Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Change over time

Folks working on reforming higher ed today rarely look to the past, except to deride it as something to escape by means of technology, pedagogy, etc. But there are some interesting implications in the broad history of American higher education for the effort to improve learning, lower cost, and reform institutions, if not the entire system. At the risk of betraying my roots as a historian, here are a few historical trends worth paying attention to:

  • Very few institutions have moved from high cost (to students) to low cost (to students). It seems instead that once an institution or sector of higher ed locks into a price model, it stays there. So you don't see private institutions cutting their tuitions hugely. Nor, interestingly, do you see many institutions based on low tuition moving to a higher tuition model (beyond adjustments for the cost of doing business as they see it). (This article, which encourages caution in cost-cutting, is evidence of the difficulty in reducing costs.)
  • Some institutions have been able to move from lower quality to higher quality. Elon University, for example, has received a lot of attention for raising its quality over the past 30 years (though truth be told it made that move in part by raising status). Earlier in the history of the US, several state institutions jumped into the highest echelons of higher ed--midwestern state universities, for example. Their move came at a flush moment for higher ed though, and depended in large measure on the ability to spend on the same things that Ivy League schools did.
  • Moves out of higher education have tended to be due to financial problems or obsolete missions, not diretly to cost or quality. The main example in this area is the recently secularized independent private schools who, in the 1970s, having severed their ties to denominations, found themselves too small, too poor, and too isolated to stay in business.
  • Moves into higher education have tended to be based on structure or approach, (or occasionally on mission), but not on cost or quality. So, for example community colleges emerged to meet demographic changes (though here low cost did matter to the mission) in post-WWII America, the University of Phoenix found a niche in providing education to working adults, and online universities followed in the same area.
Why does this matter? Because it suggests that changes in the cost/quality relationship may not be able to drive institutional change. Systemic change might be easier, but only if the issue can be tied to a broader educational approach which has the power to appeal to an underservd group. So the question should be "what sort of education is desirable and effective for first-generation students (or Hispanics, or any other group)?" not, "who wants to study in an open learning, low cost, high quality institution?"

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