Three Reasons Why Higher Education Should (and Can) Change

This week a journalist asked me to list three principles that underlie and motivate my interest in institutional transformation for higher education.  It’s always an interesting exercise when someone asks for a finite number–it’s never representative or complete but pushes one to a certain prioritizing and synthesizing, however provisional.  This week, here are my three.   What are yours?  (reblogged from the Futures Initiative Group on


1.  The way we learn in school is not natural.

2.  Higher education is voluntary. 

3.  Testing should value what we count–and count what we value.


Now, I’ll explain why these three seem urgent to me:


1.  The way we learn in school is not natural. 

It is historical and institutional. It changes–and it can be changed.

We do not learn out of school in the same way we learn in school.  The methods, content, rules, and objectives of formal education were constructed around certain specific historical and social principles .  When there is too great a disjunction between the historically-derived methods of formal education and the needs and aspirations of a society, formal education changes.   Recitation and rote worked well in the great age of oratory and hierarchy, before mass printing.  When the minister and the magistrate pontificated at the pulpit or in the town square, you emphasized oratory and memory.   That changed in the 19th century, over the course of a hundred years of so.  As a symbol, think about the progression from the Yale riots over the addition of blackboards in the 1830s to the acceptance of the multiple-choice SAT’s as college admissions tests in the mid-1920s—from memory of Latin and Greek classics to scientism, standardization, and all the attributes required of the Industrial Age.

That is why I believe we are on the cusp of such change again.  What is the kind of learning–the method, practice, content, bureaucracy–in a society where, since April 22, 1993, and the release of the Mosaic 1.0 browser to the public, anyone with an internet connection can communicate anything to anyone else with an internet connection–instantly and without an editor.  In a world of big data, big debt, and big disparity, in a world where “the robots are coming,” what kind of learning do we need to be engaged, urgent, critical, creative, responsible citizens?  What does higher education reform look like in this context?

2.  Higher education is voluntary. 

Unlike K-12, once you have your legal majority, you make the choice to be there, how to use your time, how to invest your energies, what to major in, whether to stay in or drop out.  The only penalties for dropping out of school are individual (although individual behavior always has a social component).

And right now there is so much social pressure—nuances that higher education no longer counts and actual outright ideological war on higher education—that makes that voluntarism much harder on a psychological level even as (from some of the same sources) it is far harder than it should be in the US on a financial level.  In many countries, it is assumed higher education is difficult enough, that it is a social good to have an educated citizenry (especially in a fast-changing and highly sophisticated technological world with lots of extremely complex social and environmental and other issues):  higher education is thus often free or even subsidized for the future of the society.  Debt is a crushing factor to add to the voluntarism of staying in school.

In all other endeavors where participation is voluntary—gym membership, church membership, volunteering at the local soup kitchen, etc–adding penalties, rules, requirements, or nonsensical obstacles decreases participation radically.  It’s that simple.  What about the university falls into those categories of extraneous requirement that only leads to failure?  I think of small, dying departments that increase requirements supposedly to bolster enrollment in the least-exciting courses, only to face yet another drastic decline in enrollments.  It’s a lose-lose strategy for everyone.    What are better, winning, intellectually-inspiring ways to increase interest and investment in an area of study, not enforce it when, ultimately, voluntarism will win out and students will vote with their feet?

Steven Pinker has noted that the top elite, private institutions spend twenty times what the publics and the less-elite privates spend on getting that 95% graduation rate that helps them stay high in the ratings, recruit ever more successful (and affluent) new students, and have successful alumni who, in turn, give back to the school.  These schools have everything from climbing walls to advisers who are in locus parentis, attending to problems, counseling, giving the justification of why staying in school is important (I believe every professor should be eloquent about what a course adds to one’s understanding of the world, not just one’s understanding of the requisites of a field that exists only by tradition within the university—see #1—but maps quite haphazardly onto the external world).

I believe we address the voluntarism of college through engaged mission-based learning, integration of technical and quantitative skills with critical and creative ones, student-led learning, peer learning and peer mentoring, and a variety of other progressive learning methods, including transforming research, in all specialized fields, into some public contribution of knowledge.  Students taking some responsibility for their own learning, in a real and significant way, is a key component to participation and investment.  Maybe it’s the “Ikea effect”:  but it works.

As a final point, because college is voluntary, the role of the college professor is absolutely crucial.  You cannot transform the university to be its best and most relevant and urgent and inspiring—whether face to face or online or blended—unless those who teach are full professionals, with all the benefits, security, and material conditions of a profession.   Period.  No one returns to the exercise class if the trainer is poor, uses techniques that are out of date, or, worse, doesn’t show up, and doesn’t care. Why would it be different in the far higher stakes voluntary world of higher education?   If you don’t invest in the best professionals as great researchers and teachers, you can’t pretend to be interested in true educational transformation.


3.  Testing should value what we count–and count what we value.

The only true test is whether your education improves your own readiness for the world–whatever version of “the world” you determine or is determined for you. Testing should be giving you constant feedback to help you learn and improve and even to internalize your own methods for determining if what you are doing and have mastered measures up to what you aspire to and wish to accomplish.  We are so far from that ideal now–and higher education is guilty of preserving a terrible system of testing–outmoded, inaccurate, and unfair on many levels.

The internalized, formative aspect of testing is crucial whether you are the traditional college age, full-time student (18-22) or the increasing majority of students over 25 who may be part-time. Higher education should be a preparation–whether that is deeper, theoretical understanding of principles or skills development or the many points in between.  And it’s not just content mastered (a fallacy of so many studies of “students don’t learn anything) but methods for attaining mastery, social skills, leadership skills, self-understanding (at any age), and a lot of what comes from having dedicated oneself voluntarily (see #2 above) to a goal without always having clear, guaranteed, definite rewards.

However, because education is not natural but historical and sociological (see #1), we are in a mechanized, privateering, high-stakes mode of testing now, worldwide, that is about corporations and profit, not about learning and not about measurement.

“Goodhart’s Law” states that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a measure.”  Right now, our high stakes testing is a target.  It measures one’s wealth and preparation for the test, which correlates with wealth in a world where tax base determines resources to the public school and where even the most elite private schools send students to cram schools to ensure they do well on the high-stakes testing.

High stakes testing—the ones that get you into college and the ones that get you into graduate and professional school– are sociological and economic gatekeepers, not conduits, not measures.  And K-12 cannot change until higher education rejects them as the standard of admission, as the selectivity metric that gets them a US News and World Report ranking, and as anything but 19th century psychometric charlatanism now corporatized into a many-billion dollar industry.



Okay, those are my three.   What are yours?


The Futures Initiative
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