is whether focusing on student learning and growing the ability to learn is going to have a larger positive effect on student postgraduate success than focusing on a specific area of expertise.  This focusing on a specific area of expertise, known as a major, has formed the bedrock of undergraduate education for many decades.  Selingo argues that the ability to think “critically”, have good oral/writing skills, ability to stay motivated, ability to fail well, and ability to make friends and get along with others is more important than forming a specific area of expertise in the form of a major.


My opinion falls somewhere in the middle of Selingo’s model and the traditional study of a specific area.  I believe that all of the above characteristics should be formed (and college should focus on helping students form these characteristics) while students study a semi-specific field of study.  For example, it would be useful for a student to develop general skills while studying a general field like engineering or literature, instead of going “all-in” on specific fields like biomedical engineering or Russian literature.  The idea of studying a generalized field instead of a specific one reflects the current labor climate and how trends develop quicker than they did a few decades ago.

Selingo also talks about an idea that that I talked about in my second essay.  This idea is that there should be an intermediary step between high school and college.  In many countries this includes public service, local college, a job, or military service.  In my essay, I argued that going to community college before entering college or university would be a good way to develop general skills needed in college.  Overall, this could be a good idea for many students to mature and figure out what they want to do with their future careers.

Challenges and Opportunities

As we have learned throughout this class there are any challenges that exist for the future of college but there are also many opportunities that exist for the future of college. One current challenge with colleges is that transferring is becoming more and more common. This increase in transferring college is due to the issue of price as well as the increase in demand. However, this increase in transfers also leads to a decrease in the value of the education. One issue that is brought up in this reading is the way that classes are valued. A one credit hour is described as “one hour of directly faculty instruction and two hours of work outside of the class during each week of the semester” (112), which puts the value of the education only on the time spent on a class and not about the knowledge or skills that are gained from that class. Another issue is that the value of a college education is often based on the average earnings of graduates but the problem with this is that while the earnings of graduates are higher than that of those who have not gone to college, salary is not an accurate representation of the benefits of a college education.

Colleges also have opportunities that will exist in the future. For example, the value of higher education is to enable students to understand the world around them and allows them to enhance their critical thinking skills. In this sense, it’s true that many graduates don’t use their majors after graduating but chances are that many of them use the critical thinking skills that they gained throughout their college experience.

New Opportunities, Yet Challenges

With every new experience comes many challenges yet new opportunities. When thinking about the future of college, everyone knows that challenges will be encountered while new opportunities are given. One thing that I see as a future challenge and opportunity is first of all technology. We live in such a high-tech growing society in which technology has become the source of everything. Technology will continue to advance in colleges with new software and learning techniques in the classroom. The challenge to technology for the future of colleges is the debate that technology will take away a student’s ability to think critically and on their own about the vast world around them. In addition, with the future of college comes many new ideas. One idea that is trying to work its way into the future of colleges is the doing away with specific majors. Selingo discusses this idea in his book, College Unbound, as this division would divide a student’s four years into two major parts – cognitive process that shape learning and then specific subjects. Selingo writes, “Perhaps one day more colleges will do away with departments and majors…But overall, I have found by talking to employers and educators that what they want most in their workers is the ability to learn how to learn. In other words, the capability to find the answers to the questions of tomorrow that we cannot envision asking today” (149). This idea would drastically change the future of colleges and could be seen as a positive in education as students would focus more on how to learn rather than becoming skilled and knowledgeable in just their major. Furthermore, because of todays and tomorrows increasing college costs Selingo notes, “We need an expanded notion of what constitutes an education after high school. The definition should include on-the-job training and apprenticeships, coupled with learning across a range of subjects, as well as experiences before college that improve the often difficult transition from highly structured high schools to freewheeling college campuses” (162). College has become a large leap for students to take right after high school, not just mentally but also financially. Selingo talks about the possibility of a program in between high school and college that would help ease students into the full swing of college while also being financially sound for low economic households. All of these ideas are challenges and opportunities that can be potentially seen in the future of higher education.