I am a member of the University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Panel (SIP) on the Future of Higher Education. I am proud to have been asked by our Chancellor to serve on this important panel, which is based in DU’s dedication to being “A Private University Dedicated to the Public Good.” The SIP program has addressed difficult issues each year for the last several years under the able direction of Jim Griesemer, former Dean of the Daniels College of Business at DU, and a member of the Board of Trustees. We will be issuing a report in January, with specific recommendations for higher education generally, and for DU specifically. If you would like to know who is serving on this panel with me, you will find the list of bios here. Download 2013 Panel on the Future of Higher Education Panel Member Bios. The group has been meeting since June, and in that time we have read several books, dozens of articles, and heard 16 hour-long presentations, all addressing the threats and opportunities facing higher education. It has, to say the least, been an education.
As readers of this blog know, I wrote Law School 2.0: Legal Education for a Digital Age, which argued that technological forces were soon going to significantly impact the legal profession and legal education, and encouraged us to get ready for that. Many of the predictions that I made in that book have come true, accelerated by the econolypse of 2008-2009. So one could easily assume that I was put on this panel because of my pre-conceived notions about the topic, writ large for the University. But in fact, my own thoughts on the work we have been doing have been fluid. I have been open to what we have been learning together. Now, a bit over half way through our work, I am prepared to offer this much of my thinking so far.
More than a decade into the 21st Century, it now seems likely that among the most influential developments of the century will be the increasing ubiquity of technology, and in particular the democratization of information access and creation through the delivery system of the Internet. This influence is already far-reaching - from the crowd sourcing of an encyclopedia to a people overthrowing their government using a system of messaging limited to 140 characters at a time. Not long ago, we were mostly content consumers while now an unprecedented number of us are content creators as well. The impact of these changes will only increase and be felt, I believe, well into the future and likely into the next century. In many ways, the impact of technology will define our future.
As I have noted here before, we are now coming to understand that the educational system we have today was created at a time when information was scarce. But information is no longer scarce. And that simple difference will have a profound impact on the educational system we will have in this century, and - in many ways - it already has. The question for us is, what suggestions can we make and changes can we recommend today that will position higher education as we know it - and the University of Denver - for a new educational paradigm that remains to be determined?
Technological fear and resistance has always been with us. Socrates was suspicious of books, fearing that they would become a substitute for wisdom, and teachers of the late 19th century railed against the evil of blackboards, fearing that students would not focus on the lecturer if he turned his back on them. We consider these examples of technological resistance foolish today. Allan Kay wisely said: “Technology is something that was invented after you were born.” In other words, the car was technology to your great grandfather, but to us, it seems commonplace. Further, it is hard - if not impossible - to foresee the full impact of technology when the prototype is in front of us. Few understood what the invention of the telephone would allow, and who would even want one, and for what purpose. The CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation laughed when presented with the PC, famously commenting: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”
Because of fear, resistance, and inability to understand future impact of a new technology, we often react to it in a binary fashion. We believe that the new thing will completely replace the old, and we fear that. We fear it because there are good things about the old way of doing things, and we fear losing those. But the history of technology tells us that rarely does the new technology completely replace the old. While we have many fewer land line telephones, we still have many of them, even while we have hundreds of millions of cellphones. Well before the Kindle, which merely made them easier to purchase, we had a fairly long history with electronic books, and yet we still have millions of print books being printed and read in that form today. There are numerous other examples, but what is important is that we let go of thinking that the embrace of the new always comes with the death of the old. More common is a hybridization of the two, or in some cases, simple co-existence, interplay, and mutual growth.
In education - when someone learns something - that event happens through the interplay of knowledge, guidance, and coaching. When these connections take place, it is a moment of alchemy. Universities - including this one - perpetuate thousands of these moments every day. Indeed, I would suggest this is one of the reasons most of us work in educational settings and do the work we do. Because of the alchemistic nature of these moments they are hard to pin down, describe, and put in a box. It is sometimes like trying to describe what makes something funny. We must be wary of purported precision in our work. It is a precious thing, and it must be preserved.
But to think that seriously engaging with technological changes will by definition destroy that precious thing is, in my view, short sighted, and not supported by the history of technology. And so the interesting conversation is in how to nurture - and even strengthen - these moments of connection, surprise, and knowing while simultaneously looking for ways to make more of them possible. This requires deep engagement and experimentation. Without that, we will be lost. The option to do nothing is still an option, but it is becoming increasingly clear what the result of that choice will be. There may be strategies available to run out the string a little bit longer, but the ultimate result of doing nothing is not - in my view - in question.
We have some time, probably more than we think. A few of the presentations we have heard on this panel have been almost apocalyptic (on both sides). There is always a Chicken Little aspect to these discussions - it is unavoidable. (And it does not necessarily mean they are wrong; just that their timing may be off). But this change we are wrestling with will not happen overnight; it will be gradual. It took 40 years for the zipper to move most clothing construction away from button fasteners. On that scale, we are in year 15. But - like with a ship on the sea - the course we set now may be determinative of the place we end up.
We simply must stop increasing cost. I have spent a great deal of time recently - in the context of legal education - researching the cost question, and the costs are just extraordinary. Bear with me here for a moment - sometimes the actual numbers are helpful. The mean debt amount for our law school graduates is $130,000. And a full load of loans through law school ends in an amount due of $185,000. Monthly payments range from $500/per month for 20 years to almost $1,800 per month for 10 years. A recent paper supports the idea that a law degree is worth $1M dollars over the life of the graduate. There are reasons to be concerned about that paper’s methodology (and of course it can’t predict the future), but for now, let’s accept it. Let us take a typical law school graduate today - if that graduate takes a job for $50,000, and pays their loan back over 25 years on the Income Based Repayment option, they have the equivalent of a car payment for 300 months, but the cost of the loan could be as high as $330,000. That’s a third of the “benefit.” At some point, this analysis can become more of a moral question than a math question. But the drastic drop in law school applications over the last several years suggests that our prospective applicants are not having trouble doing the math.
At the same time that we stop increasing cost, we have to increase value. Value for the undergrad degree is harder to measure, since I do believe there is value to a broad-based “liberal arts” degree that redounds to the benefit of the graduate for many years to come. Every member of the SIP was the beneficiary of that, and can attest to the value of their undergrad degree in their own personal way. Some things just do not support exact measurement. But when a student graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in debt with the B.A., it can limit their options for graduate school. And we begin to price ourselves out of the market for future students. Further, an online degree starts to look like a better option.
Western Governors University (WGU) is a fully online University offering degree programs for adults who might not have finished college, and need to do so now to advance their careers. Provost Stacey Ludwig Johnson presented to the panel several weeks ago on how these programs work for their nearly 40,000 students. It was impressive and eye-opening. WGU today is serving an underserved market. And thank goodness for that; many of those folks might not be getting degrees at all. But if private and public "ground" Universities keep increasing price, our market could become the underserved, and we will have much less of a market, and maybe not a large enough market to sustain what we have at the University of Denver (and similar institutions) and all that we treasure.
While it might not sound like it, I retain an open mind for the discussions we are having on the panel. I am not certain of a particular answer to these concerns, or even feeling confident where we will find the answer. But clearly we must chart a path for a considerably different future.