US universities unprepared to meet the challenges of 21st century

Posted: Monday, January 24, 2011

From the halls of state legislatures to the streets of Europe, higher education is in crisis. For years, American colleges and universities have been the envy of the world, but in the past four decades, this situation has deteriorated significantly and is quickly approaching the tipping point. Radical changes are needed, but, unfortunately, many administrators and most faculty members refuse to acknowledge the magnitude of the problems and are unwilling to consider constructive alternatives.

To appreciate the complexity of the issues, it is important to understand the diversity of American higher education. Community colleges, public and private colleges, research universities, and for-profit institutions face significantly different problems. While one solution will not fit all, it is essential to recognize that the problems are systemic and, therefore, each institution must be considered in relation to all others.

We must also realize the post-secondary student body is as diverse as the institutions where they are educated. So-called traditional college students — i.e., those 18 to 22 years old, constitute only between 15 percent and 18 percent of the total student population. People of all ages are seeking higher education, and their demands differ significantly.

The current system of higher education is unsustainable financially, curricularly and institutionally. Parents and students as well as colleges and universities are facing unprecedented financial difficulties. The cost of college is skyrocketing at the precise moment that advanced education is more important than ever.

The numbers speak for themselves — by 2020 four years at a top-tier school will cost $328,000, by 2028 $589,000, and by 2035 a college education will cost an astonishing $788,000. Parents and students are already taking on considerable debt to finance education. Indeed, last June, student debt surpassed credit card debt for the first time. This situation is unsustainable.

The financial challenges are no less daunting for colleges and universities. Assets are down, liabilities are up (many schools have taken on significant debt to finance building projects, many of which are unrelated to their academic mission), income is down (endowments still have not recovered from the 2008 collapse, and state revenues are not keeping pace), and costs are either fixed or rising.

These financial pressures will make it impossible for most colleges and universities to offer sufficient financial aid to offset escalating costs. As the cost continues to rise, more and more students and parents are beginning to wonder whether college is worth the investment. A New York Times article (Dec. 13, 2010) argues, “A college education is better than no college education and correlates with higher pay.” While this might be true, with the continuing recession and stubborn unemployment and underemployment, it is unclear how long this argument will continue to be persuasive.

These problems are compounded by the fact that in far too many cases, college is not preparing students for life and work in the 21st century. A growing emphasis on research rather than teaching has led to over-specialized courses that often represent the interests of faculty rather than the needs of students. The curriculum needs to be thoroughly restructured in ways that break down barriers now separating departments, disciplines, and programs.

In addition, all courses — even those in the liberal arts and humanities — should engage real-world problems. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a luxury we can no longer afford. To insist the curriculum should have a practical orientation is not, however, to claim that education should become narrowly vocational: Liberal-arts education has never been more important than in today’s globalized world.

Finally, the current institutional structure — both intra- and inter-institutional — of higher education is unsustainable. Within colleges and universities, departments, divisions, and programs all too often operate independently in ways that do not serve common institutional goals.

To make matters worse, educational institutions compete with each other for scarce resources, students and faculty. The pernicious rating systems encourage wasteful competition that makes cooperative ventures all but impossible. Rather than reinforcing walls that separate, we should be building webs and networks that connect faculty and students from the local to the global level.

It will be impossible to provide the quality of education a growing number of students need without an informed and effective use of new media and communications technologies. While some administrators and faculty members are beginning to realize the pedagogical potential of these technologies, most resist innovation and insist on teaching as they always have done. It is, of course, necessary for students to learn to read critically and write well, but this is no longer sufficient. They must also cultivate literacy in the technologies they will use in their personal and professional lives.

These technologies already make it possible for colleges and universities to cooperate on a global scale. Through the use of telepresence, institutions can share faculty and students can take courses with professors anywhere in the world. Increasingly sophisticated online education provides enhanced educational opportunities that will scale effectively and thereby alleviate some of the financial burdens institutions are facing.

From elite private colleges to large state universities, an increasing number of students cannot get into the classes they need to complete their education, and often, when they are admitted, they find themselves in classes with 300 to 1,000 students. A responsible deployment of technology will enable schools to provide a better education for more students.

In coming years, there will be a significant shift from place-based education to online education at the secondary as well as the post-secondary level. A recent report predicts that by 2019, 50 percent of the courses high-school students take will be online.

If the problems are so pressing, why is change so slow?

Colleges and universities are notoriously conservative but are gradually beginning to realize change is necessary. As I have insisted, the problems facing higher education are systemic and cannot be addressed by acting independently of one another.

• Mark C. Taylor is chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University and author of “Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities.” Readers may send him e-mail at He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.).

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