Higher education is a follow-the-leader industry. For decades, colleges and universities of all types have looked to the most prestigious schools as models to emulate.
As many in higher education have argued, copying the practices of elite institutions has led to an arms race of extensive new facilities, substantial growth in administrative staff, and an expansion of postgraduate degrees and programs. This arms race has been marked by a period of 30 years of skyrocketing costs in college tuition -- which, according to The Wall Street Journal, has risen more than 400% since the early 1980s and far outpaces the cost increases of all other goods and services during the same time frame.
This is unsustainable. And the situation presents an opportunity for elite universities to start leading in non-elite ways.
What does this mean? Elite universities should focus on cutting costs, reducing their physical footprint and overhead, and even consider offering more programs focused on skills-based and technical training. The latter includes myriad forms of non-accredited programs such as coding boot camps -- or business analytics programs, such as Harvard just announced. If elite universities do these things, they will provide real leadership that all of higher education can follow. Some will argue this isn't their role, but being a leader in higher education may soon mean taking these kinds of actions.
Amid the higher education arms race, the country has largely devalued technical and career training, associate degrees and other forms of non-accredited education. A new phrase was even coined: "a master's degree is the new bachelor's degree." In short, the focus on facilities, more postgraduate programs and spiraling costs has made higher education much more elite rather than more open and attainable.
For example, the U.S. has made little progress on overall college attainment or, in particular, attainment rates for those in the bottom quartile of income in the U.S. -- where there has been virtually no improvement in 50 years. And since the peak in 2011, there are now 2.4 million fewer students enrolled in college today.
While it's true that the many wealthy and elite universities can afford to spend big -- and keep raising tuition seemingly without consequence -- the real question is whether they should. Knowing full well that the entire industry of higher education looks to their leadership, it's time they lead in a way that less-elite schools can follow without going bankrupt or dashing the dream of college for middle-class and poor Americans.
There is great concern about the affordability of college today, and as a result, many have focused on how to provide more financial aid for students, whether by scholarships or loans. Offering more financial aid is not the same as reducing cost. The real conversation should be about how to reduce the actual cost of college -- and that is the difficult conversation higher education leaders don't want to have.
And instead of continually growing by adding more postgraduate programs, elite higher education institutions should consider the tremendous value of offering a select number of associate degrees, certifications, non-accredited boot camps, employer- or industry-specific workforce programs, and even building active partnerships with their local K-12 school districts.
Think about what would happen if the most elite brand names in higher education did all these things. They could transform higher education faster -- and more for the better -- than anything else. The only question is whether the elites will have the foresight and the will to lead us in this direction.
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