When Will Colleges Catch up to a Changing World?

Watching a child embark on the college search process can be sobering (and not just in making one feel old!). It sparks reflection on how much higher education has changed, and how much it still needs to transform.

The most obvious change in recent decades is cost – breathtaking, eye-popping cost. Average annual tuition fees have risen at more than twice the rate of inflation. Yet the typical American family today makes slightly less than a typical family did 15 years ago. That puts many middle- and lower-income families in a financial vise, risking far more student debt than is prudent.

With most American families unable to foot the full bill for higher education, institutions are admitting more foreign students who can readily pay the tuition, room and board fees. This trend is rapidly reshaping the student body on many campuses.

Another less obvious change is the shift from instruction by regular faculty members to a rotating array of teaching assistants and adjunct lecturers. According to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus (authors of the 2010 book “Higher Education?”), 70 percent of college instructors are now classified as part-time, temporary workers.

The minimal compensation offered to these contingent workers is not driving up college costs, but the generous pay and benefits for multiplying administrators must be. The ratio of administrators to students essentially doubled between 1976 and 2007, Hacker and Dreifus report; how did previous generations ever navigate their college years without the aid of a director of active and collaborative engagement, a director of knowledge access services or a director for learning communities and first year success?

New majors and interdisciplinary programs have arisen, but academia remains largely a landscape of silos. Knowledge is still apportioned into discrete departments, most of them identical to those that existed when I was in school, and when my parents and grandparents were. This compartmentalization seems remarkable, given our increasingly interconnected world and the forecasts for dramatic work-world and planetary transformations.

The future of work is a moving target, with technology challenging our whole conception of what we nostalgically call “careers.” The predictions are so extreme they are difficult to envision.

Today’s high school student may hold 17 different jobs spanning five fields by the time they retire (according to a recent Australian report).

Nearly half of current jobs could be replaced by automation within two decades.

Roughly two-thirds of today’s grade-school students will work in jobs that don’t yet exist.

Many young people still see their college years much as their parents did: a time to sample different subjects, settle on a major and graduate with some specialized (and ideally marketable) expertise. Professors share a similar view, hoping to offer students a solid foundation in a particular field. Yet “as the global economy becomes increasingly digital, the value of a stock of knowledge is continually diminishing,” consultant Heather McGowan and professor Daniel Araya wrote last year for the Brookings Institution.

What young people increasingly need is “learning agility,” the mental flexibility to roll with rapid change – seeking out, weighing and synthesizing new information and reapplying it as circumstances shift. Building this capacity may require students to cultivate greater initiative, wrestle with complexity and ambiguity, and persevere through repeated setbacks. Whether or not the staid halls of academia are cultivating these capacities remains an open question.

Beyond the continual adaptation demanded by the new work world, today’s students face a planet that is increasingly unstable – its natural systems upended by rising levels of atmospheric CO2. As “global weirding” further destabilizes ecosystems, economies and cultures the world over, no field or enterprise will be immune to upheaval.

The recent spate of destructive hurricanes offers a harsh reminder that climate change will not remain the purview of environmental science majors. It will transform the jobs and lives of economists, urban planners, engineers, diplomats, elected leaders, manufacturers, technological designers, journalists, emergency responders and countless others. How can higher education best prepare young people – whatever their major – to navigate these uncharted waters?

Some institutions are making an admirable commitment to practice and teach environmental sustainability (with Unity College, College of the Atlantic and the University of New Hampshire at the forefront of this trend). But relatively few students today graduate from college with a deep and far-reaching understanding of how – in the coming decades – the changing climate could alter the planet itself and their own professional paths.

Young people embarking on higher education need creative guides who can help foster the nimbleness of mind and resilience of character they’ll need in the turbulent times ahead. That’s a tall order for academia, and time is growing short.

© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.