New Normals and Higher Education

What is normal in higher education today? When we think of a college we often picture young people, popular football games, lectures halls and the academic quad. However, traditional students, the 18-21 year-olds who live in dormitories, make up less than 20% of all who study in higher ed. One of the great strengths and challenges facing American higher education is the realization that higher ed is many different things to many different people.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 exacerbated many of those differences and put a great deal of strain on the system. It also drove Dom Angel and Terry Connelly to write Riptide: The New Normal in Higher Education. Angel, a former Congressman from Michigan and now president of Golden Gate University, and Connelly, former dean of business and Golden Gate, author the book from almost a Cassandra-like perspective. Certain that the higher education system is failing and bound to get worse, they plead, cajole and remonstrate. “What we need is structural, scalable change away from the historical unsustainable university model. We simply can’t afford to keep trotting out the tired old paradigm.”

Riptide has an urgent feel. It is a report and a wake-up call from two long-standing academic professionals, one a president and the other a dean. Presenting an impressive array of statistics, facts and events, the book makes it clear that the continuing increase of college costs are a tremendous problem if the United States is to educate its populace. Funding for public education is decreasing, they note, and no new sources of revenue are on the horizon.

The authors see great promise in more and different uses of online education. They believe that a three-year baccalaureate holds promise, and they also aim their critical acumen on the rise of for-profit higher education. Noting that the for-profit world has a higher reliance on student borrowing and a lower success rate than not-for-profit higher education, Angel and Connelly observe that the endeavor rests in great part on the support of the taxpayer. The critiques of far-profit education are trenchant and biting.

But what, then, is the solution? The authors propose a significant increase in community colleges with the development of a three-year, no-frills public baccalaureate. Such a degree, to be offered by the community colleges, would disrupt the status quo and provide a pathway for economically and time-challenged learners.

A three-year baccalaureate is a fine idea. So, too, are Angel and Connelly’s suggestions about trimming costs, banishing sacred cows, and making higher education more student-centered and student focused. Missing from their study are the host of factors that make higher education more than a business.

An institution of higher education does much more than disseminate knowledge and credential students. Intellectually, it is one of the few places in our society that prioritizes the creation of knowledge. Research and scholarship, even at less than prestigious institutions, are activities that under gird the entire enterprise. They animate our faculty, energize our stakeholders, and set us apart from training institutes and secondary education. Further, appreciation and dedication to the creation of knowledge are the values that pull many young people into faculty roles. Not all are successful scholars, to be sure, but that in no way diminishes their commitment.

If colleges and universities were simply about providing education – as it want in the for-profit world – than the business model makes sense. However, if we want our colleges and universities to also add to the sum total of human knowledge, than our models need adjustment.

Prospective students and their support networks are well aware of the difference, too; there are very good reasons why institutions with strong faculty who actively commit to their disciplines are regarded more highly regarded. What is the dollar value to a young person of going to college and having the opportunity to participate in the creation of knowledge? When we can answer that question, we will be much farther along quantifying the value proposition of higher education.

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