Brandon Busteed, the executive director for education and workforce development at Gallup, wrote a stimulating and thought provoking op ed earlier this month. The article’s title captured Busteed’s summary opinion: It’s Time for Elite Universities to Lead in Non-Elite Ways.
Mr. Busteed argued that America’s colleges and universities have traditionally followed the lead of America’s most elite institutions, an approach he argues has produced an “arms race of extensive new facilities, substantial growth in administrative staff, and the expansion of postgraduate degrees and programs.”
Citing the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Busteed reports that these trends caused 30 years of unprecedented growth in tuition rising “more than 400 % since the early 1980s and far outpac(ing) the cost increases of all other goods and services during the same time frame.” Busteed concludes, rightly so, that the pace is unsustainable.
For Mr. Busteed, the solution is for elite institutions to lead in non-elite ways. This does not mean simply ratcheting up financial aid since more aid is not the same as reducing costs. Instead, he asserts: “the real conversation should be about how to reduce the actual cost of college – and that is the difficult conversation higher education leaders don’t want to have.”
His solution is for elite colleges and universities to both talk the talk and walk the walk. Specifically, they should offer “associate degrees, certifications, non-accredited boot camps, employer- or industry-specific workforce programs, and even build…active partnerships with their local K-12 school districts.” He wonders “whether elites will have the foresight and the will to lead us in that direction.”
Change Often Moves at Snail’s Pace Especially at Elite Colleges and Universities
First, Mr. Busteed is right to infer that America’s colleges and universities are often places of cultural inertia. On most college campuses, process overrides other considerations. Shared governance among trustees, staff, and faculty often produces thoughtful change.
But change can move at a snail’s pace, especially at the handful of well-heeled elite colleges and universities relatively unconstrained by financial, political, or cultural pressures.
It’s a kind of “rule by committee” at times in which winning the debate can be as important as settling on the policy direction. The process can look more like the production of sausage even if the end result is appealing.
Less Wealthy Colleges & Universities Often Most Innovative
Second, change is hard. But the advocates for change face unique and idiosyncratic differences on every campus. Rather than argue that less wealthy colleges follow the elites, it may be just the opposite.
Under-endowed colleges and universities are the most willing to make change. Simply put, they have no choice.
These institutions are tuition-dependent and their survival requires some mix of planning, gambling, and luck. American higher education is not a monolithic pecking order in which the less fortunate emulate the wealthy. Those days ended in the last century when financial aid discounting disrupted archaic financial planning models to produce the current financial crisis in higher education.
Third, American higher education is highly decentralized. Expanding graduate and professional degree programs means very different things at a major research university compared to a rural, four-year liberal arts college. Further, colleges identify what they do and what programs they offer by their mission and purpose. Each category – indeed, every college and university – has a different purpose. Not all of them train America’s workforce in the same way or contribute to local and regional economic development in lock step.
Active Community Partnerships are Part of Most Colleges and Universities
Fourth, it is wrong to assert that colleges and universities are failing to build active community partnerships. In fact, most of America’s colleges and universities are eager and integrated community participants, deeply involved in basic education locally, and active in promoting regional, social, cultural, and economic initiatives. Where would West Philadelphia be, for example, without the decades-long work of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University in their local community? There are hundreds of these examples across America.
That’s not to say that America’s colleges and universities must not evolve to match their programs to develop the workforce and assist in economic development based on the pressing needs their regions face.
In fact, the mission and purpose of any institution must always reflect the society that surrounds it. Yet these institutions must also help set the agenda for where society will head.
Colleges & Universities Must Plan Individually and Act Collectively
It’s not enough to follow the trends sanctioned by the actions of elite institutions. It’s critical to have the courage to lead locally based on what challenges face them at home. To do so, America’s colleges and universities must plan individually and act collectively.
Higher education is not a monolithic industry with a defined and inflexible pecking order but a collection of decentralized colleges and universities – large and small – that reflect the genius, strengths, and pitfalls of 400 years of history.
America’s colleges must find new ways — and new words — to describe their importance and differentiate more sharply their contributions to society. But the pronouncements and policies of a handful of elite colleges and universities is only one place among many from which the majority of higher education’s institutions can find and refine their future.