The Road Ahead: Do Colleges Really Ever Change?

Fall pond

NOTE: This is the fourth installment in a series of essays reflecting on the future of liberal arts colleges. Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined for failure. I disagree. We will explore the current dynamics and set the context for the future of Central College.

How do we know when a new idea is going to be just another passing fad versus a real lasting and substantive innovation? It’s an important question as so many are calling for change in higher education and many attempts are being made to redefine it.

In his book, Management Fads in Higher Education (2000), Robert Birnbaum traces the rise and fall of serious attempts to fundamentally change colleges and universities as organizations since about 1960. These management principles and techniques, largely derived from government and business, were introduced to higher education as an imperative to avoid one looming crisis after another. As Birnbaum notes in his writing 13 years ago,

“Higher education is in crisis. Indeed, higher education crises have been claimed for so long that crisis now appears to be its natural state. Hundreds of claims of crisis have been documented during just the past twenty-five years…”

His work makes two important contributions. First, he analyzes seven specific fads including such approaches as MBO (management by objectives), TQM/CQI (total quality management/continuous quality improvement), ZBB (zero-based budgeting), and BPR (business process redesign). In addition to building our lexicon of acronyms, each of the fads Birnbaum studied had some important lasting effects on our institutions of higher learning. There are current management approaches traced to these fads that have become common practices. In other words, each of the fads had something to contribute to our work as educators, but colleges and universities have found ways of sorting and filtering. While a particular fad may never have resulted in systemic change, it likely delivered various improvements in practice.

As he demonstrates how such fads come and go in higher education in a rather consistent pattern, Birnbaum also notes two innovations that were revolutionary in fundamentally reshaping colleges and universities along with many other elements of American society. The first was the “Triumph of Managerialism,” derived from Fredrick Taylor’s ideas on “scientific management” in the late 19th century during the spread of manufacturing; and the second, the “Triumph of Rationality,” referring to the widespread use of data and information for policy analysis and decision-making, which emerged following World War II. Both have had profound and lasting effects on higher education.

I draw this distinction between fads and innovations as an illustration. Systemic change in higher education typically grows from the gradual adaptation of new ideas, eventually adopted as more or less standard practice. For some in society this pattern is a source of great frustration. The disappointment is often preceded by the expectation that new ideas (most of which are not actually new) will fundamentally change higher education as we know it, and do so very quickly. When the results don’t emerge as anticipated, the claim is often that colleges and universities are simply recalcitrant.

A clearer lens of interpretation would reveal institutions of higher education have been designed for centuries to conserve and preserve deeply held values and pass them on to one generation after another. Colleges, much like the broader society, are built to last and slow to change. For some, this is a sign of incredible weakness sure to result in widespread failure; for others this is the source of strength that has preserved institutions for centuries. The changes that resulted from the rise of managerialism and rationality occurred over decades as culture and organizational theory began to reshape our core ideas as a society. The lesson is colleges and universities, as a community of institutions, are collectively skillful at separating the wheat from the chaff.

In my last installment I addressed the growing fascination with MOOCs (massive open online courses) as the perceived pinnacle of change for higher education. These courses represent the nexus of online learning and for-profit economics – a formidable force of disruptive innovation, a game changer, if you believe the rhetoric. This time we turn to another example where interest is once again resurfacing: competency-based learning. Will this change everything?

Competency-based learning dates back to the late 1950s as colleges sought to expand the reach of higher education through opportunities for continuing and adult education. Many students during these years initiated post-secondary studies, but had not completed a degree. Accordingly, there was growing interest in finding ways to incorporate learning obtained in various life settings that would lead to the completion of an undergraduate program of study.

In 1976, Peter Meyer’s book, Awarding College Credit for Non-College Learning, helped to frame the various policy issues that emerged with the growing need to adequately assess prior learning and life-experience credit. It was during this time that ideas related to lifelong learning were taking shape in the widening scope of interest for colleges and universities. Some will read the following excerpt from Meyer’s work and think it was written today rather than nearly 40 years ago.

