Higher education in January 2021

How does higher education stand this month?

Last week the Future Trends Forum hosted Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney, authors of the just-published The Low-Density University: 15 Scenarios for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press). I was hoping to dive into their fine book, which offers visions of multiple strategies for higher ed to explore, and we did. But the guests and most of the community were also interested in the implications of the DC Capitol riot, which had occurred the day before. So we also discussed that.

It’s a good example, I think, of how the Forum can host rich conversations.  It’s also a useful snapshot of higher ed at this moment in time.

To begin with, here’s the full video recording:

We also had a ton of text questions during that hour.  Josh and Eddie tackled many, but some couldn’t fit in, so I wanted to share them here. They give a sense of how people responded to the Capitol events, as well as to The Low-Density University. I’ve removed the authors’ names and have edited slightly for clarity:

In his August piece in Inside Higher Ed Josh wrote about the threat to enrollments posed by alternative credentialing. I wondered if he could talk more about that.

One thing I noticed is that if there wasn’t already a sync/async online degree completion program, institutions are scrambling to make one. Is this sustainable? Does this change the tenor of education?

But Eddie, those answers (about the purposes of higher ed) are really specific to 4-year residential institutions for “traditional” college students. What other purposes do we need to meet?

Which of the authors’ 15 scenarios do they think are most promising, if we assume that the future will be less stable than the present (e.g. climate change causes political and economic instability)?

What do you think about the cost of education? How do we fix this problem (student debt and student resort living experience)? Vs online? Future? AI/VR?

Faculty are not rewarded for being good teachers. The teaching and learning space is always touted as a solution but that is not what faculty culture is built on.

[I]f education is so important to democracy, etc., then isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with an education system accessible to only a small percentage of the population?

Future Trends Forum screenshot, with guests Joshua Kim and Eddie Maloney; question by Tony Sindlar

Joshua Kim and Eddie Maloney; question by Tony Sindlar

We also had a robust chat going on throughout the hour.  I wanted to share some extracts, again to give you a sense of the discussion.  Again, it’s anonymized and edited lightly:

Glad to be back after the 2 week break   

I had difficulty getting a copy of Ministry for the Future. Just received it. I’ll try to catch up

Hello all from Olympia WA and thank you for this forum

For most people, higher ed is about getting the degree and getting a job 

How is [higher ed] doing? Could it be done better and cheaper another way? 

The “buying time” is a big opportunity cost for most people  

Absolutely NOT!!!!  We would say to half the population they must bow to our supreme ivory tower position.  

Teaching cannot be neutral. As public intellectuals, we have an obligation to work for equity. 

Not my country… but I think the time to make strong unequivocal statements was a year or two ago

We should listen better – rather than pontificate.

Teaching is inherently political work. We have a responsibility as scholars to engage in work as a public intellectual. What frustrates me is that there seems to be a disconnect between the business of higher education and the mission of higher education. 

Yes, everyone concerned with health of democracy should press for consequences with 25th amendment at the top of choices. (my personal opinion) 

If not now – when? If not us – who? 

Certainly we should perform and engage students in close readings of our governing documents and relevant historical precedents. 

If we adopt Georgetown’s president’s guidance to support the common good, college presidents could weigh in on the role of race in yesterday’s event. 

I’m here to think about the future of higher education and these experts’ insights about exciting/promising models 🙂 

25th Amend at this time adds more division. 

We need to focus on January 22.  (and, probably, on the role of race in how protestors were treated.) 

Higher ed should lead and be a safe space for discourse. 

Healing can begin when the abuser faces consequences. This can be related to sexual assault on campus accusations   

Leaders come and go, but social media remains. Both twitter bans and section 230 have been in the news over the past two weeks. What about addressing the enabler? 

Preserving the ability to hold space for diverse conversations and opinions is a very important component of civil society 

One of the initial purposes of higher education here was to create a well-informed citizenry to help our democracy succeed. Yesterday was evidence of our democracy sliding away. We aren’t meeting one of our goals if we don’t speak out. 

a school law perspective: conversations, topics, etc should always relate to the curriculum – how would this be connected to learning goals is critical 

On 9-11 and the rest of that month, I threw curriculum into Social Emotional Learning – students need to process. It is appropriate to do so now   

I agree with both speakers. Now is the time to act. Just as we need bystander training to intervene in the classroom or workspace in the moment of racist or violent behavior, now we need to do so on a national level. 

I believe this is the article referenced from David Brooks. 

Is it time to tear down the elite colleges?  

What makes up the schools is people …. plus money. Without money they wouldn’t exist.

I also think that higher education is undervalued for what it contributes to society from an objective research – “Knowledge Creation” perspective.

The elite colleges wield enormous power in hiring with their brand and alumni network. It is a big factor in the exorbitant costs and admissions craziness. 

