Friday Five: Higher ed, the good and the bad

Note: This entry was supposed to be posted last Friday, March 11, rather than today. But due to a server upgrade by our host, eduBlogs, this blog has been offline for a week. I’m glad to be up and running again. Thanks for your patience. – AC

Reading recent headlines and cover stories might give you the impression that America’s higher education system is headed irreversibly down the tubes. For that matter, reading headlines from the past three or four years might give you that same impression.

And then there are the counterarguments that we’re not in such bad shape, maybe in better shape than we realize.

So how bad off are we, really? I don’t know. But here are five links to recent (and not-so-recent) articles that may shed some light.

1. 4 Leaders Explain Why American Higher Education Is Good but Feels Bad. This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes the viewpoint of Jonathan R. Cole, provost at Columbia University and the author of The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected. This article summarizes the points Cole and three other higher ed leaders made at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. I haven’t read Cole’s book, but if merely amplifies his ACE talking points, I don’t think I will read it. Cole looks to rankings to support his contention that U.S. universities are still world-class. “While American universities face increasing global competition, said Mr. Cole, they still vastly outrank their foreign counterparts. ‘There is not a single German university that’s in the top 50’ worldwide, said Mr. Cole. ‘Not one Chinese university is in the top 200, and not one Indian university is in the top 300.'” I am hopeful, however, that this is true: “The values that make American higher education a hallmark, he said, include its emphasis on questioning ideas and on judging people on the basis of their work.”

2. Our Universities: How Bad? How Good? This in-depth and erudite review of four recent books about the “crisis” in higher education is definitely worth reading in full. For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll just share one quote from the review for you to consider:

On the whole, one has to say that the relative autonomy of the American university has been far more beneficial than the contrary. American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair — just like American society as a whole — but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society. It has brought new blood into old elitist institutions, and indeed has thoroughly scrambled the hereditary caste it began with. You have simply to walk the paths of any reputable American university today to see that the student population looks like the range of American ethnicities—far more than many other institutions. Universities have taken seriously calls for inclusiveness and affirmative action. The large expenditures on their admissions offices that bring sneers from Hacker and Dreifus have promoted diversity in ways unimagined fifty years ago. Given the long and continuing history of American anti-intellectualism — which today takes the form of a vicious know-nothingism — I am often surprised that America has universities of the quality it does.

This piece is worth and in-depth read rather than the usual skim. Read it, ponder it and think about what it means for higher ed.

3. Degrees and Dollars. In this recent op-ed, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman offers the dim view (after all, his is an economist) that advanced education won’t equal good jobs. Globalization and technological advances have “hollowed out” the middle class, so much so that technology is now “actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.” He concludes: “[T]he notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.” Reflecting on Krugman’s piece, Inside Higher Ed’s Dean Dad worries “that as the population of underemployed graduates grows, so too will resentment towards higher education” and that “folks with very different agendas [than Krugman’s] will use that point to do once-in-a-generation damage.”

4. 5 Long-Term “Ideas That Matter” for Education. Last year, philosopher A.C. Grayling offered a dozen ideas that are likely to become the centers of political, economic and intellectual debate in the future. From that dozen, Andy Shaindlin, on his blog alumni futures, picks five from that dozen that he believes have “direct, and potentially monumental, implications for higher education.” How will education leaders respond to these themes? It’s worth thinking about.

5. Are America’s Best Days Behind Us? This question frames the context of a recent TIME magazine cover story . And while the topic is broader than higher education — the focus is more about America’s economic competitiveness — the author, Fareed Zakaria, does touch on the importance of investing in higher ed and associated areas, such as research and development. “[R]educing funds for things like education, scientific research, air-traffic control, NASA, infrastructure and alternative energy will not produce much in savings, and it will hurt the economy’s long-term growth,” he writes. “It would happen at the very moment that countries from Germany to South Korea to China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption — exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth.”

Bonus: The fall of U.S. higher ed and what to do about it. This is a post I wrote back in October 2009. It was partially inspired by the headlines of that month, which bear remarkable resemblance to the headlines of this month, and partially by Zakaria’s book The Post-American World. Since we’re still grappling with the same issues, maybe this post is still relevant. In it, I offer four prescriptions to our decline. But I still haven’t gotten that phone call from Arne Duncan.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

3 thoughts on “Friday Five: Higher ed, the good and the bad”

  1. I think of the critiques of the higher ed industry as similar to critiques of the music industry. Much as there’s nothing wrong with most of the music being made today — just that mainly the music industry pushes the banal treacle — I think most of what’s actually happening where the rubber meets the road in classrooms is great. We have some great things happening everywhere in higher ed, but so much of the focus is on the Dilbertesque nature of management, the eye-rolling inanity of ratings, the economic bugaboos. But engage in a conversation with a professor or motivated student, and we realize the glass is really more than half full.

  2. Tim – I think I agree with you. Nothing energizes me more than being able to talk with motivated professors and students and finding out their great stories. Thanks for the reminder to do that more often.

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