Higher Education: On a Crash Course for Reinvention

Thirty years ago-- with the Cold War ending and the rise of the Internet just beginning -- the demand for a post-secondary degree increased. This was the collective result of millions of individuals making a rational decision that their understanding of the world and their economic opportunities in that world would increase if they earned a college degree.

Since that time, the global pursuit of an elite education -- often culminating with a high quality American degree -- has not slowed. But, there is a new and growing concern about the cost of that degree.

Colleges and universities are aware of tuition sticker shock and have begun the process of reducing costs and the tuition they charge. Congress could help by making a number of the changes recommended by President Obama and by making 25 percent of student loans recourse to the institution.

These changes, however, even if fully acknowledged and aggressively executed, will leave three serious challenges unaddressed.

First, selectivity -- a measure of quality that began after U.S. News & World Report began ranking American colleges and universities - essentially means that large numbers of qualified U.S. and international students are denied admission. Turning away tens of thousands of qualified students at the very moment when these degrees have become more valuable makes no sense. Nearly 30 years later, this practice continues to thin the numbers of admitted students in the name of exclusivity, narrowing higher education opportunities for deserving students worldwide.

Second, almost everyone who examines the curricula at American universities will tell you that we are not preparing graduates for the kinds of interdisciplinary critical thinking roles they will be asked to play in the work force or as citizens. Well-intended efforts to change the general education curriculum have foundered on the shoals of academic politics. As a consequence, students are leaving college insufficiently prepared to be the kinds of leaders our world desperately needs.

Third, almost no one is taking advantage of the proliferation of no cost or low cost academic content available on the Internet. Rather than embracing this technology as a means of lowering costs, too many of our universities are still debating their value. Matters are made worse under the prevailing presumption that an expensive campus-based university with all the current internal regulatory friction, ever-rising overhead, aging teaching methods, and minimal use of advanced technology, is the only way to build and maintain a great university.

Successfully addressing these three challenges, and thereby breaking the barriers of exclusivity, accessibility, and historical ambivalence that often define higher education, must be a priority among American political and educational leaders if our country hopes to maintain its advantage as a global leader in higher education.

To accomplish this, these same individuals and governing bodies must discard their complacency about the comparative advantage the U.S. has enjoyed in higher education and unite around a vision for its future and potential solutions. We must re-imagine higher education with a clean slate, and utilize the social, cultural, and technological advances within our grasp. We must engage in the difficult work of making certain that our colleges and universities invoke changes much more radical and lasting than the lowering of tuition costs for a few years in the hope that it will be enough to silence the critics. Without this focus and commitment, the education of our global youth may continue to be a cause for debate, rather than a source of hope.