Depending on whom you ask, you will get wildly different views on the state of the American university.
Some will tell you it is a moment of exhilarating promise and possibilities. Technology enables us to break the barriers of time and space to deliver quality instruction directly to students, when and where they prefer. New models are emerging that place students at the center of all we do. We’re rethinking financial aid and student loans in new and innovative ways.
Others are much more pessimistic. They see ChatGPT writing papers, maniacal zealots indoctrinating young minds with woke, left-wing ideology, or, alternatively, right-wing idealogues banning books and prohibiting the honest teaching of history. They see students leaving in droves because everything they need to know in life they can learn from YouTube, Google, and Wikipedia.
But let’s take a step back from this divisive debate. This is a call to embrace three basic principles to guide our path through this time of transformative change:
· Recognize higher education as a public good.
· Depoliticize our colleges and universities.
· Focus on outcomes that lead to jobs and support economic growth and prosperity.
This perspective has informed my personal journey as a Black man in America growing up in the South, finding a world of promise and prosperity through attending college and, yet, taking a staggered and unorthodox career path that gives me a different lens than your typical leader in higher education.
I grew up in Princeville, North Carolina, a small town that was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. Even though segregation was still a reality there, I was inspired to pursue higher education after visiting a historically black college. I was weighed down by the centuries of history that had shaped my place in America, but I was also determined to make a difference.
I joined the military after high school, and then went on to attend Barber-Scotia College, a historically black college in Concord, North Carolina. At Barber-Scotia, I was transformed by the power of community and African American solidarity. I saw that my experiences growing up in Princeville had prepared me for a lifetime of service to others.
After graduating from Barber-Scotia, I worked in education, sold cellphones, done customer service, started my own business, and driven for Uber and Lyft. My career path has been anything but typical of a university chancellor, but I believe that my unique experiences have given me a different perspective on higher education.
I am committed to making it more accessible and equitable for all students, regardless of their background.
I am proud to be a product of Princeville, and I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had to make a difference in the lives of others. I believe that my story is a testament to the power of education and the importance of never giving up on your dreams.
A moment of profound transformation
I serve as chancellor for Western Governors University Ohio. WGU, a nonprofit competency-based online university, is as much a part of the national conversation on the present and future of American higher education as Harvard. To understand this is to understand the nature of the profound metamorphosis that is underway.
What is happening in higher education is the beginning stages of a transformation from the industrial-era model to a new model based on the emerging knowledge economy. In the industrial model, the driver is the provider, the institutions. In the new model, the drivers are the learners, the students. In the industrial model, progress is measured in time spent, the credit hour. In the new model, it is based on outcomes; what did you learn?
Colleges and universities increasingly face competition from non-traditional providers like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), boot camps, skills-based training programs, corporations, and others. This is driven by technology as the old analog model is replaced by an increasingly digital and virtual one and is happening as we emerge from COVID and face an array of daunting difficulties.
To navigate this metamorphosis, let’s revisit the three principles I noted above: the public good, depoliticization, and supporting jobs and growth.
A public good
Higher education is a public good because it provides a skilled and educated workforce that is essential for economic growth and social stability. It fosters critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, all of which are necessary for the development of a healthy and prosperous society.
Higher education is a public good because it benefits not only individuals, but also society as a whole. Government, private institutions, and individuals benefit from and have an obligation to support higher education.
Higher education is a public good because it is essential for social mobility. Education is the great equalizer, providing opportunities for individuals to improve their socioeconomic status and achieve upward mobility.
In just two years, the percentage of Americans who held a positive view of higher education's impact on the country decreased by 14 points, with Republicans holding a starkly more negative view than Democrats.
This decline is attributable in part to the politicization of college campuses — from across the political spectrum. There’s Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ announcing a new legislative proposal that would prevent public institutions of higher education from using any funding, whether public or private, to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And there are various examples of students shouting down conservative speakers on their campus by hurling insults and carrying signs with grotesque profanity.
The overt, divisive political culture war behavior must stop. Yes, it is challenging for universities to steer clear of politics given their pivotal role in driving social and political progress. Nonetheless, there are a few approaches that they can adopt to minimize their involvement in politics:
· Prioritize education by ensuring that the learning environment is conducive to academic growth and promotes an atmosphere of respect, diversity, and impartiality.
· Promote constructive communication by cultivating an environment of civil discourse and discouraging negative behavior such as personal attacks, name-calling, and other toxic conduct.
· Uphold academic freedom by providing an atmosphere in which faculty and students can explore complex and sensitive issues without any apprehension of censorship or retaliation.
· Avoid taking political sides by refraining from engaging in political activities such as endorsing political candidates or lobbying efforts.
Supporting jobs and growth
In the 21st Century knowledge economy, colleges and universities must focus on producing graduates with the skills and knowledge to compete in the global job market. This is crucial for driving innovation and economic growth and meeting the demands of students and families who want a return on their investment in higher education. By doing so, colleges and universities can remain competitive and produce graduates who are well-equipped to succeed in the global economy.
Germany, China, and other world powers are actively retooling their systems of higher education in recognition of the transition from the industrial to the knowledge-based paradigm. That the U.S. has thus far failed to keep pace is evidenced in no small measure by our recent enrollment numbers. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% nationwide from 2019 to 2022, despite the return to in-person classes. This drop represents the most substantial decline on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This crisis could have devastating effects, including labor shortages in vital fields such as health care and IT. We know that studies that show lifetime earnings are significantly less for people without bachelor's degrees, especially for low-income, Black and Hispanic students.
What’s needed is a renewed emphasis on connecting curricula with jobs and the economy. Universities and policymakers should focus on:
· Developing programs that align with the demands of the job market.
· Encouraging internships and other work-based learning opportunities.
· Fostering partnerships between industry and academia.
· Emphasizing highly valued soft skills.
· Promoting lifelong learning.
As my boss, Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors, put it directly, “A credential with no market value is just a scam. It doesn’t matter whether you’re acquiring knowledge through an academic pathway or whether you’re acquiring that through an experiential pathway or through a work pathway. At the end of the day, it’s still, ‘What capability do you have, and how well does that capability align with what’s needed in the workforce and in a particular role?”
There is no denying that higher education and society are at a crossroads, facing unprecedented changes of a magnitude not seen since the Industrial Revolution. To navigate this storm of transformative change successfully, we must recognize higher education as a public good, depoliticize the institution of higher education, and focus on outcomes that lead to jobs and economic growth.
Failure to do so may result in dire consequences for our political systems, economic well-being, and global competitiveness. By embracing these three basic principles, we can emerge with a stronger system of higher education that will power us into the next century and beyond.
Dr. K.L Allen is chancellor of Western Governors University Ohio.