Whether the concern is access, or price, or quality, or innovation, the overwhelming focus of public discussion of higher education in the United States is undergraduate education, and the overwhelming tone is one of despair.
At exactly the same time, though, critiques of graduate education suggest that it is undergraduate education, and particularly the liberal arts, that hold out promise for the future of higher education. Here is what I mean.
In the United States, the curricula of most graduate programs reside entirely within the sponsoring department. So, with the exception of a course here or there, if you determine to get a master's degree in, say, history, you will take only courses in history and its close cognates. The history department will manage your registration, advise you, teach you everything it thinks you should know, and evaluate you.
Curricular trends in graduate study point ever more strongly towards this model of departmental domination. One of the things undermining the strength of MBA programs, for example, is the emergence of master's programs in accounting, finance, real estate, human resources, etc. This is an expensive model, one that relies on large cadres of specialized faculty, working closely with very small numbers of highly specialized students to achieve specialized learning outcomes.
The irony, of course, is that while the curricula become more independent and costly, criticism of graduate education suggests that the strong technical skills of graduates (finance graduates excel at financial modeling, for example) is undermined by the inability of graduates to communicate well, teach effectively, solve problems, and behave ethically. In the undergraduate curriculum students develop these skills in the liberal arts.
That this is the case points to a different model for graduate study--one that improves student skills and maintains their disciplinary excellence. The model is to create a graduate-level liberal arts curriculum, where students from all graduate disciplines work through a program that drives them to develop competency in communication, teaching, problem-solving, and moral behavior. Such a model integrates some portion of the graduate curriculum, so that students in several disciplines share courses. And it allows the disciplines to focus more directly on their areas of specialty.
There are plenty of reasons to wonder about a graduate level liberal education could succeed. Accreditors would need to change their expectations about faculty qualification and curricular content. Potential students would need to revise their views about what graduate school is about. And liberal arts faculty would need to figure out what graduate-level training outside their disciplines would look like. But the benefits to institutions (more efficiency, more integration, more alignment of the work done at the undergraduate and graduate levels, the opportunity to offer more graduate degrees that offer differentiated degrees but a common mission) and to students (better learning, more success at work, clearer path towards the degree) suggest that such changes are worth considering.