Education Policy Feed

Higher Education in the 21st Century

N.B. In rapidly changing, global knowledge economy, social, cultural, and economic advantage accrues to those societies that cultivate, nurture, and empower all of their citizens via advanced education, freeing each person to pursue their individual dreams, to the mutual betterment of all. 

On May 12, 1780, John Adams, then in France as part of a diplomatic delegation for the still nascent United States, penned a poignant letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he described the manifold and beguiling beauties of Paris.  Anyone who has strolled down the Champs-Élysées or visited the Palace of Versailles knows instinctively and immediately why Adams was so impressed.  (Mind you, that other modern wonder, the Louvre Museum, did not open until 1793, long after Adams had sailed home.) 

In a forward nod to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Adams resignedly acknowledges that his duty and commitment to an aborning country then struggling for its very existence must take precedence over his personal interests and desires. No matter how much he might yearn for different circumstances, immediate necessity must triumph over the desired:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

Across more than two centuries, Adams’ lament still rings true, albeit with amendments to embrace equity for all. The luxuries of time and resources, made possible by the successes of previous generations, afford their blessed progeny to pursue intellectually and emotionally rewarding endeavors of all kinds – art, music, literature, science, engineering, medicine, business – beyond those dedicated to immediate sustenance and survival.

Adams elegant characterization of the seeming dichotomy between present exigencies and an imagined, better future is now manifestly and explicitly visible in our debates about higher education as a public good accessible to all or a private benefit to only those willing and able to pay, as a birthing place for thoughtful and discriminating citizens of a democratic society or a workforce training and skills delivery system in a globally competitive world.

In a perfect world, each child would be educationally empowered and free to live a life defined by the content of their character, the scope of their talent, the reach of their dreams, and their willingness to work. Sadly, we do not live in that perfect world.  We must do better and do so now.

The circumstances of birth, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and a host of other factors all too often circumscribe a child’s future, with opportunity crushed and dreams stillborn. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.  We must do better and do so now.

Life’s Challenges and Exigencies

The students of our public research universities are neither socioeconomically, culturally, nor ethnically homogeneous. In that diversity lies both our strength – we all better when we both learn from others and respect and value our differences – and our educational challenge, for not all begin their educational journey on an equal footing.

For the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, college is a place for maturation, exploration, and education. They have the freedom to stumble and recover, secure in the safety that societal status and money provide. The path for others is more narrow and difficult, even for the increasingly financially challenged middle class. Whether first generation, immigrant, underrepresented, or poor, college can be both a rare chance and a desperate struggle. As poor, first generation college student, on this I speak from some personal experience. (See Transforming Lives Via Public Higher Education and A Taste of Sherbet.)

Far greater than my own, students of color face compounded challenges alien to most and unimaginable to many. Biases – implicit and explicit – can and do make them feel marginalized and unwelcome, carrying social and cultural burdens that majority students neither see nor feel but sometimes themselves foster, whether intentionally or unintentionally. First generation students, regardless of background, often experience imposter syndrome and lack the social support networks common in families for whom college has been a multigenerational experience, with no familiar place to seek counsel and support when challenges arise.

Finally, life has a way of intruding in expected and unexpected ways. Despite our national angst over student debt and graduation rates, many students who fervently hope to finish a college degree never do, and an even larger fraction lack the opportunity to try. The reasons are myriad and diverse, including poor educational preparation from underfunded primary and secondary schools, lack of finances to pay tuition and housing, a multigenerational family needing support, feeling unwelcome and out of place, or simply not seeing curricular relevance to their personal objectives and needs. 

The American Dream was built on the shared principles of economic opportunity and upward mobility. The idea that everyone deserves a fair shot – not a guarantee, but a fair shot – to better their socioeconomic circumstances through hard work and determination is a central tenet of the American social contract.  Today, the lifeline of higher education and successful pursuit of the American Dream is increasingly out of reach for a growing fraction of the U.S. population.

Recognition of higher education’s importance to our nation’s future is not a partisan issue.  Multiple U.S. President’s from both parties have repeatedly convened august bodies to recommend ways to improve K-12 and post-secondary education, beginning with the 1946 Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy, commonly known as the Truman Report.  That report recommended expansion of federal financial aid for college students and the creation of a community college system, noting

If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life.

Despite these stentorian calls for action, a large fraction of children born in poverty still remain there, and less than 15 percent of students from the lowest socioeconomic bracket earn a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four. No euphemistic intellectual legerdemain can hide the ugly truth of our current situation. It is neither unfortunate nor regrettable; it is morally and ethically wrong. Beyond educational opportunity as an ethical imperative, it has deep and profound justifications on economic and competitiveness grounds.  (See The Hopes of Parents and the Dreams of Children on the importance of giving every child a chance.)

