What is our problem with higher education exactly?

Seems like every single day there’s some new article talking about the End Of Higher Ed. It would be interesting, I think, if the same article hasn’t been written over and over again for the last twenty plus years.

The articles go something like:

  1. “Tuition rates are rising faster than inflation!” Which they have been… for at least 20 years.
  2. “These sorts of rates are unsustainable!” Which is a little crazy, given that they were unsustainable 20 years ago, and yet college enrollment has risen pretty steadily over that same time period.
  3. “Now comes $NEW_THING to challenge the existing undergraduate education paradigm!” $NEW_THING has been everything from The Internet to Khan Academy to just not going. And in pretty much every case, the Promised Disruption never amounts to more than a pebble thrown in a lake.
  4. “So this is why $MY_IDEA is the only way to save higher education!” And here you can insert pretty much anything, from Rick Santorum saying colleges are just left-wing indoctrination centers to saying colleges need to be run like businesses and even, well, whatever the hell “strategic dynamism” is.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just the mouth-foaming b-school profs or the billionaires. I’ve heard people within higher ed itself latch onto this meme. The end is nigh, we know it’s nigh, and all that will save us is $MY_IDEA.

But here’s the problem: Higher education just won’t die in the swift, convenient way the naysayers want it to.

Now, it’s not without trying. Colleges and universities have done a great job digging their own grave over the last 30 years, with the tuition hikes and the unwillingness to change in the face of the Internet. Everyone looks at what’s happened with the music industry (failed repeatedly to understand Napster and iTunes, only to get buried by file sharing and the 99 cent single) and says hey, that’s going to happen to higher ed! Same for the news industry (the commoditization of news and the failure of the paywall) and the book industry (first Barnes and Noble then Amazon crush the slow and stodgy indie bookstores, then the Kindle finally makes e-books viable) — the templates for how universities will die are there.

And yet, universities soldier on. Students keep taking on obscene amounts of debt as states slash higher ed funding. The research money keeps rolling in to universities. And despite the early successes of online education, there has yet to be a sustainable, sensible model backed by a legitimate credentializing process.

So… what gives? Do we hate higher ed? Do we want it to die a horrid death?

I’m starting to wonder if we do.

I mean, consider that Santorum did get traction with that “liberal indoctrination” line. Consider that state schools have in some cases lost more than half their funding. Consider that, despite the clear signs that running a school like a business is a fool’s game, the drumbeat for business-ifying higher ed marches on.

And inside higher ed, everyone hates the bureaucracy, the faculty politics, the problems with trying to innovate in an institution resistant to change.

Perhaps this is all wishcasting.

We’ve managed to condemn the entirety of the degree process — and the immense uplift of wealth and knowledge that has resulted from our last century of investment in Western education — without considering why it’s important, and why it continues to hold value despite our economic and political pressures against it.

And we cannot seem to look beyond our white, middle class view of things to ask if perhaps William Gibson was right: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I don’t think anyone saw the Kindle coming, but within two years the days of the publishing industry’s control of the print market were numbered. And I don’t think anyone really understood what Napster wrought until Apple finally built a model for people to legally and easily obtain music.

The future of higher education may already be here. But I bet it won’t be done by anyone you expect. After all, AT&T insisted they would be the ones who’d bring the future to you. And, well, they didn’t.

The people who could bring you the future of universities may well be the same universities we matriculated from. The naysayers and the b-school libertarians and billionaires have to be ready to accept that the ones they think are least capable to deliver that future may well be the ones delivering it.

Or… perhaps nothing at all will change. Universities haven’t changed much structurally over the last six centuries, really, even in the face of everything that’s happened during that time. They’ve been so resistant to change that what happens outside the ivy and the quad has not often interfered with the day-to-day governance of campus. Are we ready for the change we want never happening?