Revolution in Higher Education: A Social Contract

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisherAmazon): this week we’re discussing the last full chapter, “A Social Contract.”

Here DeMillo calls for a new social contract between postsecondary education and the rest of America, citing competency-based education as a major way to make such a new agreement work.  Along the way DeMillo stops by Southern New Hampshire University, their College for America, the Wisconsin Idea, the opposition between college as private good (jobs training) and social benefit (producing literature, engaged citizens), Peter Thiel and his no-college program, John Adams and his Constitution of Massachusetts, Michael Crow (again), the Morrill Act, HBCUs, MOOCs (again). and Coursera’s Mission (yes, capitalized there).

Here’s a sample contract that this chapter considers:

Universities agree to a context to provide educated members of a society, economic benefits, and a community committed to the institutions’ success.  In return, society supplies funding, respect and protection for academic processes, and trust in the ethical nature of the academic enterprise. (5531)

Rephrased later,

What unites the small band of innovators is a mission to make higher education accessible, affordable, excellent, and fair.  That is the contract they believe society has with its universities.(5634)

At this point in time DeMillo posits two possible futures for American higher education:

One result of the Revolution might be permanent fracturing, as institutions break apart and corporations, government, and the general public sphere each absorb the pieces.  Another possibility is that the social contract will be renewer, this time by Revolutionaries who are convinced that the idea of a university cannot survive without it. (5444)

Interestingly, DeMillo doesn’t see alignment between specific campuses or institutional types and the students they teach, nor the research they produce, not at the present.  Subtle point here:

It is impossible to analyze an institution to determine exactly who it serves.  It is in the nature of what it means to be a university.  Universities are platforms.  They provide services to diverse stakeholders, who often have competing interests.  A university serves all of them. [emphases in original] (5483)

DeMillo sounds several themes as he takes us through this recent, familiar history, starting with opposition between MOOC-creators and institutions.  …

The major theme in this chapter is accessibility.  DeMillo sees increasing access to higher education as his Revolution’s highest goal.  He opens here by citing SNHU’s president explicitly marketing to “[t]he bottom 10% of wage earners… We serve people for whom attending college is not a guarantee… [college experience is] increasingly out of reach of far too many people. Social inequality is growing.” (5404, 5424)  As opposed to “the current system [which] is set up to favor the 20% of all college students who attend traditional residential campuses,” in DeMillo’s words (5417).  He goes further still: “the Revolution would enable higher education to directly reach people around the world, bypassing governments and states, if necessary.” (5621)

Miscellaneous notes:

  • MOOCs seem less important at this point of the book than they did during the first few chapters.  Andrew Ng’s being hired by Baidu doesn’t seem to mean anything bad for MOOCs, though. (5654)
  • The chapter’s opening sentence describes the first student to graduate from College for America “patient zero.”  (5398) I’m still not sure what I make of that.
  • DeMillo notes that “[o]ver the last 150 years, 27 colleges and universities in the state of Alabama have disappeared.” (5518) I’m not sure that’s as disturbing a stat as it might look, given that state’s struggling economy since the Civil War.
  • “futurists now talk openly about new modes of learning and new kinds of institutions” (5524)  – hello, there!


Next week, starting February 1st, is our final discussion of the book, starting with its epilogue.

Would you like to join us at the end, or start reading now and work through our discussion?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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1 Response to Revolution in Higher Education: A Social Contract

  1. Pingback: Warpping up Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education | Bryan Alexander

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