Change in the Wind

Public research universities are in the business of helping people. This is especially true in times of accelerating and disruptive change.  Compounded by the consilience of globalization, each year now brings disruptions that once defined generations. In an earlier time of rapid change, the land-grant universities, authorized by the 1862 Morrill Act, were created to spread new agricultural and mechanical knowledge and “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”  In modern parlance, the objective was to educate an underserved population, one whom extant higher education neither welcomed nor served.

HistorySimilarly, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – the G.I. Bill – brought millions of veterans to college and university campuses, and it firmly rooted the graduates in the expanding middle class when many feared a post-war slide into recession. The G.I. Bill, along with post-World War II government investment in academic research, further expanded during the Cold War via the National Defense Education Act of 1958, reshaped academia and created the modern research university. Finally, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 broke down further legal and economic barriers to educational access, though we have by no means eliminated those impediments.

Today, urbanization, global communications, artificial intelligence, talent mobility, and the global knowledge economy are reshaping social expectations. These changes are disrupting the historical web of interconnected economic sectors, while rendering some professions superfluous and creating demands for new skills in others.  A recent McKinsey report, The Future of Work in America, discusses regional economic stratification and the anticipated changes in workforce needs in the next decades.

The National Science Board, of which I am a member, recently issued two reports raising similar concerns.  The first of these, on The Skilled Technical Workforce, emphasizes the need for greater investment in community college technical training. The second, on The State of U.S. Science and Engineering, paints a worrisome picture of the position of the United States relative to its international competitors.

Our world is changing rapidly, and public higher education must adapt and engage as active and honest participants in renegotiating the societal compact.  Any compact reification begins with identifying the irreducible core – the essential values that define public research universities. Quite clearly, these are unfettered discovery (original scholarship and research), transference (student education and training) and fulfillment (societal engagement and services). Put another way, public research universities create new knowledge, transfer insights and ideas, and deliver solutions to societal problems. 

How universities do those things and in what measure are the subject of debate and negotiation. After all, the practices of a modern public research university span less than a single human lifetime. Some of the options will be new, and some will undoubtedly be philosophically challenging. (Remember that many feared the G.I. Bill would destroy U.S. higher education by bringing battle hardened veterans into academe.)

While protecting the irreducible core – the defining verities of academia – I believe we must be more organizationally nimble and flexible, more financially accountable and economically savvy, more societally engaged and responsive, more collaborative and transdisciplinary, and more team oriented. 

We face deep societal challenges – poverty, inequality, injustice, health and wellness, environmental sustainability, and economic uncertainty – and it is tempting to embrace a psychology of diminished expectations. But we also have unprecedented opportunities to unleash the creativity and talent of our citizens.  A university frees successive generations of human minds to realize their potential. We must not waiver in our commitment to the future of our students and our society.

Educational Futures: Beyond Degrees

The intellectual dichotomy between lifelong knowledge and near term skills is a canard, patently and demonstrably false, but the economic and social dilemma is very real. Our students arrive with manifestly different constraints and needs, and we must meet each of them where they are and respond accordingly. Put another way, one educational model and approach does not fit all.

I believe we must move beyond undergraduate degree completion as the sole, simplistic, and arbitrary metric of educational success. Degrees matter, but all education is valuable. It is neither a simple, linear process with a single terminus nor is it synonymous with an immediate continuation beyond secondary school. Degrees matter, but only insofar as they are talismans – social currency and indicators of our true objective, which is bettering the lives of our students.

CompactIf a student completes a single course and comes away with a deeper perspective on our world, we have added value to their life.  If another completes a certificate, gains a demonstrated competence, and achieves meaningful new employment, we have changed their economic circumstances for the better.  If we have informed and enlightened a community group, we have enriched our society, even if it were just a weekend seminar and discussion.

I believe we in academia must step back, and live up to our intellectual principals and ideals, remembering that no matter how high the academic ivory tower, its foundation and that of all public higher education, rest on a repeatedly renegotiated societal compact. The history of U.S. higher education is one of punctuated equilibria, with long periods of stability separated by brief interregna of extraordinary change, each coincident with shifting societal norms and expectations for broader access.

