Considering the Future of Higher Education

The Apostle Paul once reflected on the future by noting that, in this life, we see “through a glass darkly.” That has been particularly true of the state of higher education for the past five years. Since the great recession of 2007-08, American universities have undergone dramatic change and some of our basic assumptions about the future have been challenged.

Our business model, at least since the 1970s, was based on the notion that the price that we charged for tuition will always go up and parents and students would always have the ability to pay. Of course we have discovered that this basic assumption is not true. In addition to price concerns, new technologies are now challenging our previous learning models. The demographic composition of our traditional student base is rapidly changing. Some in the broader public are even questioning the value of a liberal arts education and in particular a “Christian” education.

How should we at George Fox respond to the challenging economic, social and cultural changes developing in our culture? One of the most important aspects of an education at George Fox is our commitment to Christ and to our “Be Known” promise. We are committed to developing a team of faculty and staff who will engage students spiritually and academically so they might discover God’s place for them in this world. Thus, our educational process is dependent on people. One of our greatest challenges is to retain our commitment to close personal relationships with students while keeping the price of our education accessible to them. That is not an easy challenge. Recently, I asked several faculty members to consider this question: How do we adapt to our times and maintain our mission? I thought you might enjoy reading Dr. Phil Smith’s response.

Thinking About the Future

By Dr. Phil Smith

Phil Smith

Phil Smith, conducting a class on the university’s quad.

I don’t know if I have much help to offer, other than good teaching, careful budget management, and innovation to try to meet market needs, such as designing a five-year combination bachelors and master of divinity degree program. The fundamental pressures are real and bigger than individual institutions.

In the 19th century, public education won acceptance in America, partly because of anti-Catholic beliefs but fundamentally because the growing economy needed workers who could read, write and do arithmetic. It helped that government could fund education by giving away land, as in the laws that set up the Northwest Territories, and the later laws that funded land grant colleges. In the early 20th century, high school graduation won wide acceptance, and after World War II there was a great expansion of higher education. I am making broad generalizations; obviously, there were exceptions. I think it can be argued that economic needs lay behind these educational expansions. An industrial and technical economy needs educated workers; business and political leaders who realized this were willing to spend tax money to support education.

But the days of easy resource (land) are long gone. Political and business leaders in the future will continue to spend public money – and tax people to do it – to support education that feeds economic growth. But resistance to taxation on the part of some will make funding for education a constant political battlefield, as we see across the country on the K-12 level even though virtually everyone agrees that we absolutely must have K-12 education available for every child. That near unanimity was achieved 100 years ago and most Americans can’t imagine going back.

Business and political leaders realize that in the 21st century, some form of higher education is the new normal. Without a good higher education system, a nation’s economy will slip behind other nations’. Leaders know this, but they are reluctant to levy the necessary taxes to pay for it. Many of them are suspicious of some aspects of higher education, and they are especially reluctant to levy taxes to pay for “fluff.” Of course, there are at least 10,000 different definitions of educational fluff in the minds of current legislators (state legislators, school boards, and Congress), which says nothing about the views held by individual voters.

Long term? I think higher education will get more and more funding through government. That funding will be tied ever more tightly to standards of quality defined by government. The Obama administration’s push for standards will differ only in details from the standards pushed by the next Republican administration, whenever it is elected. Politicians (at least some of them) see the need to fund education, but they must present themselves to voters as funding no fluff. Universities will experience periodic crises as government shifts priorities. A slight change in NIH funding can make the career of researchers at university 1 while ending programs at university 2.

Currently, STEM is the favored child. Social science? Maybe. An art major is OK, especially if you can design ads that grease business. Philosophy? Well, some students might take it, but what bread does it bake? It may seem inconceivable now, but in 20 years some aspects of STEM may be regarded as fluff.

Higher education will get more and more state funding. I suspect a steadily decreasing percentage of that funding will go toward liberal arts. And, of course, almost none of it will go toward distinctively Christian higher education.

There are lots of private voices, not just political leaders, who must not fund fluff, who advise parents to judge higher education solely on its economic merits. I have a responsibility to students and their parents to urge them not to be so narrow minded. It seems to me that George Fox University, as an institution, needs to clearly, loudly, and repeatedly say that a narrow economic view of higher education is simply wrong. A liberal arts education offers much more than tools to compete in the marketplace. A Christian education offers something more profound than marketplace tools. We sell very good tools at George Fox, but if our students are satisfied with that, we have failed them.

Higher education is in transition. Many influential people do not see the value of liberal education or Christian education. We must argue urgently that there is value here, value worth support. As you know, I try to put my money where my mouth is on this question.

Dr. Phil Smith, professor of philosophy
Smith’s second novel, Buying the Bangkok Girl, will be released in print soon. After years of revisions, his Why Faith is a Virtue will come out in 2014.

To read more of Robin’s thoughts on the future of higher education, read “What Does the Future Hold for Higher Education?”

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