Michael Rosenfeld and Christine Shakespeare, Pace University
William Imbriale, SUNY Maritime College
American higher education today is at a critical crossroads as many question and debate its continuing value to individual productivity and societal advancement. From Un-College movements to MOOCs, traditional four year liberal arts-grounded brick and mortar university education is being re-examined and re-imagined. At the same time, that traditional model of higher education is being extolled and defended. So where are we in higher education headed? And at the day-to-day level (which is where most of us work), how do we contextualize for ourselves and our students the current public policy debate about the shape and scope of higher education?
Although we position ourselves differently in the debate and consequently have somewhat different answers to these questions, all of the authors share the belief that these are critical questions not only for educational policy makers and government or corporate leaders, but also for all of us immersed in the reality of helping students understand and successfully navigate their college experience. Each of us needs to understand the role education has played in our own lives especially in its more transformative dimensions and what more generally or globally we believe that its ideal value is in the lives of our students and the larger social world we share.
One of the strengths of the traditional brick and mortar college based on liberal learning has been its commitment to individual exploration and discovery. Its curriculum and vision were deliberately intended to support a developmental process dedicated to increasing the individual student's self-knowledge within a framework of common standards and civic responsibility. As our world becomes ever more atomized and professionalized, some see this traditional humanism as increasing rather than diminishing in value because of the larger and more transcendent values it seeks to instill in students-- values that encourage students to turn a critical and questioning eye on social forces, technologies, and institutions that have the capacity to dwarf individualism and choice.
Yet it is undeniable that the traditional brick and mortar institution is deeply implicated in the very structure of our present social order. Some argue, and quite legitimately, that it is both a tool for the perpetuation of established privilege and a sorting device to offer the veneer of legitimacy to existing power and privilege. While it has provided access, certain beneficiaries have long enjoyed privileged access. Excluded were women, people of color, working adults, single parents, and many others lacking the cultural or financial capital to take advantage of all that a four year residential liberal arts college community had to offer. Thus the prospective de-centering of that institution or model is a positive development that holds out the possibility of greater opportunity of access and mobility for millions who have long struggled for educational opportunity or success. Today’s technology, through dedicated distance programs or hybrid ones, although presenting a challenge to existing institutions, represents an opportunity for large numbers of those marginalized by traditional higher education institutions.
For some even that change may be too conservative, limiting our choices to what we already know. Could we not, if we really wanted to, "reinvent" college? Could we create a completely new model that more efficiently deployed the resources presently allocated to what students really need and want? It has been done in the past with educational incubators that have grown hoary with time and are now well established within the educational mainstream (think of A&M Universities, for example, or the Worker Education Movement in England), so might we not do it again? Possibly, for example, by building a model which connected and integrated such threads as competency-based learning, apprenticeship, and Home College. But where do we find our educational visionaries who understand that what makes for a great university is something different from what makes for a great corporation? (Perhaps it is a little unfair to say, but too much of our current re-thinking about higher education is being pushed from above by corporate leaders.)
Regardless, however, of the educational mission, vision, or structure that we have, advising and advisors will remain central to student success in higher education. Students will still need help with navigating school and life; community, whether physical or virtual, will still need to be created; and new visions will have to be brought down from the clouds and made real. These are fundamental realities and it will be advisors who will operationalize them.
How advisors respond to these questions will of course depend upon their own temperaments, experiences, values, and sense of the future. We move both in operational and philosophical realms, and part of our professional growth involves not only the deepening of our own understanding of our professional culture but also the increasing interpenetration of our values and our work. So to a significant degree our response to the debate about the future shape and purpose of higher education is deeply autobiographical.
To encourage further thinking about this we would like to pose some suggested questions for the reader to consider:
- What role has higher education played in my life?
- What role is it serving in the lives of the students I work with?
- How well do I see college connecting with the backgrounds my students come from and the futures to which they aspire?
- What changes would I make or advocate for so that higher education is more meaningful and accessible to our students?
- How do I help students to understand what higher education is/can be, to be alert to its pitfalls but open to its opportunities?
Along with some suggested reading:
- Clayton Christensen, The Innovative University
- Andrew Delbanco , College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be
- Ben Wildavsky, Andrew P. Kelly, and Kevin Carey (editors), Reinventing Higher Education
Director, Center for Academic Excellence
Associate Dean of Students
SUNY Maritime College