Briefly Noted: On the Future of Higher Education (and Other Things)

If you’ve not yet subscribed to Union University’s new journal, Renewing Minds, you’ll want to. This morning, I spent a few minutes reading through the second issue (Fall 2012), which bears the theme, “The Future of…”.[1] The issue features articles on the future of theological education (by the inimitable Greg Thornbury), primary-secondary education (Thomas R. Rosebrough), food (Norman Wirzba), sex (Ben Mitchell), Islam (Peter Ridell), and several other essays. It then concludes with an article on the future of the future (Peter Leithart).

My interest was piqued especially by the first essay on the future of higher education (Hunter Baker).[2] Here is a peek at Baker’s train of thought. He begins the article by arguing that one thing is for certain: higher education is in for some massive changes which are underlain by the predominance of individual autonomy, personal choice, and personalization.

First, higher education will be supported less by the public sector and more by private money more than it has been in the past. The cost of higher education will continue to rise, and “buyers” will seek a better “return” on their investment, which will include more options, flexibility, etc.

Second, it will be marked by continuing technological innovation.  Because of this innovation, we will see a revolution in distributing educational content via online courses, massive open-enrollment, online courses, and so forth. There will be less need for the “giant auditorium” for 101 courses.

Third, we might see a trend in which institution increasingly purchase courses from educational content providers. Baker illustrates with James Q. Wilson’s American Government text which really is a “course in a box.” It is a fairly complete class complete with Powerpoint slides, pre-written exams, instructor outlines, etc. Baker warns, “Though this road is attractive in many respects, it contains the seeds of woe for universities. An academic publisher such as Cengage or Pearson will eventually find a way to cut the middleman out of the equation, entirely. Why couldn’t the publisher find a way to get its comprehensive courses accredited and made available to students anywhere who wanted to take them and apply them as credit to a transcript?” Baker avers that traditional modes of education are not likely to disappear, but traditional modes will have to fight for their place within a crowded educational marketplace.

Fourth, Baker writes that we will see more of a “caste system” in higher education. In addition to traditional tenure-track ranks such as assistant professor, associate professor, and professor, we will see a proliferation of adjunct faculty and grad assistants. The move to utilize adjuncts and grad students will save money because these sorts of instructors will not receive a salary package. The professorate will be made up of highly gifted researchers and creators of educational content.

Fifth, traditional colleges will fight to defend their place in the market. They will have to define clearly how their graduates are uniquely and distinctively shaped by the traditional education. “If many of the evangelical schools,” writes Baker, “want to persist in the premium, traditional market, there will need to be substance behind the idea of a Union or a Wheaton man or woman. That substance will refer back to Christian orthodoxy, spiritual seriousness, sanctification, and fluency in Christian thinking.” Further, they will need to justify their decision to emphasize the liberal arts in their core curriculum.

Sixth, the online sector will be the most vulnerable. Textbook publishers will make entire online courses of study available, and will seek accreditation for those courses of study. If this happens, there will be a move from accrediting institutions to accrediting educational content.

Seventh, Baker offers several reasons that traditional colleges and universities can maintain their presence. They can offer the “college experience;” they have distinctive character and customs; they offer a tangible community; and they have made “infrastructure investments that are not easily replicated.”

Baker concludes with a summary and then writes, “One thing is certain, though. Higher education is directly in the path of creative destruction. The smart players will figure out the right market for them to serve and how to offer the best value for the lowest price to their customers. Everyone in the game needs to be figuring out where they sit on the board and what the right path forward is for them.”

I’ll not offer much of a response, except to say that Baker’s prognostications are reasonable and are based upon the best evidence we’ve got at the moment. As he notes, “predicting the future is notoriously difficulty.” But one thing is for sure: change is afoot, and evangelical colleges and universities need well-developed and clearly-articulated rationales for their chosen models of education, models which have emerged from a reflecting consciously and carefully about the changing landscape of 21st century higher education.

[1] Renewing Minds: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (Fall 2012).

[2] Hunter Baker, “The Future of Higher Education,” in Renewing Minds: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (Fall 2012), 7-16.

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  1. Miles Mullin   •  

    Thanks, Bruce. A good summary of some troubling developments IMHO. Sadly, “return on investment” often equals narrowness vs. breadth, skills vs. knowledge, and the insistence on perpetuating propaganda vs. the development of critical thinking and analysis. Teaching, especially Christian teaching, needs to be much more than that.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Miles, that’s right. One of the negative things about American culture is that “personal freedom” has been elevated to the level of an idol. This is an idolatrous misdirection of God’s creational design. “Personal freedom” should not be ultimate. And when it is made ultimate, every cultural realm (including higher ed) is adversely effected.

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