Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future

Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt

How will America’s colleges and universities adapt to remarkable technological, economic, and demographic change?

The United States is in the midst of a profound transformation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution, when America’s classical colleges adapted to meet the needs of an emerging industrial economy. Today, as the world shifts to an increasingly interconnected knowledge economy, the intersecting forces of technological innovation, globalization, and demographic change create vast new challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties. In this great upheaval, the nation’s most enduring social institutions are at a crossroads.

In The Great Upheaval, Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt examine higher and postsecondary education to see how it has changed to become what it is today—and how it might be refitted for an uncertain future. Taking a unique historical, cross-industry perspective, Levine and Van Pelt perform a 360-degree survey of American higher education.

Combining historical, trend, and comparative analyses of other business sectors, they ask

• how much will colleges and universities change, what will change, and how will these changes occur?
• will institutions of higher learning be able to adapt to the challenges they face, or will they be disrupted by them?
• will the industrial model of higher education be repaired or replaced?
• why is higher education more important than ever?

The book is neither an attempt to advocate for a particular future direction nor a warning about that future. Rather, it looks objectively at the contexts in which higher education has operated—and will continue to operate. It also seeks to identify likely developments that will aid those involved in steering higher education forward, as well as the many millions of Americans who have a stake in its future.

Concluding with a detailed agenda for action, The Great Upheaval is aimed at policy makers, college administrators, faculty, trustees, and students, as well as general readers and people who work for nonprofits facing the same big changes.

By Gordon Freedman

Arthur Levine has served as an almost singular higher education beacon in the U.S., and elsewhere, going on forty-five years. For a dozen he steered Teacher’s College, Columbia University’s graduate school of education, psychology and health. He has been the bad boy of higher ed, willing repeatedly to try to get senior administrators, boards and state officials to stare in the mirror of higher education and ask themselves, is this the best we can do?

He has been tough on schools of education, which are meant to light the fuse to ignite ever better human capital production in the U.S., but have not. He has taken difficult and unpopular positions such as the Education Administration Doctorate which he thinks should be abolished. At the same time, his analysis of education in the U.S. is a sorely needed mix of solid research, accessible prose, senior leadership and examples drawn through history, across the planet and down on the street.

In 2019, Levine stepped down from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation after 13 years of fostering programs to innovate and strengthen education leadership and teaching, all the while mixing the practical, the philosophical and the next thing. Better than most, he understands that life, culture, business and society constantly evolve. Except in one sector, education. The world of education provides a contrast to most other segments of society. It’s like an anchor that is more likely to keep education moored in the river of time as society moves on downstream at a rapid clip.

To cap off a career of intense leadership and practice, Arthur teamed up with his long-time research associate, Scott Van Pelt, to produce a stunning look at higher education across time and at the evolution of the world of business, innovation and change during the same time. The result, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future, is a book that demonstrates the parallels of higher education needed in the early 1800’s, in the late 1800’s as the Industrial Revolution re-made America, and, now as the Information Age has driven all manner of change except, again, in higher education.

Change in higher education is glacial, sputtering along as the world changes and is now challenged to its financial core by political division, global defense challenges and the worst health crisis since in a century, if not longer.

I first met Arthur in the late 1990’s when the Dot-Com flurry was certain to change the world. We spoke about building a new venture at Teacher’s College, which never came to fruition, and we spoke as he sat on the board of ed tech giant Blackboard, where I once worked. Those conversations kept going, always asking when will the best of higher education’s stability and depth intersect with the ever flattening and speeding up world of everyday technology and media and work.

In The Great Upheaval’s time-spanning analysis we see the challenge of various for-profit institutions, companies and community colleges offering noncredit skills-based certifications for hungry employers. While some of this analysis is in the forefront of discussion, there are two unique contributions and perspectives from Arthur’s and Van Pelt’s research that are fresh, smart and need to be contemplated, not just read:

  • First, The Great Upheaval is the level best analysis of higher education in the U.S. from-Colonial times until now. Levine has deciphered the repeating patterns with clarity and shown that what we think is unique today is not.
  • Second, he has evoked the obvious to all but those in higher education – how the fast moving, always evolving worlds of media, news, commerce and industry have completely changed while education has and is a doorstop.

I put a few questions to Arthur to provide more context on The Great Upheaval – This is the one higher education book that everyone in higher education and outside of higher education needs to read. Levine’s clarification and clarity is needed and is a very readable reflective tonic for tough times.

Q. Arthur, we periodically say higher education is doomed and new forms will replace it. Why is this time any different than the previous ones?

LEVINE: There is only one historical parallel to the present in terms of the magnitude, scope, and rapidity of change – the Industrial Revolution when higher education was transformed. It is an error to say higher education is doomed. However, it is simultaneously facing profound demographic, economic, technological, and global change. Every college and university in the U.S. will be affected. Some institutions will close. Others will be able to adapt to changes. Still others will be disrupted by the changes.

Q. Similarly, you make abundantly clear that the question of skills-based education versus an academic one is an on-going cyclical issue over time. Again, why is this time any different than the same conversations in 1800, 1850, 1890 and into the 20th and 21st centuries?

LEVINE: First, today we are witnessing a growing demand for upskilling and reskilling owing to Covid job losses, automation, and the shrinking half-life of knowledge.

Second, this is occurring at time in which a cornucopia of new non-collegiate postsecondary providers and distributors are entering the marketplace – competing with higher education, giving students more choice in where they learn, driving down prices, and commonly offering short, on-line programs, accessible anyplace, 24/7, and frequently awarding certificates rather than degrees. For instance, while higher education enrollments declined during the pandemic, enrollment in the programs of the new providers generally rose. Coursera experienced an increase from 53 million to 78 million students, an increase larger than the total enrollment of traditional higher education.

