Higher Education: As Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

I think it was Einstein who said “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Books on higher education have struggled with this sage advice over the past decade or so. The temptation to simplify complicated problems has led to either simplistic solutions (administrative bloat, “neoliberalism” and coddled students, et c.) or hopelessly complicated “word salads” where causality frequently takes a backseat to politically expedient rhetoric.

Not only are recent books on higher education a complicated and uneven mess of arguments, assertions, data, and policy, but they are proliferating at a remarkable rate. Over the past two years alone, dozens of books have appeared with optimistic profiles, evocative names (The New Education, The Graduate School Mess, For the Common Good, The Great Mistake et c.), and exuberant blurbs that prey upon the desperation of faculty and administrators alike to make sense of the changing campus landscape. (And they join a substantial bookshelf of “classics” that manage to feel hackneyed and naive at the same time.)

Preparing a syllabus for my spring course on the University of North Dakota Budget Crisis has proven particularly challenging. I’d like my students both to understand the main contours of recent higher education rhetoric and to gain a grounding in the complexities of data, policies, and attitudes that underlie this rhetoric. For every book like Newfield’s detailed analysis of university funding, there’s seems to be a few books like Cathy Davidson’s disappointing and largely derivative, The New Education. The cynic (and publisher) in me sees many of these books as efforts by publishers to leverage faculty discontent and cash in on the feeling of crisis in higher education.  

William G. Bowen’s and Michael S. McPherson’s Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (2016) is among the more successful efforts to make things as simple as possible. It sets out the problems with higher education in the 21st century that is both grounded in a realistic understanding of the American political landscape and higher education and frank in its evaluation of the data upon which so many policy assessments are based. My favorite thing about the book and perhaps its saving grace is that it’s short.

In less than 200 pages, Bowen and McPherson offer a blunt assessment of higher education in the context of a the national conversation. They highlight the need for higher levels of educational attainment, higher completion rates and faster time to degree, disparities among students from disadvantaged groups economically, socially, ethnically, or racially, affordability, and the challenges of developing strong leaders in higher education. In general, they avoid offering simple solutions to complex problems. They do this, by both staying out of the weeds of the history of higher education in the U.S., which is a complex and diverse snare always ready to entrap the inexperienced scholar, and offering particularly blunt assessments of current affairs.

For example, $30,000 worth of debt for a college degree is not oppressive when set against the significant increase in future earnings that this degree will offer. In fact, compared to the average value of a car loan (which is about the same), most student loans are reasonable investments. They do, of course, note that loans taken out by vulnerable students to attend for-profit colleges with abysmal completion rates are no good investments. This perspective on higher education as an investment in future earnings reflects their realization that to remain dynamic higher education in the U.S. should rely on a combination of student, state, private, and federal funding sources. Loans reflect on methods that current earners, by repaying their loans, invest in future earners within the American economy. 

They recognize the disparity between the performance of students who come from disadvantaged economic or social groups, while also realizing that these students benefit the most from investments in their educational outcomes. Our current system tends to reward students from more privileged backgrounds with further investments while systematically underfunding institutions that cater to students most in need. This situation misses an opportunity to fulfill higher education’s potential as a way to give more students access to the upward mobility offered by a college education. In response, they call for more need based aid and less merit based aid. 

Bowen and McPherson understand many of the challenges facing higher to require strong, independent leadership, but that the current system in which university leaders are under unprecedented scrutiny from donors, boards, legislators, faculty, and alumni often stifles the development of innovative solutions. The tendency for university leaders to be risk averse and to follow well-trod paths under pressures to chase rankings, to pursue short-term opportunities at the expense of long-term change, and to ignore problems that require challenging, systemic solutions.

Bowen and McPherson do stumble, of course, as they seek to balance the need for sometimes painful changes against potential solutions. For example, they paradoxically call for shorter time to completion for Ph.D. programs while at the same time recognizing the overproduction of Ph.Ds. It seems to me that a longer time to completion for Ph.D.s would slow production by serving as a disincentive to some from the start, by increasing drop out rates, and by throttling the number of Ph.D.s produced by keeping programs filled to capacity for longer. This is not an appealing or socially sensitive response to the problem, but it is clear that calling for shorter time to completion in Ph.D. programs will only increase the glut of potential faculty on the market.

Despite this little slip ups, Lesson Plan is a short, incisive, and appealing little book that establishes the problems and offers some responses without making the complex challenges facing higher education any more simple than they need to be.

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