11 lessons from the history of higher ed

It is easy to think that the history of higher education is irrelevant to the challenges that today’s colleges and universities face. After all, as recently as 1870, just 50,000 men and women attended college – just 1.7 percent of the college aged population. Today, in stark contrast, 20.5 million (57 percent female and 17 percent African American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American) attend a postsecondary institution. That’s over 40 percent of 18 to 24 year olds.

In fact, the history of higher education is filled with important lessons for those interested in envisioning the future of postsecondary education. Let’s look at 11 lessons.

Lesson 1. Debates over the mission and meaning of higher education are longstanding.
Among the first and most influential efforts to define the purpose of American higher education was the Yale Report of 1828. Often misread as a defense of a narrow, moribund classical curriculum, the report in fact offered an alternative to a theologically- or classically grounded curricula and vocational or pre-professional training in favor of an education designed to nurture the architecture of the mind and to promote self-formation. 

At various points in time, other definitions of the purpose of higher education prevailed: To form character, refine the sensibilities, and immerse students in the best that has been thought and said; to think critically and reflectively about values, politics, and society; and to provide an opportunity to grow and mature personally and intellectually. As higher education’s student body has expanded and grown increasingly diverse, any consensus about college’s primary purpose has eroded.

Today’s dominant view, enshrined in mission statements and presidential addresses, presents an uneasy mixture of goals: On the one hand, to serve the needs of workforce development and economic and social mobility; on the other, to nurture democratic citizenship, global perspectives, critical thinking, and community service.  Yet the reality at most institutions is a fragmented curriculum that pays little attention either to helping students identify a career and a realistic path forward or to their aesthetic, ethical, intellectual, or social development.

Lesson 2. Transformation is as much a part of the history of higher education as continuity.
The half century stretching from 1865 to 1915 witnessed the emergence (or invention) of many characteristics that still define traditional colleges and universities: The popularization of letter grades, departments, electives, majors, and the credit hour. The faculty role, too, shifted profoundly over time. Tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance are largely products of the first half of the twentieth century. An emphasis on faculty research arose after World War II. 

The academy is often viewed as the institution most resistant to change, but we are in the midst of another era of dramatic transformation.  Pedagogy, delivery modes, instructional staffing, and assessments are all being rethought – driven in part by advances in the learning sciences, cost pressures, and a new generation of students with distinct interests and needs. I suspect that the faculty role will shift further in the years ahead to meet this new reality, with an increasing emphasis on the faculty member as learning architect – a designer of learning experiences, a mentor, and overseer of independent research, internships, study abroad, and other forms of experiential learning.

Lesson 3. The student body has never been homogeneous  — or passive.
American higher education was never as exclusively elitist as is sometimes assumed.  Even in the colonial era, the student body included sons of farmers, like John Adams, and other non-elites, like Alexander Hamilton.  As the student body gradually expanded, distinct subgroups emerged.  By the early twentieth century, these subcultures included frat boys, sorority girls, strivers, bohemians, rebels, radicals, and various outsiders. Today, the fastest growing segments of the student population consists of non-traditional students:  low-income students, full-time workers, working adults, parents, and those seeking continuing and professional education. As a result, higher education needs to adjust to better meet needs that are very different from their predecessors.

Shifts in the composition of the student body are one theme in the history of higher education.  Another is the recurrence of student unrest. There haven’t been many Silent Generations among college studnets.  

Since the 1760s, campus unrest has been a fact of college life. Indeed, upheaval was probably greatest not in the 1960s, but in the early 19th century, before colleges began concerted efforts to defuse tensions by reducing paternalistic discipline and expanding the number of elective courses.  Especially important in reducing unrest was freeing students to organize extracurricular activities. Fraternities and sororities, competitive athletics, literary and debating societies and other groups were originally established and run by students themselves.  But gradually these came under the institutions’ purview and tutelage.  Whether this is the best way to promote student emotional, social, and intellectual development is certainly debatable.

Lesson 4. Higher education, in the past, played an important role in social mobility and economic growth.
Whether colleges and universities are still playing that role remains an ongoing source of controversy. No longer does the United States lead the world in college participation and in university-based research.  Gains in college completion rates and affordability have been modest. Access has expanded, but gaps in attendance at selective institutions by class, ethnicity, and race, persist. At the same time, spending on instruction and academic support and student services is in inverse proportion to student needs.

College has become this society’s chief mechanism for individual advancement, upward mobility, economic growth, and social equity. But it is not currently fulfilling this mission adequately.

How, we might ask, can we bring many more young adults to a bright future?  Clearly, selective institutions need to enroll larger numbers of students from low-income and underrepresented groups.

In addition, higher education also needs to better serve the new majority of non-traditional students: transfer students, part-time students, adult learners, commuter and part-time students.  

The sad fact is that most institutions were not designed with non-traditional students in mind.  Many institutions still offer an education that lacks the flexibility or support structures that many non-traditional students need.  Meanwhile, the fastest growing market segment – continuing and professional education – remains underserved.  Part of the answer might lie in greater access to alternate credentials – badges, certificates, professional certifications, among others – which do not require four years to vest, but which could stack into degrees.


Read the full article on Inside Higher Ed

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