Third, higher education is most successful when it has one foot in the library (human heritage) and one foot the street (the real world including work). When society changes rapidly, higher education loses traction with the street and needs to regain its footing. Until that occurs, cutting edge providers except for the most selective and wealthiest institutions and their academic programs have an advantage in providing practical knowledge and skills, particularly for older, part-time college attenders, working full-time. The rapidly rising cost of higher education is also a deterrent.

Q3. There is an abundance of powerful technology that rules our everyday lives as people, corporations and governments, that knows each person, knows the grand trends of a lot of people and delivers guidance. Why has this type of technology not happened in education?

LEVINE: No existing knowledge organization has been prepared for the digital technology revolution. It disrupted faster moving organizations like film, music, and newspapers. Higher education needs to learn from their experience, if it wishes to avoid the fate of movie studios, record labels, and newspaper companies.

Q. Employers are desperate for employees and, as they have continually in the past, laid the blame at higher education’s doorstep, yet they don’t seem to be stepping up themselves with clarity about where higher education should go? Why is this and could there be more coordination between higher ed and employers?

LEVINE: YES. Partnerships between higher education and work are essential. The danger for higher education if it fails to rebuild its connections with work, are that work will seek what it needs from the new providers.

However, it must be recognized that change happens behind the backs of for-profit and non-for-profit organizations while they continue to do what worked for them in the past. As a rule for-profits change much more quickly, replacing what doesn’t work rather than attempting to fix what is broken. Bottomline, for-profits are desperately searching for solutions and are, like higher education, in flux.

Q5. In the second half of The Great Upheaval, you make quite a jump away from higher ed and provide a beautiful analysis of the rise and changes and complete remaking of the Music, Film and Newspaper industries. This is a wonderful look at wholesale change – what do you want higher education and those outside of higher ed to take away from these analyses?

LEVINE: Those three industries were facing exactly the same challenges – demographic, economic, global, and technological. They were able to adapt to the first three, but were disrupted by the fourth. Higher education should study those three cases very closely and avoid the errors they made.

Q. Maybe most importantly, we have seen shifts in who enters and who completes higher education. We have seen the demographic shift of women succeeding and men not so much. We have seen white and Asian Americans dominate completion and job placements, but have not seen the equity truly evolve for Black and Latino learners and those in poverty. Where do we go from here, and how will we get all hands on deck to run the economy and improve society in changing times? 

LEVINE: Our current definition of equity is out of date. It is rooted in an industrial economy which seeks to standardize the process and the time of education. In this world, which focuses on teaching, equity means assuring all people receive the same amount of education, the same amount of teaching. In a knowledge economy, which shifts the emphasis from time and process to outcomes, what students learn, not what they are taught, equity means giving all people the resources they need to be able to achieve common learning outcomes. This necessitate differential investment in students, dependent on what they require to master the stated learning outcomes.

Beyond changing the definition of equity, postsecondary education needs to be accessible to all who can benefit from it. In 1947 President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education identified several barriers to access including race, gender, geography, and income. Yet these barriers persist today and the financial barriers are growing larger.

The knowledge economy demands more education of Americans than ever before in history. Nine out of ten jobs created since the 2008 recession require education beyond high school. In the past, there were industrial jobs that could support a family for those with a high school diploma or less. They no longer exist. In the digital knowledge era, the cost of those barriers has increased and the means to overcome them are known and far more easily implemented.

Universal postsecondary education is now essential to meet the needs of our economy, to preserve our democracy, and to enable Americans to live a decent life. To go beyond the familiar rhetoric, the nation must invest in our children – prenatal and postnatal. Programs like Say Yes to Education, which have raised college attendance and graduation rates for whole cities, do so by embracing families, communities, schools, government, and support services. They demonstrate the remedies that must be adopted. We also need to support adult access to postsecondary education in order to provide upskilling, reskilling and lifelong education to all adults. We only need the will to do these things.

Q. Higher education has an abundance of policymakers and senior administrators who have not managed to navigate higher education into more modern waters, as gatekeepers what messages do you want to share with them?

LEVINE: During the last transformation of higher education, it took more than a half century for laws, regulations, and policy to catch up with the new realities of higher education in an industrial economy. Today, policy and practice are tied to the industrial model of higher education- degree-based two and four year programs with patches part-time attendance and experiments in competency-based education. We are in the midst of a shift to a higher education with an expanding number of providers and programs that are increasingly outcome rather than time based, available anytime/anyplace, award certificates as well as degrees, occur throughout the lifespan, and are individualized. There are three primary policy needs today.

First, redefine equity for a global, digital, knowledge economy as discussed earlier.

Second, speed the transformation of higher education to avoid the extraordinarily long, messy, and painful transition of the past. An example is that it took decades to develop common standards and an accounting mechanism – Carnegie Units – for a time-based higher education system. In the coming outcome-based higher education system, it is essential to develop common definitions of outcomes, methods to assess them, credentials to certify their mastery, and a mechanism to record the competencies mastered throughout a lifetime. Policy makers and funders should act on this now.

Third, reexamine current industrial era higher education regulations, laws, and policies. These practices lag behind societal change as was the case during the Industrial Revolution. The existing regulatory framework of agrarian America didn’t fit the Industrial Age with its giant corporations, new technologies, and changed working conditions. A new regulatory framework was required. It evolved slowly and agonizingly, in piecemeal fashion, inflicting far more harm than necessary. We can do better this time. We know what is coming. Federal and state governments need to review current laws, regulations, and policies; draft their successors; and develop a timeframe for adoption.

For Additional Reading, See Levine’s & Van Pelt’s EdSurge article: A Sideway Look at the Future of Higher Education