In 1999, just before the new millennium began, the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein published a book titled: The End of the World as We Know It. Most people who are familiar with Wallerstein remember him for his influential work on world systems theory in the 70s and 80s. I read him in graduate school and became very interested in the systems approach. So when I saw the title of his new book, I knew it was more than a just a provocative phrase, I knew he was making a claim about a transition from our current world system to something new. I wasn’t disappointed. Let me read you a brief passage from the first chapter:
The first half of the twenty-first century will, I believe, be far more difficult, more unsettling, and yet more open than anything we have known in the twentieth century. I say this on three premises, none of which I have time to argue here. The first is that historical systems, like all systems, have finite lives. They have beginnings, a long development, and finally, as they move far from equilibrium and reach points of bifurcation, a demise. The second premise is that two things are true at these points of bifurcation: small inputs have large outputs (as opposed to times of the normal development of a system, when large inputs have small outputs); and the outcome of such bifurcations is inherently indeterminate.
The third premise is that the modern world-system, as a historical system, has entered into a terminal crisis and is unlikely to exist in fifty years. However, since its outcome is uncertain, we do not know whether the resulting system (or systems) will be better or worse…
Now I realize that this isn’t a particularly cheery way to start a speech meant to inspire. Wallerstein describes these transition periods as a terrible time of troubles with very high stakes. However, he also suggests that while we should not consider progress inevitable, it is certainly possible. We don’t know at the outset whether the outcomes will be better or worse, but we can always strive for better. Remember, that he says that while the transition period is difficult it is also more open. I believe that it is that open quality of change that gives us an opportunity to shape the outcomes. And we must seize that opportunity.
Whether or not we buy into Wallerstein’s claim that our current world system is ending, I don’t think anyone would disagree that we are experiencing a time of significant instability in the world system of higher education. The financial structures that used to support higher education comfortably have become unreliable and insufficient. Enrollment patterns that used to be slow and predictable are now changing dramatically over shorter periods of time. We can no longer just look at the demographics of high school graduates to predict enrollment. Now we have to understand a much broader socio-economic dynamic that leads people across all demographic groups to opt in or out of a college education. As the non-traditional student market has grown and become a more significant component of our business model, new competitors have moved in to take advantage of this opportunity. Where there used to be natural semi-permeable boundaries between colleges and universities across the country, those boundaries have vanished and fierce competition has saturated every market.
As we look at other industries in this new landscape of turbulence, we can see that in some cases, such as airlines, newspapers, and computer hardware, the market consolidates into a few large providers with broad consumer bases. In other industries such as entertainment and phone service, the market continuously fragments and realigns with both large and small providers competing for meticulously defined demographics. Which way do we think it will go for higher education? Probably a little of both. We are already seeing the shakeout of small private institutions that could not survive these challenges. However, I don’t see us consolidating into a handful of higher ed institutions. While we will probably see some more shakeout in the higher ed sector, I think it is also likely that we will see the market continue to fragment and realign with both large and small providers. We won’t have the luxury of marketing to a broad audience with similar needs. We will have to get a lot more sophisticated in micro-marketing to highly defined student populations.
Just as we try to adapt to these new realities, the value of higher education itself has been called into question by legislators, consumers, and even some scholars within the academy. We can no longer take for granted a public trust in the inherent value of education. We have to find ways to demonstrate that value in directly observable experiences and outcomes. As the cost of education becomes more daunting for individuals, that task will become ever more important and challenging.
So now the million-dollar question: how should we prepare for this time of transition?
First, I think it is essential that we become well versed in the dynamics of the educational landscape currently evolving. Question all assumptions; especially those tied to the way things used to be. That is not to say that we should throw everything out and start over, but it does mean that we need to know the difference between what has true value and what is merely comfortable and familiar. Some things are worth fighting for and some things not; we need to know which is which, so that we don’t waste time on the wrong initiatives.
Second, we need to get up to speed in our understanding of our markets. The i-gen market, what we would otherwise consider our traditional market, is not in any way traditional. They are not sold on the value of higher education and have difficulty committing to long-term goals. We have been surprised by the fact that many high school students who have applied for admission are not choosing other institutions, they’re choosing no institution. They’re opting out. We will have to adapt to this reticence and figure out effective ways to engage these students.
Across all of our student populations, we need to understand that more and more, people are demanding an “un-bundling” of educational packages and want a wider variety of credentials. Just as in the cable industry, there is too much competition for us to remain unresponsive to this expectation. That doesn’t mean that we abandon the four-year baccalaureate, but it does mean that we have to be more creative in how we stack and embed credentials that meet the needs of prospective students in the for-credit curriculum. And it will also mean that we need to expand our extended education infrastructure so that we can offer more variety and accessibility in what has been referred to as “just-in-time” education.
Third, we will need to pay careful attention to the quality and value of the educational experiences we provide. I continue to be very proud of the faculty and staff who create high impact learning experiences in and out of the classroom. Whether it is learning communities, interdisciplinary projects, or undergraduate research, I know that none of that could happen without your dedication and commitment to student success. But as important as these experiences are, we need to be able to demonstrate that we are providing quality across the board and not just in highlighted activities. That means assessment and continuous improvement have to be integrated into everything we do. Accountability is not just an expectation of our accreditors, it is an expectation of the public at large and we have to meet that expectation if we are to remain viable.
Fourth, we need to recognize that our roles as educators also have to evolve to meet the needs of the diverse populations we serve. Students today have access to what some have called “free-range, organized information”. They can access educational bits from anywhere and everywhere. But in this unbundled world of educational opportunity, our role will have to include helping students connect the dots and understand deeper contexts. We will have to do a better job of providing the re-integration of knowledge and the connection of knowledge to potential careers and callings. Susan Brennan, who spoke on campus recently about community engagement internships, suggested that we ask ourselves, what are the interventions that we should not leave to chance? She was talking about career readiness, but this is a question we need to ask about all aspects of student experience, especially for at-risk students.
Finally, I believe that if we are going to “strive for better” in this time of unsettling change, we need to be rational and collaborative. We cannot afford to disengage or work in isolation from one another as lone experts in a field of one. We must develop a collaborative ecosystem where we share and make the best use of everyone’s expertise while searching for the best outcomes. This will be difficult in an environment of competition and threat. And not everyone will buy in. But while this may be the end of the educational world we have always known, it is not the end of education. Things will look different, and we’ll have to adapt, but let’s not give up on quest for better. Because whatever happens, better is the only goal worthy of the outstanding members of this institution that I am proud to call my colleagues.
Christina S. Drale
Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost