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The Changing Face of Higher Ed

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Recently, The Atlantic published Derek Newton’s “Higher Education Is Not a Mixtape,” in which he argues that – contrary to many popular arguments and articles – higher education is not going the way of the music industry (i.e. people won’t begin shopping for individual professors instead of for universities the way they now shop for individual songs instead of for entire albums). Along the way, Newton makes some compelling points:

Though many universities have not done a great job of keeping up with technological advancements or at keeping costs down, many of the people making arguments for the tech future of higher ed are also personally and financially invested in the companies and technologies necessary to make this future possible. Moreover, the arguments for increased technology and the “unbundling” of higher ed also seem to be missing a basic truth: Unlike music – which listeners buy because of the artist, not the artist’s record label – students “shop for schools, not professors” knowing that their future career success is often tied, at least initially and in part, to the reputation of their university.

However, a simple (and obvious) response to many of Newton’s arguments is: Yes…for now.

As a more recent graduate of an MA program, I well remember just what “distance learning” and “online learning” courses can look like – and it wasn’t pretty. This gets back to Newton’s concession that many schools and degree programs haven’t done a great job of keeping up with the technological times, so that if they do offer online courses and learning opportunities, many of them aren’t yet all that they could be (which means that many students either elect not to use them or view them as a last resort). But this isn’t something that’s likely to last for much longer, and improved distance learning tech could very well lead to an “unbundling” of universities, to a marketplace for professors and courses over entire schools.

Given the constraints of rising tuition rates coupled with the increased number of non-traditional students (e.g. middle-aged and older adults coming back to school for degrees, training, certifications, and so forth), online learning opportunities and distance courses are likely to only increase in number and quality over the next few years. These increases will undoubtedly change the way people view online opportunities and, in turn, how they shop within the industry of higher education generally.

What’s more, many institutions, like Ft. Worth’s TCU for example, now offer comparatively cheap, non-degree opportunities (both online and in-person) to students (traditional and non-traditional alike) who are interested in auditing particular courses rather than in pursuing a full degree. This trend may be evidence that certain demographics are in fact interested in shopping for higher ed opportunities on a professor or course-basis rather than on a university-basis, similar to the trend of buying a $0.99 song rather than a full album.

In my opinion, Newton throws his best possible argument for the traditional college experience under the bus by only barely mentioning it in his final paragraph:

In the current system, it may not be efficient to maintain fine-arts programs, but most people think it’s important to have them. It has long been part of colleges’ mission to expose students to new ideas and disciplines. On campus, even business students, for example, are typically required to study literature and other topics in the humanities. Some may call that inefficient; others call it essential.

As a liberal arts student myself with three degrees, including English and American Studies, I appreciate better than most the difficulties and benefits of pursuing an education that doesn’t directly lead to an obvious, lucrative career path. And there certainly are difficulties – jokes bashing the putative usefulness or wisdom of liberal arts degrees are classic and many professors within these fields do an amazingly poor job of discussing with students just how many career opportunities are (or will be, could be) available to them. Thus, many students either prematurely cross liberal arts programs off their list or graduate from them without a full appreciation of just how flexible and useful they can truly be.

To me, the bashing or general rejection of liberal arts degrees only shows a lack of creativity on part of all involved. A degree in English, after all, doesn’t limit a person to Writer, Teacher, or Unemployed. As Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am Large. I contain Multitudes.” There is more to a student than their degree just as there is more to a degree than its acronym. Education, like life, will – in large part – be what you make of it. Similarly, there are more jobs out there, more possibilities and opportunities than you can ever account for, because they – like the higher ed industry itself – are always changing. And that’s part of what a liberal arts degree is great for: teaching students how to think (for more on this particular point, see David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech) and how to grow with changing times.

Ultimately, I think the future of higher ed falls somewhere in the middle here, in a combination of distance/online and in-person learning, of professor-shopping and university-shopping. As our student bodies change and grow more diverse, so must our learning opportunities. This isn’t a time to throw away all we’ve built in higher ed, but neither is it a time to try stalling change and growth.

*For those who’re interested, here’s the audio of Wallace’s speech:

Further & Related Readings:

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