Keller: "Higher Education and the New Society"

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October 2009

In his last book, Higher Education and the New Society (Johns Hopkins Press, 2008) noted author George Keller examines the history and current situation of higher education, and presents some options for major change.

Keller points out four key changes in society over the past 50 years that have had an impact on higher education:

  • Demographics
  • Technology
  • Economics
  • Socio-cultural

As a result of these changes, there are greater economic divisions, and more students have part-time jobs and need financial aid. Technology has led to a communications revolution, with impacts on teaching, research, and libraries. There is an increasing need for skills for jobs, and greater demand for higher education. Society emphasizes equal opportunity for all and more individuality.

To this point in time, higher education has responded to these changes with only incremental adjustments to a 100 year old structure. There are improved admissions processes, discounts to tuition, handicap access, and remedial and online courses. There is no change to the research and scholarship based structure that evolved from 1870 to 1910 to prepare students for work and provide both well-rounded and deep learning through a four-year degree. Institutions have not adapted to adult and part-time learners, have not figured out how to strategically address both the costs and benefits of information technology, and have not addressed increasing costs.

Additionally, higher education needs to be able to deal with:

  • Competition – from alternative organizations and alternative media
  • Increased demand – from both traditional and adult students
  • Collaboration with business – while maintaining independence
  • A global environment – while having a historically Western perspective

While Keller offers no clear solutions, he does present options for higher education to deal with these challenges through more than incremental initiatives:

  • Re-segment the current groupings of higher education institutions, from research, small liberal arts, large public, and two-year schools into some other category structure
  • Focus on accommodating the diverse expectations of adult learners
  • Rethink departments and disciplines
  • Revise cost structures by
    • Offering three-year degrees
    • Scheduling courses four semesters a year
    • Changing Division I sports