I keep bringing up The Knowledge Factory by Aronowitz.  Also good: anything by Henry Giroux.

happy to do my reading homework, I was curious specifically about our speakers views given the types of institutions they work at.

I would add that higher ed should also be advocating for all kinds of education. Namely, vocational education and paths for people who don’t want to or cannot attend college

The cost of education makes it an engine of inequality.  

OK…Pelosi & Schumer JUST called for Trump’s immediate removal

What do they think about Raj Chetty’s work? Can higher education overcome the bifurcation of the workforce and spatially concentrated inequality. This may be bigger than us.

Every time I come to the FTTE, I add more books to my Goodreads “to read” list.

~ 50% of international students are also first generation students too

calling for and actually doing it are two different things. Talk is cheap.

I hope higher ed will through out the entrenched tenure system and go for a business model

Josh and Eddie’s book can be read for free on Project MUSE. It can be purchased as a Kindle ebook on Amazon. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/low-density-university 

kids don’t learn from ppl they don’t like – true of students of all ages  

Why not teach these curricular topics in high school so everyone is exposed? 

I think there’s a difference between engaging with the principles and philosophy of social engagement and actually engaging with the societies which the student (or the professor) is in or near. 

Pelosi called for 25th fyi 

If the goal is bringing people together, how does telling half of America they are wrong – the way they think is wrong?

But the liberal arts/general ed requirements impose a big cost and opportunity cost on people who just want to get into the job world 

Violence is not unwrong 

Is there a reference for this? The Netherlands produces excellent engineers and scientists – without liberal arts.

How do the humanities and social sciences stand in the Netherlands? 

But how do we pay for it? Debt is now insane.

My son just finished a Physics degree there with no liberal arts content. No doubt if you are studying liberal arts or humanities it is not an issue.

I’m finding anecdotally that the people who “just want jobs” are more likely to engage in academic dishonesty because they see it as a transaction. Does that viewpoint cheapen both “versions” of higher ed?

I would like to see the evidence that the inclusion of liber arts in vocationally oriented education actually has an impact.

I’ve been for years reviewing if my undergrad liberal arts was worth it or worthless

I think as a country we need to totally rethink education

The academic dishonesty is caused by the perverse emphasis on testing and grades

an education system that excludes people is anti-democratic 

Arun’s contention that college has very little impact on critical thinking skills is interesting.

Speaking of funding, how do we even make the distinction between public and private at this point? When most public schools get their funding from federal student loans and international tuition dollars, at what point are these still public state institutions?

Good point. “public” is quite private. Did you see Jim Duderstadt’s joke about U Michigan being “state supported”?

Duderstadt’s observation is brilliant & extremely accurate.

Doing liberal arts as a foundation in high school followed by college for vocational training and more liberal arts at the master’s level

That’s reductive. I’m on two separate committees on this. You can’t divorce the commodification of education from this. 

Note we won’t get different results by doing what we have always done.

You can’t divorce grades and tests? 

You can change grading and assessment easier than the systemic issues of education.

Check out Ungrading by Jesse Stommel 

The biggest systemic issue is the degree system 

Alfie Kohn has also written on grades 

Thank you for keeping it real 

Thanks! Glad my 2pm meeting was cancelled at the last minute so I could join for the session. 🙂 

What US president has NOT committed impeachable in the last 30 years? None, I’d say, if you don’t have a political “party line” bias… 

I’ll check out Alfie Kohn too, but the issue is multifaceted – and its not the only systemic issue.    

My thanks to the guests and community for such an energetic and convivial discussion.

If you’d like to learn more about the next Forum sessions, or to register for any of them (for free, as ever!), check this post.

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9 Responses to Higher education in January 2021

  1. Sid Gilman says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with”I would add that higher ed should also be advocating for all kinds of education. Namely, vocational education and paths for people who don’t want to or cannot attend college”
    That is the mantra of our company, Condensed Cuirriculum International, Inc.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, the College Meltdown continues despite two bailouts (2020 CARES Act and Covid Relief package) and another bailout on the way. All of this must be understood from a critical perspective, that US higher education has almost always reflected and reinforced race, class, and gender inequality (see Ebony and Ivy) and that over the last four decades has appeared to be more of an corporate racket. Here’s just a sample of what I am talking about.









  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, I forgot to include a more quantitative analysis of the US College Meltdown during Covid. Imagine how bad the situation would be if not for the CARES Act and the Covid Relief package. At this point, hardest hit colleges will continue faltering, and elite institutions, under neo-liberalism, will be able to use this as an opportunity to gain and consolidate power.



  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, I forgot to mention that another area of concern is the growth of right-wing agitation on college campuses. While they may have less influence on campus during Covid, they are still around. Turning Point USA, for example, has been a key peddler of disinformation and an enabler of right wing violence. I have been researching them for about five years as they grew with the help of rich donors and politicians, including Donald Trump.


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