We must be more flexible in responding to the heterogeneity of student expectations and needs, while concurrently disintermediating knowledge delivery, certification of completion, and socialization across time and space. (See Pinball, War Games, and Universities.) I believe this means offering a smorgasbord of educational delivery modalities, content packages, and success models, each tailored to differing needs and constraints:

  • Traditional degrees. The traditional undergraduate degree is the sine qua non of higher education, tested and proven, but adapting and adaptable to a rapidly changing world, preparing students for careers that do not yet exist, and educating them as critical thinkers and thoughtful communicators steeped in knowledge and wisdom.
  • Stackable certificates. Not all students learn the same way, nor do they have similar motivations and objectives. Certificates, both credit and non-credit, organize a coherent body of knowledge with a demonstrable applicability and outcome, ranging from perspective on one of the liberal arts to concrete technical skills. If organized wisely, a combination of credit-bearing certificates can lead to a degree, though the certificates need not be completed sequentially, and they may be delivered either online or via traditional classroom modalities.
  • Credit, non-credit, and convertible credit. The goal of educational delivery is the transfer of knowledge and recognized certification of that knowledge. Traditional credit with a transcript grade, earned on completion of an academic course, is the internationally recognized metric of accomplishment. It need not be and increasingly is not the only one. What matters is trusted validation of knowledge and competence. Non-credit certificates and badges are rising in importance as alternative validations.  Today, non-credit programs are often viewed as ancillary, second class activities on most campus; this must change. More importantly, students who acquire skills via non-credit mechanisms and later decide to pursue certificates or degrees may want to convert those accomplishments into academic credit.  We need more flexible mechanisms to establish knowledge and recognize that knowledge as credit.
  • Competency certification. Not all knowledge is acquired in the virtual or physical classroom, nor is course completion fully synonymous with demonstrated competence. Life and work are themselves valued teachers. There are a variety of ways to prove and accept competence in lieu of course credit, ranging from academic and professional service testing through probationary credit to work experience
  • Mixed online and placed-based education. Synchronous cohort learning on academic campuses will remain part of the educational ecosystem, both for student socialization and access to specific facilities and instrumentation, but it will be complemented by and in some cases replaced by online content delivery that is asynchronous from academic calendars. Online, asynchronous content delivery both allows students to participate based on personal schedules and also allows them to begin classes when the need arises. (See Online Higher Education for some lessons from the history of technology mediated education.)
  • Lifelong/lifewide and just-in-time education. The time has long past when the knowledge and skills acquired before age twenty-five could serve one for a lifetime. Today’s worker can expect technological and economic shifts to render many of their skills obsolete every few years. The persistent skills are reasoning and communication, coupled with a desire to learn and relearn throughout life. We must move from a model of “education then life” to lifelong and just-in-time education that delivers new knowledge and skills as needed, via a variety of modalities and mechanisms, recognizing that many will be unable study in situ on an academic campus. For a few, this education will result in new degrees, but for most it will be by securing new credentials, badges, and certificates.

Some might say many of these educational roles and responsibilities are the proper function of community colleges and comprehensive universities.  That is true, in part.  Higher education is a system, with differentiated and overlapping, but complementary roles for community and technical colleges, comprehensive universities, and public research universities. 

However, in a rapidly changing world, public research universities are the critical incubators of intellectual discovery and translation, with national and international stature and partnerships.  They also attract a faculty and student talent base in part distinct from all others. As such, they bear unique responsibility as educational thought leaders and innovators, with the resources and capability to conduct educational experiments at scale. They are also charged with ensuring the economic competitiveness of our citizens and industry in a global knowledge economy.

University of Utah Analysis and Actions

As a flagship public research university and a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the University of Utah is a leader in basic research, knowledge creation, and scholarship.  It is also unwaveringly committed to educational access, broad-based liberal arts education, workforce skills training, and economic development.  

A University of Utah Student Success and Educational Futures Taskforce, composed of seventy five students, faculty, and staff members, assessed the current state and future needs of higher education in Utah, based on a charge to consider our changing world and the needs of Utah’s citizens.  Composed of six working groups – facilities and infrastructure; financial analysis; enrollment management, marketing and communications; student success and services; educational delivery and partnerships; and graduate student success – the taskforce outlined a series of recommendations intended to reduce student costs, expand educational access, and deliver targeted, just-in-time training. Common themes from the recommendations include:

  • Diversifying pathways to student success by developing alternative credentialing options, improved pathways for transfer students, expanding undergraduate student experience roadmaps, improving support for graduate students and programs, and developing strategic partnerships with employers.
  • Expanding online offerings and, where appropriate, using technology to increase educational accessibility, affordability, and inclusiveness.
  • Utilizing the University’s physical infrastructure to its fullest by increasing student and mixed-use housing, improving transportation options, and optimizing the allocation of classrooms and teaching facilities.
  • Ensuring students have a sense of belonging through individualized attention and support, deeply engaged learning experiences, a robust and inclusive campus community, on-campus career opportunities, and coordinated health and wellness programs.
  • Continually revising and adapting initiatives to ensure consistency with the University’s core values: student success and engagement, research and teaching excellence, diversity, sustainability, global vision and strategy, community, and leadership.

