The New Normal: Discussing New Models for Higher Education

The theme of transforming challenge into opportunity carried the day for the roundtable discussion “New Models for Higher Education,” part of the festivities celebrating the inauguration of Alison Byerly as the 17th president of Lafayette College on Friday, Oct. 4.

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The changing landscape of higher education is of special interest to Byerly, who is a nationally-known commentator on emerging forms of digital scholarship, the changing role of the humanities in the digital age, the importance of curricular innovation, and MOOCs (massively open online courses). She has lectured widely on these topics at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the biennial Media in Transition conference, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Communications Forum, and other venues. Her essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

“[This discussion] places Lafayette into the context of higher education and the unique challenges that we face as well as the great opportunities,” said panel moderator Wendy Hill, provost and dean of the faculty. “This is a day when we not only commemorate the inauguration of a new president but also think about Lafayette’s role as one of the leaders in higher education, which will be part of the defining aspect of President Byerly’s time here.”

The panelists included Elizabeth Boylan, director of STEM education programs for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Steven Poskanzer, president of Carleton College; and Jeffrey Selingo, editor-at-large for The Chronicle of Higher Education and senior fellow at the independent education think tank Education Sector based in Washington, D.C.

The major financial problem higher education is currently facing, Selingo said, is not only increasing tuition but flat and declining income levels. While he praised colleges for working hard to rein in tuition costs, he noted that average families today spend about 40 percent of their income to cover the average tuition cost, compared to less than 25 percent of their income to cover the cost in 2001.

Elizabeth Boylan, director of STEM education programs for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, stresses the importance of institutions collaborating and pooling their academic resources.

Elizabeth Boylan, director of STEM education programs for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, stresses the importance of institutions collaborating and pooling their academic resources.

“Americans understand that higher education is valuable,” said Selingo, author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. “The conversation that I hear families having is, is every college worth that cost? The last decade was marked by this idea of going to any college at any cost, and I think the future is really going to be about value and picking colleges based on this value conversation.”

Allowing students access to resources at multiple institutions is becoming more in demand as tech-savvy students, who have grown up with social media, begin shopping for colleges. It is a delicate balance, though, to inspire colleges to transition from a competition mindset to one of collaboration. The panelists agreed that there are myriad hurdles to overcome to engage colleges in meaningful collaboration, but institutions must “go after what you can do,” Boylan said.

Boylan ought to know: prior to joining the Sloan Foundation, she was provost and dean of the faculty at Barnard College, where she was instrumental in the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges (AALAC). AALAC was a group of 23 liberal arts colleges that received a five-year faculty career enhancement grant from the Mellon Foundation to fund collaborative initiatives to support faculty in their scholarly and creative work. She was a member of the coordinating committee that led the collaboration along with Byerly, who at the time was provost and executive vice president of Middlebury College, an AALAC institution.

Alliances among liberal arts colleges with similar aspirations and missions will be critical moving forward, especially for those institutions that may be struggling, as costs rise, to maintain their full slate of academic disciplines at the same level of quality, Boylan said. Selingo agreed. He believes institutions in danger of closing their doors, and not thriving colleges like Lafayette, are likely to be first to collaborate and formulate consortia as a means of survival.

Panel moderator Wendy Hill, provost and dean of the faculty, speaks with Steven Poskanzer, president of Carleton College.

Panel moderator Wendy Hill, provost and dean of the faculty, speaks with Steven Poskanzer, president of Carleton College.

Like it or not, Poskanzer says, higher education is a business, though colleges do walk a fine line of trying to provide what students want while also giving them what they need – wants and needs that are not always the same. He, too, understands the need for higher education to adapt to the changing landscape, but it should be adaptation and not abandonment of the traditional residential college experience.

For Poskanzer, there is simply too much intrinsic value in the four-year residential experience to toss it aside in favor of an entirely new model. Colleges must demonstrate and communicate the value they know is there. For instance, the residential liberal arts experience helps students acquire practical skills like valuing diversity, preparing for citizenship, and equipping themselves for live lives of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Those “soft skills” are difficult to learn in an online-only setting.

Technology should be a complement, not a replacement, to the traditional four-year model: “The best residential college shouldn’t too easily let go of this onsite experience or allow it to be overly diluted,” he said. “At the very moment the four-year residential model is being questioned, fuller development of the benefits of this model and the demonstrated realization of those benefits may in fact be the best way to secure a future of bright years for our colleges. Rather than retreating from the residential model, our market niche, in fact, may be to reinforce it.”