Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is there any hope for public higher education?

I work at a private, non-profit college.  I have many good friends, though, who work in the state system of higher education in Utah.  And I know many other people working in public higher ed around the US.  Most of my friends in private higher ed say they would not move to a public college or university.  And most of my friends in public higher ed feel a certain measure of despair about the future.

Why is this?  Because states like Nevada and Utah face a series of tensions--between limited capacity and increased demand, between budget cuts and increased costs, between a desire to respond to the market and the desire to maintain academic tradition, between higher ed leaders wanting autonomy and legislators wanting control, between traditional models of education and shifting student approaches to learning, between a public mission (serve the common good, strengthen civic skills, etc.) and a private mission (get good jobs for students), between declining quality and increased desire for prestige--none of which is easily resolved.

(I should say that private higher ed faces its own challenges, most of which rotate around cost, access, and quality.)

One can hardly imagine a "solution" to this set of problems (though there are plenty of attempts at it)--some single thing that if implemented would provide better, more responsive, less costly, more accessible education to a greater number of students.

 But the fact that there is no solution points at least to a set of changes in the tone, organization, and goals of higher ed.  We would be well-served by a greater humility, a willingness to be honest with the public about the challenges facing higher education.  We would be well-served by legislators and leaders letting go of control, rather than increasing it.  

There is increasing evidence that complex problems require small, distributed responses and clear feedback on the effect of the response.  This is the insight of markets, ecosystems, and democracies.  It should be the insight of educational leaders as well.

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