Why Change is So Difficult in Higher Education – Part I

Higher Education has been my professional home for most of my career. For the most part, it is little changed from my days as a graduate student almost 40 years ago, especially in traditional non-profit colleges and universities. Teachers are still mostly responsible for their own classes with little external interference. Most students still use physical textbooks; lecture classes are still the routine for classes, and classes are often much larger in size than 40 years ago. Students in a given class still study at the same pace with the same material irrespective of their level of preparation and what might best meet their needs. And faculty are, for the most part, still responsible for teaching, research and service in almost equal proportions, just as they were 40 years ago.

There are differences, of course. There are more options among colleges today – from specialized to liberal arts to mega-universities and from the public sector, the private, nonprofit sector and the private, for-profit sector. The percentage of youth going beyond a high school degree has increased significantly as has adult reeducation. States have continuously added new colleges and universities in more statewide locations, and community colleges have proliferated and grown larger than before.

Over that timeframe, a few less desirable changes have also become evident. Tuition is much, much higher. While we have seen an increase in participation rate in colleges and universities, the graduation rates have declined. A swirling phenomenon of students’ transferring back and forth among institutions has occurred where we see multiple changes in majors but no degrees being conferred. With the rise in participation rate and the rise in tuition, we have also watched a growing number of young – and not-so-young adults – with very high post-college debt loads.

Learning has also changed somewhat in the last 40 years with the expansion of traditional options and the growth of non-traditional avenues. There has been tremendous advance in online courses and online degrees with non-traditional, for-profit colleges leading the way with online education. The expansion of online education is also occurring in traditional schools that often form an alliance with a for-profit services organization like Pearson. These alliances have permitted traditional schools to compete with the for-profits, but they generally protect the traditional core so that faculty and students appear little changed from 40 years ago. This change has made it increasingly difficult to find a traditional course at even the most elite universities that does not include some form of digital, e-learning resource.

So with all these developments why is American higher education so little changed? Why has innovation been so constrained? There are many reasons. They include the way faculty are educated, the medieval decision-making structure of these institutions, the lack of leadership – from presidents, chancellors and boards, and the influence of a complex set of stakeholders with vested interests in keeping the system the same.

If we are to see improvement in higher education – lower tuition, better graduation rates, adapted learning, and better learning outcomes – we must understand what prevents change. With that understanding, interventions are then possible, and intervention is essential – for the good of higher education, for the good of America, and for the good of our economy. There is more to say about this topic in the next few days.


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