“In all segments of the educational system learning is replacing teaching as the center of attention. This change in emphasis is increasing the need to assess and credit prior learning. Primary and secondary school educators as well as those engaged in higher education increasingly recognize that the focus needs to be on how, why, and what people learn, rather than on how faculty impart knowledge.

“Not only is the emphasis shifting from teaching to learning, but learning is being seen more and more as a lifetime activity. There is nothing really new in the notion that learning takes place continually from birth to death. What is new is the concept that creditable, certifying and credentialing institutions of our society need to recognize this.”

We have indeed recognized this, but not to the satisfaction of some observers. What critics miss, however, is the system of higher education we have built for centuries can and will adapt with meaningful, incremental change. However, it cannot spin on a dime. There are currently more than 4,600 institutions of postsecondary education in the United States serving nearly 21 million students and taught by almost 1.5 million faculty members at all levels of education. These institutions and students are spread across 50 states, each with a separate governing structure, many of which have independent boards of trustees. The sheer magnitude of the system coupled with the long-standing conventions and expectations of a highly complex and regulated society makes it clear that disruptive innovation will need to master that scale and complexity in a very short period of time to live up to the expectations for sudden system-wide change.

Still, much like online learning, for-profit educational institutions, and MOOCs, competency-based learning has been quite influential in higher education. The focus on the learner, on the lifelong trajectory of learning, and an increasing openness to where learning occurs have all been profoundly important developments over the past several decades. There has been a significant expansion of experiential leaning models, which place students in various practice settings (i.e. service learning, internships, etc.). There also has been a dramatic increase in attention to the assessment of student learning as faculty members increasingly are students of their own teaching practices. In my career, I have witnessed important and substantive innovation in the use of technologies for learning. There also have been significant developments in the settings for learning including hybrid courses that use both classroom and online approaches, studio-style instruction, problem-based learning and team learning. The outdated notion that the typical classroom today is just the “sage on the stage” is giving way to the actual experience of the “guide on the side.”

Competency-based learning has stimulated some impressive results in gradually reshaping our thinking as educators. I deeply value these contributions to our body of knowledge and experience. However, competency based-learning is highly labor intensive for institutions, requires extensive training and documentation, and could never reach the scale of our vast national higher education enterprise without a massive injection of resources.

Colleges and universities do change. In fact, they need to change. The process, however, takes time.

Next time: Cost, price and affordability: Can we make it work?

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One response to “The Road Ahead: Do Colleges Really Ever Change?”

  1. Don Huffman says:

    I know that in response to some previous blogs I have referred to some “cultural evolution” concepts that seem analogous to changes in higher education. Perhaps some further analogies might be helpful as we ask whether or not higher education ever changes.
    Evolution in human populations and human cultures involves both genetic and cultural mechanisms. These differ in that genetic evolution involves selection of genes, the biological hereditary units, while cultural evolution involves selection of “memes,” the units of cultural selection indluding ideas and concepts.
    Genetic evolution is slower, but over time includes changes both in frequency of loss or gain of specific genes. Frequencies may change, a new gene incorporated or lost from the population by natural selection. Eye color is a good example. Cultural evolution by contrast is more rapid with selection of memes, some of which may change, some be retained and some completely lost from a population. Human language is an excellent example as are technology and education.
    The impact of new technologies on education should include the expectation of introduction of newer “memes” arising, and selection pressure against these proposed cultural changes. Technologies may arise from business, economic systems, etc. but it is unlikely that any of them would completely replace our existing system of historically effective education.
    Our challenge should be to c onsider the value of any proposed change in education, bring our wisdom and expeeience to bear on these proposed changes, and adopt or delete those changes which might bring improvements in education. In the process we might expect sustainability in higher education with some changes in the teaching/learning processes, but probably not revolutionary changes.
    Yes, colleges and universities do and will change over time.