Pretty much anyone you talk to in America today has an opinion about what’s wrong with our universities. Parents think they’re too expensive. Recent graduates fear being crushed by debt and ending up untrained for the current job market. Professors worry that entering students have not been adequately prepared by their high schools. Economists and sociologists point to troubling studies about a lack of diversity—in both income and race—on American campuses. In Silicon Valley, they talk about MOOCs and STEM, flipped classrooms and gamification. And in Washington, D.C., they talk about federal aid and compliance, Title IX and irresponsible lending.
It’s safe to say that American universities are under fire—for everything from perpetuating inequality to failing to adapt to our digital age. In advance of the Zócalo event “What Are Universities For?”, we asked scholars: Does the contemporary university need to be redesigned to address these problems—and if so, how?
The contemporary university needs to be reinvigorated, not redesigned simply to promote social justice or “adapt” to the digital age. It already suffers far too much from narrow vocationalism and presentism under pressure to reflect our era’s “needs” or social aims. Reinvigoration means something different: stripping away many of the layers of administration and student services that have porked up university budgets over the past decades; creating flexible structures of governance and new disciplinary taxonomies that free up researcher-teachers to think, explore, experiment, and take risks; substituting the consumerist-managerial ethos that has invaded campuses nationwide with an ethos of in-depth inquiry and serious intellectual play. Most of all, it means collective investment in education, teaching, and research as public goods. That renewed collective investment will be repaid by the sort of porous, centrifugal model of university life that is already emerging around the edges, expressed by everything from MOOCs (when they are well-designed and well-delivered) to a renewed interest in civic or public humanities to efforts to re-conjoin thinking and making (design education, training through problem solving initiatives, and the like).
Reimagining today’s university system necessitates three visionary moves by the federal government:
First, pressure public universities to return to a state funding scheme rather than making students bear the majority of the cost of attendance. Universities lobby effectively for all sorts of programs and privileges. They need to lobby vigorously and deliberately for their students and shift tuition and other costs back to the state, sharing them among all taxpayers. If universities refuse, ban them from participating in federally funded programs. Today, a four-year degree at the University of California costs over $100,000—if you can even get a seat. Most middle-class families don’t qualify for any financial aid. Students and their parents have to borrow that money, risking both the student’s financial future and the parents’ retirement possibilities. This cannot be how public colleges are funded anymore.
Second, revoke the nonprofit status of all private universities that enroll fewer than 10 percent low-income students. I’ve advised student applicants for the past 15 years—low-income students are out there, everywhere. Many private colleges claim they don’t apply. Then go to them! We should require private colleges funded by taxpayers to better reflect our society, and to truly provide opportunity for all hardworking students and their families.
Third, reset all outstanding student loans, up to and including voiding the liability (and any incidental tax consequences) for anyone who has borrowed under misleading or misunderstood conditions—which probably fits most student loan debtors. We would not let teenagers with no income or assets borrow six figures in any other circumstance, because that would be crazy. It’s crazy for student loans too, and profiting from it is disgusting. We need these young people working, contributing to our economy, and raising families. We gain nothing from them sinking into lifelong debt.
The scale and nature of the challenges facing higher education require that we reinvigorate its democratic purpose, a far deeper aim than education as simply a path for individual success. This also requires a much bigger view of democracy itself, now usually seen as simply elections.
It is worth recalling universities that embodied a democratic purpose. James Angell, president of the University of Michigan at the turn of the last century, believed that UM needed to help shape the dynamics of America’s changing democracy with a “democratic atmosphere” full of debate, discussion, experimentation, exchange of views, and wide engagement with society. William James at Harvard, founder of experimental psychology, urged the university to take scientific approaches to enacting democratic values and practices, including cooperative inquiry, free exchange of ideas, and testing of ideas. A democratic view of higher education’s purpose was central to President Harry Truman’s Commission on Higher Education in 1947.
This view of education’s purpose understands democracy as a way of life. Septima Clark, an architect of the civil rights movement’s grassroots citizenship schools, said their aim was “to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.”
Renewing the democratic purpose of higher education highlights the importance of colleges and universities as public spaces for diverse interests and views to find common ground in a sharply divided society. There are many obstacles—Ivory Tower cultures, disciplinary silos, bitter ideological divides. But stories of such democracy-building work exist, sometimes on a substantial scale and led by students, even if those stories are now overshadowed by news about campus racism or sexual abuse. Stories of democratic and empowering change are crucial for the whole society to hear.
When the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that race could be used as a factor in college admissions, the justices supported their decision by arguing that universities are responsible for preparing leaders “with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry”; therefore it is “necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
Yet the data on who goes to college and, in particular, which colleges they go to, make clear that higher education is not behaving as an engine of social mobility. The path to a college degree is bifurcated, with whites disproportionately going to the most elite colleges, and blacks and Latinos disproportionately going to the most underfunded, least selective, and least successful public colleges.
Why is it that the role of higher education in creating and perpetuating racial inequality has not aroused a commitment to an agenda of social justice action? Why is it that liberal leaders in higher education, government, and philanthropy do not embrace racial equity as a goal as heartily as they embrace innovations in technology, online education, and the international expansion of campuses?
