COVID-19 AND THE RE-FRAMING HIGHER EDUCATION

April 5, 2020


Higher education is going to be re-framed. It’s inevitable.

Christian higher education is re-framing in light of a post-Christian culture in order to meaningfully reach the rising generation of students. Christian education now has to re-frame in light of a post-coronavirus world.

Re-framing can be challenging and threatening, but it is the opportunity to insert strategic innovation into an organization’s strategic plan. These two massive changes—post-Christian and post-corona—create both the opportunity and necessity for moving beyond the status quo.

In an unprecedented move, in the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic nearly all higher education shifted to online learning. That this was even possible to achieve within a two-week period is a testament to the advances in telecommunication and social media. These tools are now widely available, user-friendly, inexpensive, and normative within the younger student generation. If there was any stress in the transition to tele-teaching it was among older faculty members.

This national experiment in online learning has developed after there has been a widespread public debate over the value of a college degree. The marketplace cost/benefit ratio has come under increasing scrutiny with the staggering increase in student debt. Andrew Yang questioned our educational readiness for the coming transition to the fourth industrial revolution. Bernie Sanders suggested that free public education should be increased an additional four more years to meet the demands of this coming change. And now the entire nation is getting a real-time semester-long experience in online learning. This much is certain, higher education will never again be the same. The status quo has been permanently disrupted.

The well-endowed and highly selective colleges and universities will largely continue on as before. They have few incentives to re-frame their educational model.

But this is not the case with the vast majority of second and third tier colleges and universities—in which almost every Christian college falls. Among these schools there will be an increasing fragmentation of educational delivery based strictly on consumer demand. Higher education has promoted and thrived on the consumer model for a long time. Shifting consumer demands will completely fragment the higher education learning experience.

Higher education consumers will evaluate colleges on the basis of their financial cost and academic purpose.

Generally, lower cost options will be oriented to online learning and subscription services. On the other hand, consumers will evaluate an institution’s academic purpose, namely how closely a college degree is tied to a specific skill or job. Specific skills will be taught primarily in online certification programs or in junior colleges. Job training will tend to be taught in traditional four-year institutions, particularly when the job has an extensive knowledge base required, as in most medical and health related fields.

If education is viewed as job training, whether skill certification or pre-professional preparation, as it is by most Americans today, then the traditional liberal arts will continue to suffer. When education is viewed as information transfer rather than personal transformation, about a paycheck rather than the person, the purpose of education itself changes.

The cost and purpose of a higher education degree will determine consumer choices. In 2018, college graduates earned weekly wages that were 80% higher than those of high school graduates. Nonetheless, depending on one’s post-graduation job prospects the cost of student loan debt remains crippling for many young people across their lives. Today 54% of college students need to borrow to cover their educational costs. The average debt carried by college graduates is $35,000, though this number is skewed by the high levels of debt carried by pre-professional degree students (law, medicine, and business). The value of a degree is also dependent on the academic status of the conferring institution with private for-profits being the lowest, followed by public college and universities, followed by private colleges and universities which have the highest long-term economic value.

Almost all of these considerations have nothing to do with learning or education itself. Here education is conceived as merely a utilitarian means to an end, calculated by the income potential. There is nothing in these calculations about becoming a certain kind of person who has the ability to think, read, write, and communicate clearly and who has an informed knowledge of the past that equips them with wisdom for the future. Most of the talk of higher education today is about a learning experience that is fragmented, immoral, and incoherent based on remedial information transfer that will soon be forgotten. And the variables most parents and students use to determine its value are just as distorted.

So it doesn’t really matter to the typical education consumer that online students learn less and retain less than students participating in in-person instruction. These losses are compounded in lower ability students. No, low cost and the diploma are all that matter. “We’re looking for the quickest way to punch a ticket for economic success.” Having an educated mind and the wisdom and character that comes from it are largely irrelevant.

We have developed a higher educational system that is designed to fail for a larger and larger number of the higher education consumers. But developing an educated mind and a strong character is not the goal of most of these consumers. Colleges and universities have subsequently lowered their expectations to meet these debased goals.

It is my view that the 4,500 U.S. colleges and universities will eventually separate themselves according to cost, purpose, and consumer demand. From this 4,500 we might meaningfully subtract perhaps 500 highly select and well-endowed colleges and universities that will continue on as before with their high priced residential educational offerings. But about 4,000 institutions will have to reframe their mission and educational delivery platform.

1. There will be low cost for-profit online or subscription services that will eventually educate the majority of students.

2. There will be certification programs either online or through junior colleges that will provide instruction around a particular skill, i.e., welding, phlebotomy, and culinary arts.

3. There will be graduate-oriented research public universities that increasingly minimize undergraduate degrees. Most of these will be oriented to pre-professional degrees in education, medicine, law, and business.

4. And finally, there will be small tutorial colleges that offer a kind of education that is personal, and if based in the liberal arts emphasizes transferable skills based on timeless themes. In many ways such an education is a throwback to ancient forms of instruction, where one sat under a gifted tutor. This was the kind of education that fostered America’s Founding Fathers and produced scholars such as C.S. Lewis. And yet, it is unlikely that these institutions will be highly selective in their admissions, because such classical liberal arts instruction is not widely understood or appreciated by most parents.

What is increasingly certain is that the comprehensive degree offering residential four-year college will become a rarer and rarer college experience. Instead, consumer demand reflecting the school’s economic affordability and career orientation will fragment the way higher education is offered. College selection will increasingly reflect parental values and priorities.

Television in America was once limited to three channels. Today television is fragmented among hundreds of cable channels that are now also competing with Internet-based programming. The same digital proliferation of educational delivery will happen to colleges and universities. With this unprecedented national turn to online higher education due to the coronavirus pandemic, this change is likely to happen sooner than anticipated. Crises are the most important time to enact meaningful institutional change. College education delivery will continue to fragment along the lines of high tech or high touch, career specialization or historically enriched liberal arts. Consumer choice, technological efficiencies, economic realities will make these changes inevitable. The handwriting is already on the wall. Now is the time to begin re-framing one’s institutions to align with these realities.

Are the consumer values demonstrated in parental college selection best aligned with developing a Christian mind and character? Do parents or graduating high school students know what developing a Christian mind entails? Does consumerism have any place in education? Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith observed that the secularization of America’s college and universities happened primarily at the hand of well-intentioned business-oriented board members. He writes, “Capitalism undercut the justification for the scholarly task of a college system that privileged religious knowledge in its education, bolstering instead a rationale for a kind of technical, instrumental scholarship that was at the very least indifferent to religious concerns and interests. The moral order of Christian higher education simply did not aid the interests of an expanding corporate capitalist system, and the material rewards for academic achievement shifted to a different version of success in higher education.” Consumer values served to undercut the mission of Christian education.

Economics, technology, and consumer demand change with the times. What does not change is human nature and what is required to master it. The big questions about life and reality do not change. It is necessary that  we have institutions that again take human nature seriously and enter into the great historic conversation that will give shape to the minds and wisdom that the coming generations will need. This inevitable re-framing will reveal our underlying priorities and assumptions about education.

 

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© 2017 John Seel Consulting

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