By Doug Ward

SAN FRANCISCO – A sense of urgency pervades this year’s meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The tenets of a broad, liberal education have been under assault at the state and national level, many Americans have grown skeptical of the cost – and debt – that college brings, and the terms “evidence” and “value” seem mandatory in any conversation about higher education.

The sessions at the AAC&U’s annual meeting this week have been filled with discussions about telling the story of liberal education, effecting change across departments and campuses, scaling effective practices to improve learning and retention, and creating an inclusive, equitable and global-facing educational environment amid a political climate of anxiety, suspicion and nativism.

No one at this year’s gathering has all the answers we are all seeking. And yet, even among the concern and urgency over the future of higher education, there is clearly a sense of hope. After all, those of us at the convention believe in the mission of liberal education and see ourselves as problem-solvers. No one is cowering or retreating.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco provided an expansive visual setting for the AAC&U conference. Like higher education, it mixed the abstract with the practical, the expansive with the creative. A big question, though: Are the elevators of higher education going up or down?

An early panel discussion did an excellent job of framing the problem that colleges and universities face – one that they helped create – but also of illuminating potential pathways forward. That panel, titled “Always on the Fringe,” emphasized the shift over the last two decades away from college as a public good.

Jeff Selingo, a professor at Arizona State, said that most colleges now emphasized their personal benefits. And Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple, said that approach had turned a college degree into a commodity. Illustrating that, one audience member said that at many colleges, students now enroll by putting classes into an electronic “shopping cart.”

Goldrick-Rab said that as colleges shifted their focus to education as a commodity, the financial system shifted from grants to loans to pay for college. That has led to a “high tuition, high aid model,” she said, convincing colleges that they could charge increasing amounts because degrees have value, while offering scholarships and other financial aid to discount the price.

That approach, she said, hasn’t worked, largely because it fails to take into account the rising cost of housing, books and other learning materials. Students are being priced out, and middle-class students are struggling with the cost of housing and food. Thirteen percent of community college students are homeless, she said.

“One reason people don’t have trust in the system is that we’ve told them these things and they know they aren’t true,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’ve learned over and over that when we tell them there will be money, that just isn’t true.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, said Spelman had avoided that “high cost, high aid” model but that the financial pain families endure is very real, especially when students fail to graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is debt but no degree,” Tatum said. “That is the betrayal.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, spoke about the challenge of regaining the public’s trust. If universities depend solely on the private sector, he said, they will be told to produce more welders and fewer anthropologists.

“So how do we lobby for more funding without sacrificing our autonomy?” he asked.

Selingo said higher education needed to stop clinging to the past and start thinking about what the college model, mission and experience in the 21st century should be.

“We keep going back to the model of public education from the 1960s rather than looking forward,” he said.

One way to start that process, he said, is to rethink how we talk about higher education. Our emphasis on the broad components of liberal education doesn’t register with most people, he said. People want opportunities and jobs but don’t know how to get there, and colleges and universities need to learn how to speak in those terms.

Policymakers in Washington haven’t been much help, he said. They tend to come from elite institutions that continue to grow more elite.

“They have never met the students who have struggled,” Selingo said, but they set policy for everyone.

All the panelists spoke of a need to help students connect classroom learning to careers. That is, we need to better explain how the skills students gain in philosophy, chemistry and other disciplines translate into skills they can use on the job. That is especially important, they said, because the number of freelance and temporary jobs has been growing faster than traditional jobs. Many students may never work as a traditional employee, they said, and must learn how to thrive in that freelance world.

Roth said, somewhat facetiously, that “critical thinking is vastly overrated.” For most students, criticism comes easily, he said. They find it much harder to build on ideas, develop opportunities and work creatively – all things that we need to improve in our classes.

“If everyone is critical, ideas die quickly,” he said.

True critical thinking is as important as ever, though, Tatum said, given the political turmoil and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, even as the world grows more diverse. Those are components of what she called the “stuckness” of society.

Among the solutions that came up in that panel discussion and at other sessions this week reflect the determination among educators.

  • Build on skills students already have. Too often, we focus on what students are lacking rather than on what they bring to the classroom.
  • Bring students into the conversation. If we hope to change higher education and the culture that envelops it, we must enlist the help of students. One workshop leader recounted something a student told her: “Don’t have a conversation about us without us.”
  • Broaden the conversation. We usually think of education in terms of teaching, but everyone a student comes into contact with can have an impact. In fact, one workshop leader said, food service workers and maintenance staff often know students better than faculty and administrators do. We need to bring those members of the university community into our conversations.
  • Improve listening skills. This goes for students, faculty and administrators. We need to help students listen to one another but also need to improve our own ability to listen to opposing views and understand the underlying thinking. We all need to break out of our parochialism, Roth said.

Throughout the conference, there was agreement that higher education needed to do a better job of explaining what it does, why it matters and why it deserves public support.

“I don’t think we can go back to a time when we think that higher education is a public good,” Selingo said. “We have to shift the narrative as a result.”

And we need to do that quickly.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.