Surprisingly, there seems to be more reluctance to talk about race and racism in 2015 than in 1965. Increased racial diversity in the student body, particularly in the less selective and least well funded colleges, along with the growth of diversity-related programs and positions, creates the impression that race is no longer an issue. But although universities are obsessed with numbers—the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen, the money faculty members bring in through grants—most institutions lack equity metrics to monitor their success with recruiting and retaining minoritized students.
To break the cycle of inequality in higher education, college and university leaders have to be race-conscious, and continuously submit their institutions’ practices to the questions: What racial and ethnic groups benefit from our policies? Who is disadvantaged? They should also take notice of the racial composition of their professional networks. Unless leaders hold themselves accountable for racial equity within their institutions, universities will continue to reproduce white racial privilege.
The popular mantra that American universities do not or are not adapting to our digital age perpetuates dangerous misconceptions about our institutions of higher and postsecondary education. There have been enormous gains in adoption of learning technologies on American campuses that have facilitated unprecedented student access and have transformed the nature of teaching and learning. For example, online Learning Management Systems (LMS), provide a basic infrastructure to open up wider access to continuous learning experiences for diverse groups of students—before, during, and after class. LMS’s serve as central, online hubs that drive student-content, student-student, and student-faculty interactions. Examples of popular LMS’s include Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle. Sure, LMS’s have limitations, and faculty members do not always leverage them to their full extent. However, with the near universal adoption of LMS’s, it is no longer the case that higher education only accommodates 18-22 year olds who are available for classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and in-person study sessions in their dorm rooms.
The modern disparagement of American universities as stubbornly resistant to change in the digital age overgeneralizes complex issues with facilities and infrastructure, sometimes on campuses over 300 years old. These issues can make it difficult to engage students in more innovative experiences in brick-and-mortar classrooms. But on every campus you can find clusters of bright spots—faculty and administrators who are incorporating cutting-edge technologies, pedagogies, and research tools to catalyze widespread change in the 21st century. Until we begin to pay serious attention to these bright spots, we will stay stuck in a roundabout of critiques of American higher education that have been recycled nearly verbatim for centuries.
A widening wealth gap and declining economic mobility are among the most damaging trends facing the U.S. Over the last three decades, the top 0.1 percent’s share of the nation’s wealth has tripled—from 7 percent to 22 percent. Between 2010 and 2013, the net worth of the typical African-American family declined by one-third. As beneficiaries of significant taxpayer support, colleges and universities must help tackle this crisis.
Colleges and universities wield tremendous power: They determine which students learn skills needed for success in today’s economy. As such, they are uniquely positioned to ensure that low-income students, students of color, displaced workers, and underprepared students learn effectively, earn credentials, and connect to jobs that offer financial and career advancement. But college completion rates are unacceptably low. To meet the challenge, all but a few need to redesign almost everything they do.
At Jobs for the Future, the national nonprofit where I work that seeks to ensure that all lower-income young people and workers have the skills and credentials needed to succeed in our economy, we help colleges and state governments through such a redesign process based on several key principles:
Erase equity gaps: Work with high schools to ensure all students are prepared. Analyze student outcomes by race and income and respond: For example, every college should know when and why young men of color walk out their doors.
Ensure student success at scale: Create a visionary design for cross-institutional reform that integrates multiple interventions known to improve student outcomes: For example, create pathways for students that provide the clarity, structure, and guidance they need to complete their degrees.
Link students to careers: Collaborate with employers and community partners to ensure students are ready for work and programs lead to real jobs.
Nothing shy of full transformation will enable colleges to help end the downward spiral of American social mobility, and we have seen that it is possible.
The current crisis in higher education has three characteristics: It’s overpriced, out of touch (with society’s real needs), and outdated (in its method and purpose). But the solution is already emerging: It’s free (or accessible to everyone), it’s empowering (putting the learner into the driver’s seat), and it’s transformational (providing new learning environments that activate the deepest human capacities to create).
At MIT we have just completed the pilot for a new type of MOOC (massive open online course) offered through edX and MITx, called “U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self.” Its purpose is to prototype new forms of learning around the three characteristics listed above.
In response to an exit survey, many participants—there were 28,000 in all, from 190 countries—said that the U.Lab provided a more profound learning experience than any offline course they had ever taken. Fifty-two percent of survey respondents said it was “eye-opening.” Another 36 percent said it was “life-changing.”
Here are three new forms of learning that have emerged from this model to date:
(1) Action learning: Our objective was to get the learners off the screen and into the real world. Each week, participants were asked to use a specific tool and apply it to their professional or personal social context. For example, participants were invited to take an “Empathy Walk,” a practice to help them empathize with strangers who are completely different from them.
(2) Coaching circles: Learners self-organized in about 1,000 peer coaching circles. Most of them met virtually, once per week, using Hangout or Skype. Each week, a different participant presented a leadership challenge in a 70-minute coaching session.
(3) Mindfulness practices: Each week we asked students to engage in a mindfulness practice—to pay attention to their attention. We developed a tool that allowed students to track their patterns of listening over time. We also used mindfulness practices during the live sessions that convened 10,000-15,000 students and guided them through global moments of mindfulness and stillness.