In response to the taskforce recommendations, the University is launching several initiatives, including:

  • For Utah The For Utah Scholarship creates a fully funded path to a University of Utah degree by covering four years of tuition and fees for Pell Grant-eligible Utah residents. As a result, the fall 2020 entering class was the most diverse in the University’s history, though we still have far to go to ensure broad access.
  • Inexpensive all online degree completion. The University of Utah offers lower cost tuition for students taking all classes online as part of a qualifying online undergraduate degree program. This special all-online tuition rate help students who have started college finish their degrees and graduate, even if they cannot return to the campus. (Sadly, we were forced to temporarily defer this program during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
  • Expanded credit and non-credit certificates. The University is rapidly expanding its suite of both non-credit and for credit certificates, targeting domains with where there are critical job shortages across Utah. Examples include software development, data science, and entrepreneurship.
  • Integrating continuing education and online learning. Reflecting the continuum of learning objectives and the need for fluid transition between non-credit and for credit learning processes, this integration is enabling coordinated management of all aspects of non-traditional education, under the supervision of an Assistant Vice President/Dean.
  • Predictive intervention and support. The best time to help students is before they fail, allowing time for recovery from early academic missteps. While protecting and respecting privacy, data can support powerful analytic and predictive interventions, allowing advisors and instructors to work with students while there is still time to recover, both in individual courses and in certificates and majors. This will rely on a combination of commercial software (e.g., Civitas) and local software and data.
  • Storefront and electronic services. A large and growing fraction of students are “non-traditional” – they have lives, jobs, and families outside academe, and many lack the flexibility to visit academic support offices during normal business officers. Moreover, the born digital generation expects anywhere, anytime access.  The University of Utah plans to offer advising and consulting services at multiple sites.
  • Skill and aptitude assessment. Accurate assessment of student knowledge and skills, via leading edge measurement tools can help students understand their aptitudes and preparations for study emphases and reduce the time needed to complete degrees and certificates by validating extant competencies. The University seeks to adopt and adapt assessment tools that can maximize student success.
  • Enhanced student support. A sense of community and belonging is key to student success, enabling students persevere in the face the inevitable challenges students face.  Among many other programs, the University of Utah has created Student Ambassadors who share their experiences with prospective students and parents, Student Success Advocates who serve as peer mentors and advisors, Living Learning and Theme Communities where students share common courses and deeply engaged learning experiences that offer practical and collaborative opportunities to engage communities and the world.
  • Faculty mentoring and inclusion. Expanded faculty onboarding and training are essential to preparing new faculty and new administrators to respond effectively to shifting student needs.  These services include (a) training search committees in best practices for recruiting and hiring a diverse faculty, (b) sharing best practices for student mentoring and advising, (c) and support and training for new faculty and new administrators in culture and processes – leadership, education, research and scholarship, and service.
  • Corporate and business partnerships. Regularly upgrading the skills and degrees of employees is in the best interests of employers, as it provides the insights, training, and perspectives that allows employees to grow and adapt to changing business circumstances. The University seeks to partner with Utah and national companies on certificate and degree programs for employee and corporate benefit.


In the Christian tradition, the New Testament (Acts 16:9-10) says a vision appeared to the Apostle Paul  in the night, “A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

The world gospel is an Old English translation of the original Greek word, εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good news.” The preservation, creation, and transmission of knowledge are defining attributes of our civilization, and our educational system is an embodiment of the ever-expanding 21st century “good news.” Education transforms lives, lifts generations out of poverty, nurtures our democracy, fuels innovation, and creates our future.

Our citizens are pleading; we must come help them, without judgment and in partnership. All education, regardless of scale or scope, is valuable. There is no dichotomy between knowledge and skills, but the guilt of our dilemma and our failure to act are very real.

June 17, 2024

December 21, 2023

April 28, 2023

February 06, 2023

October 18, 2022

February 14, 2022

August 31, 2021

January 18, 2021

September 30, 2019

May 20, 2019

Dan Reed
Dan Reed

June 2024

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