What Does the Future Hold for Higher Education?

It is so difficult to know what the future holds for any organization. This past week the Oregon Business Council gathered the leaders of Oregon universities, private and public, to think together about the future of higher education in the state. America has understood, perhaps better than other cultures, that advances in education are also inexorably linked to significant improvements in the economy at both a personal and broad-based cultural level. Perhaps that is why so many are concerned about the future; for the first time in American history it appears that the current generation will not exceed the educational attainment levels of their parents.

Governor Kitzhaber has challenged state educational leaders to push Oregon in a different direction. His call to action he has been labeled, “40-40-20.” He wants 40 percent of Oregonians to have bachelor’s degrees and at least another 40 percent to have some community college preparation by 2025! As most of us in higher education know, this would require a significant expansion of our capacity and to use new innovative methods to enhance student achievement. This challenge is, of course, coming at a time when student debt is at an all-time high and parents are having a difficult time paying for an undergraduate education.

Can such a challenge be met? The easy task is, of course, to poke holes in the governor’s challenge: 1.) It is too expensive and do we have the resources?; 2.) The K-12 system is not preparing the students we get now; 3) What good will it do to expand a broken system? You might be surprised, but the presidents gathered found it easy to talk about the problems first, but the solutions conversation proved to be far too short. The speakers of the day encouraged us to think what might be possible rather than to focus on why the governor’s challenge could not be met.

Just after lunch Patrick M. Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute and author of Financing American Higher Education in the Era of Globalization, provided insight into the history of higher education and what we might learn from the past as we prepare for the future. Callan began the talk by boldly asserting that “we are vastly underestimating the magnitude of change that faces us.” Most of us living in the midst of change wondered how we could be “underestimating” the challenges we are facing. Callan argued that there have been two great paradigm shifts in American higher education and we are in the midst of a third.

In the middle of the 19th century the federal government, through the Morrill Land Grant Act, made the decision to finance a significant expansion of higher education through land sales. The U.S. government began the public financing of what we now know as the land grant college system. The original bill provided that the new colleges, “without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” For the first time in American history, the university system opened higher education to people who had never experienced it before. In addition, its focus did not exclude traditional classical education but it was to prepare people for careers in scientific agriculture, medicine and engineering. The expansion in this era literally reshaped the entire American society.

In a similar fashion, Callan noted that the G.I. Bill in the mid-1940s and after World War II served to further expand the college experience. This was the first time the federal government provided significant amounts of financial aid to help a new class of Americans attend a university. The result was similar to what happened in the late 19th century: Americans attended universities in record numbers and once again America became one of the leading economic powers in the world. Callan suggested that educational expansion and attainment is always closely linked with economic success. (The government later furthered its efforts to expand opportunity through Pell, SEOG and the various loan systems that have helped parents afford a university education for their children.)

We are now in a third paradigm shift. Callan noted that, as you are well aware, baby boomers are retiring and it is very likely that the current generation’s educational attainment will be lower than the retiring generation. At the same time, the rest of the world has figured out the American formula for success – higher levels of education mean a more robust economy. China and India are building educational capacity rapidly. The United States is in serious danger of being overtaken by more aggressive cultures that are following our model.

At the same time university conditions have made education more difficult to afford. Over the last 20 years, American universities experienced the largest enrollment growth in history. During this time, they borrowed money and raised tuition in order to expand their capacity to serve a growing student population. Unfortunately, much of this spending was unfocused. And now that the economy and student demographics have changed, so have the universities’ economic situation.

Middle-class earners are at a limit of what they can pay for in terms of an education. There are also fewer middle-class persons who are able to attend college. And young people who are most in need of a college education, first-generation students, are the least likely to see the connection between educational attainment and economic security. They are also very skeptical about “borrowing” for school to achieve some future payout. Further, the federal government has engaged in record deficit spending with limited economic results, leaving it unable to finance a new expansion of the higher education system. Finally, for the first time in American history (at least since survey data), the public trust is eroding in higher education. They question the value of what we do. Indeed, what does the future look like!

Callan did not provide much insight to what the future will look like. He did say this: In every great paradigm shift, those who were in leadership in higher education, both administration and faculty, rarely saw the possibilities. When the government proposed the expansion of university education for American military service men and women, the University of Chicago president suggested that it was not going to do any good to waste a university education on a “bunch of intellectual hobos.” His comment was obviously arrogant and ultimately wrong. The generation he referred to as “intellectual hobos” eventually would be called the “Greatest Generation.” Callan said there are traditionally three ways universities respond: 1.) Pretend that the conditions we are facing are temporary (“If we only wait, things will get back to normal.”). 2.) Hold on by cutting costs and controlling the budget. 3.) Embrace change – innovate, experiment and develop new ideas.

For me, George Fox University’s only option is to embrace change. We certainly have done this in much of what we do. Our graduate programs have been and are very innovative in what they do. The “thriving” George Fox of the future, particularly at the undergraduate level, is going to look different. How? I am not sure. What I do know is that our “why” will remain the same. We are committed to an education that is transformative personally, academically and spiritually. The “what” or the means that we achieve that goal will change.

What we will be doing over the next several months is talking about where we want to “experiment” as we lean into the future. These conversations will include faculty and staff but also alumni, board and interested constituents. I hope you are looking forward to it! Stay tuned for more details.

To read more of Robin’s thoughts on the future of higher education, read “Considering the Future of Higher Education.”

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