Facts Before Changes

American Higher Education in CrisisFall term is well underway at my college. The hallways are full, with lingering, chatting, and many hugs and handshakes. Students do more than rush to the next class. Sometimes it feels like an ongoing shared endeavor, a community working together. If you are seeking reassurance about the state of higher education, a few days in the halls of Wright College could prove comforting. Students have their routines, support centers are full, and midterms are around the corner. College corridors can tell you quite a bit about the health of the institution and its students.

Yet I have seen too much, read too much, and thought too long to be lulled by engaged students pleased with their education. Substantive change and more change is underway, whether we welcome it or not. The signs are not always be visible. If you pay attention, though, they can be discerned. Our challenge is to recognize them, work through them, anticipate what follows, and craft more successful education for more students.

Having that sort of mindset is needed when reading American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know by Goldie Blumenstyk. She is a seasoned reporter and editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Blumenstyk knows a great deal about higher education. Grounding her writing and reporting is a consistent elevation of facts. The book opens, in fact, with a set of facts and figures, ranging from enrollment by kind of institution to costs and budgets. Blumenstyk’s writing is clear and jargon-free. It is the kind of prose that renders complex issues understandable while acknowledging that there is much more to be researched, considered, and debated. She makes clear that the United States does not have a system of higher education. It has systems. One size evaluations and decisions are not effective.

The question mark coyly positioned in the title is something of a bait and switch. Blumenstyk is explicit early on that yes, higher education, is in crisis. The state of affairs does not mean the end of academia as we know it, or the wholesale closure or restructuring of institutions or systems. Changing circumstances and innovation defy doomsday scenarios. That said, profound questions of higher education’s responsibility to equity, quality, changing conditions, and value are shaking things up. Can our “non-system” of higher education provide a successful value proposition to students, parents, alumni, employers, legislators, and the broader public? Different stakeholders want different things from higher education, and increasingly, students want meaningful and successful employment from their education. It is understandable, yet at the same time, funding and support for higher education, coupled with deep changes in our economy, has made that meeting demand quite challenging. Aligning different goals and values is extremely difficult.

The book is structured in four sections: Students, Finance, Leadership and Governance, and What’s Ahead. In each, Blumenstyk poses a deceptively simple question (What does disruption mean when it comes to the future of higher education?) and a crisp and common sense answer. Some queries rely more on facts than others. Regardless, she strives to be journalistic and fair. Blumenstyk does have opinions. It would have been a stronger book if she had given them more attention.

Collectively, Blumenstyk makes a compelling case that the crisis we face in academia stems from multiple factors and that it will be understood and addressed differently by different sectors of America’s higher education systems. Her primary interest, though, is in making sure that when talk about it and propose, develop and implement changes, we do it from an informed perspective. One of the best places to begin any process is with facts. She achieves that aim in this book.

David Potash

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