A President's Reflections

Higher ed and change

Posted on June 21, 2009

I’ve just returned from the Board meeting of the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).  CAEL is probably the preeminent organization dealing with the adult and lifelong learning in the country.  It was the leading developer of Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) as a concept, manages the tuition reimbursement programs for many large employers, and is leading the charge fr creating Lifelong Learning Accounts (tax exempt accounts into which employers and employees would pay and that would be used to pay for ongoing education).  It’s a great group and the Board has been interesting as it brings together people from higher education, the national unions, the corporate sector, and the non-profit world.

Art this meeting we had an interesting presentation from the Workforce Development person at ACT.  Their labor projections through 2014 do not show any real gap between employer demand and the labor force for “high end” jobs, the kinds of careers to which most SNHU graduates aspire.  The large and growing gap is between employer need for “medium level” jobs, those which require two-years of post-secondary education or its equivalency, and the labor market.  In fact, amidst this current unemploymeny crisis, there are hundreds of thousands of these jobs unfilled.   Low level jobs will dwindle, ACT argues, so the underclass will have even less opportunity. There is some debate on this last point, as many would argue that low end service jobs have actually been on the increase.

Going back to the medium level jobs, a good example is the need of the telecommunications industry for linemen and other technicians.  There will be a large number of retirements in the future, the jobs pay well, there are plans for an overhaul of the national grid, and the industry sees a crisis in the making.  The jobs don’t require a college degree, but they are highly technical and served by a combination of community colleges, union apprenticeship programs, and company training.  With overtime these employees can make over $100k a year.  These were the sorts of jobs that American automobile manufacturing once provided, allowing someone without a college degree to make a good living, buy a house, and send kids to college.

As I watched terrible weather result in my flights being cancelled one after another at O’Hare on Friday, I had time to reflect on some of the unspoken truths in American higher education today.  We often talk about higher education in monolithic terms, but there is a complexity at work that masks some uncomfortable realities:

  • Higher education is a kind of sorting system and degrees are not uniform.  An undergraduate degree from Bowdoin is different than an undergraduate degree from SNHU is different from an undergraduate degree from Hesser College.  Yet so much policy discussion pretends that degree attainment is the key goal.  In reality, graduates from many colleges could not get acceptance into the freshmen classes of many other colleges. 
  • Much of the policy debate, especially around completion rates, continues to ignore the stark reality that the quality of an institution (depending on how you want to define that term) is probably most directly tied to the quality of its incoming classes. 
  • There is a dramatic misalignment between public policy makers, funders, and families on one side and most of higher education on the other.  The whole thrust of the public policy debate is about cost and access with the ambitious, if oversimplified goal, of having 60% of adults as degree holders by 2025.  The champions of that goal would not largely support so much of what higher education seeks to do: create new scholarship and research (especially in many fields); build beautiful campuses (except for their kids’ schools); supply student amenities (food courts, climbing walls, lovely dorms….); increase credentialing demands (Do Physical Therapists really need “doctorates”?  Do middle school teachers really need Masters degrees?).
  • For all the good work around teaching and learning, most instruction in higher education remains mired in learning models that are demonstrably ineffective and that lag behind the way this new generation of high schools graduate learn.

On one level, education is an information-based activity (making, consuming, processing information) and all information-based activities are being dramatically changed.  Think about what’s happening in music, movies, journalism, and financial services worlds.  Health care is going through its big, complicated debate and will likely look different in years to come.  Next up will be higher education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.