This should be the heyday of higher education in America. A college degree has never been more essential to individual success and societal progress, nor has a degree been more universally accepted as an engine of economic mobility and national prosperity. But higher education is failing to respond creatively and quickly enough to the challenges of the 21st century.
Universities have opened themselves to criticism, much of it for good reason. Rapidly escalating costs, questionable spending priorities, and unconscionable levels of student debt have placed colleges in the crosshairs of politicians, business leaders, and now families. This means that while consumers—students, employers, policymakers—know college education is something we need lots of, our institutions are not doing enough to make it to possible to obtain. Where’s the creativity, imagination, and experimentation for which the faculty and students in our institutions are so well known?
Solutions to our challenges demand creativity, and while our universities are filled with smart, innovative thinkers, the institutions themselves have barely changed in ages. Except perhaps for the lazy rivers and climbing walls, they would be easily recognized by a time-traveler from the 17th century. Our apparent resistance to the change most other institutions are experiencing exasperates not only politicians and business leaders, but now families as well.
Sixty years ago, the late Bill Bowen, former president of Princeton, identified one stubborn handicap, the “cost disease” characteristic of universities and symphony orchestras, which devote the largest portion of their budgets to highly talented human capital.
I know of few serious academic or business leaders who do not think major disruption is coming and that our colleges and universities must become much more effective and at lower cost or they will be replaced by new entrants who will provide what students want at a price they—and the politicians making decisions on financial aid—believe they can afford. The vast majority of Americans believe the purpose of a college education is to get a better job, and while I certainly believe there are other very important benefits, we ignore our customers at great risk.
Our colleges and universities are not job training institutes; if we view our role as preparing graduates for their first job, we have failed them. New graduates will change careers far more quickly and more often than their predecessors, often many times before their thirties are over. We need graduates who are creative, entrepreneurial problem-solvers, tech-savvy, and prepared to learn and retool throughout a lifetime.
We do that by reducing costs, improving learning outcomes, and graduating innovative, adaptive, lifelong learners. It involves embracing new ideas, experimentation, and courage—which are at the heart of any creative undertaking. In her wise new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (2017), my colleague Cathy Davidson makes the case for creativity and change in higher education.
We could improve quickly with widespread adoption of strategies that have been proven effective: offering more college classes free of charge in high schools; using more effective assessments to measure competency; eliminating friction in transfer among institutions; investing in the resources that we know work to improve performance and accelerate graduation; using technology—as almost every successful human endeavor does—to improve our effectiveness; working more collaboratively with employers to develop degree programs and certificates with greater economic value; and eliminating the peripheral bells and whistles at our institutions so we can adequately fund the essentials.
Widely available new learning approaches made possible by advanced technology hold great promise, both for extending the reach of and increasing the availability of lower cost education. We need college and university leaders who hold dear the values of the academy, but also understand how organizations work; who understand both the benefits of faculty-student engagement as well as the important current and future opportunities technology offers, who accept that most students are enrolled because they want a good job, but also realize their responsibility is to produce graduates who are active citizens and lifelong learners.
Universities are wonderful places filled with smart, creative people. The successful leader is probably more like the enlightened critic than the artist, with an eye for recognizing the promise of great ideas. But effective university leaders also need the courage to be willing to invest in big, creative ideas that can bring important change. Sometimes you get it wrong, but that’s why it takes a big dose of confidence, or ego, and some amount of wisdom and ability to nurture talent, identify transformational ideas and take big risks that can make a real difference. While there’s still time let’s apply to these problems more of the knowledge, creativity, and innovation for which American colleges and universities are so highly regarded.