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Even smart and seemingly attentive observers frequently turn a blind eye to trends that fail to fit the narrative of the moment. This is true in politics, economics, and private life; it’s also the case within higher education.

Margaret Heffernan, a business professor and television producer, and the psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald have described the biases, blind spots and other cognitive traps that lead us to ignore developments that are right in front of our eyes.

Our impaired vision, in their view, is not simply due to distraction or the confusion that comes when we are bombarded by a bewildering and overwhelming stream of information. It is also due to a lack of mindfulness, deep-seated preconceptions and prejudices, and deliberate, purposive efforts to evade unpleasant truths.

Examples of willful blindness within the academy include faculty who assign textbooks irrespective of price, or who claim not to know about their courses’ drop-out and failure rates or equity gaps.

Willful blindness, however, goes beyond sins of commission or omission.  It can also involve feigned or genuine ignorance of certain academic realities: Campuses that enroll few Pell Grant students, community college transfers, or Black and Hispanic students and that fail to recruit diverse students aggressively and broadly.

Other examples include relying on adjuncts to deliver service courses while denying them access to professional development and advancement opportunities, or sustaining or expanding doctoral programs that fail to place students in academic jobs.

Then there is obliviousness to developments that are transforming the very essence of postsecondary education. Let’s look at several.

1. A blurring of the lines between high school and 4-year institutions.
For a century, there was a sharp divide between secondary and postsecondary education apparent in course schedules, pedagogy, and content. In recent years, that division has begun to blur – and well it should.  If we want well-prepared students in college courses, then it is essential that they receive a rigorous college prep education in high school.

Expanded AP, IB, and early college/dual degree programs can help bridge the rift, jump starting students’ undergraduate education. But it’s higher education’s responsibility to ensure curricular alignment.  A University of Texas/Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board initiative called OnRamps – which offers robust professional development training to middle and high school teachers along with 13 STEM, arts, and humanities courses transferable to any Texas public college and university—might serve as a model.

2. Bridging the gap between community colleges and 4-year institutions.
State-mandated gen ed requirements, automatic transfer of gen ed courses, common course numbering, and field of study curricula that make it easier to transfer community college credits to a major are helping to remove the barriers that discourage many community college students from transferring into a 4-year school.

But we might go further. The City University of New York’s Articulation of Credit Transfer (ACT) project has created an online tool that lets anyone see how credits will transfer among CUNY colleges. According to Alexandra Logue, CUNY’s former Executive Vice Chancellor, a next step might be to fully automate this process, getting all credit transfer rules on the record, including by establishing default credit transfer rules based on a machine learning program that evaluates course catalog descriptions and other information. Hey, funders – here’s a great opportunity to assist the students who deserve the most help.

An even bigger step would be to make a transfer application from a community college to a 4-year institution the default unless a student opts out.

3. Blurring lines between for-profit and non-profit education.
A growing number of campuses are embracing strategies pioneered by the for-profits in their online programs.  These include offering standardized “master” courses taught by adjuncts or graduate students; substituting course mentors and graders for teacher-scholars; and reducing rigor by slashing reading and writing requirement and eliminating research papers.

Another way that non-profits imitate the for-profits is by using adult learning to supplement campus revenue.

4. Outsourcing of an ever-expanding list of functions.
Outsourcing isn’t just for bookstores or dining and janitorial services anymore. Provision of email, oversight over information technology, the building and management of residence halls and dining facilities, and enrollment management – these, too, are frequently contracted out to vendors.

Then there are the kinds of outsourcing that cut close to the institution’s academic core: The Online Program Managers who market, administer, and sometimes create online master’s and certificate programs; the edtech firms that collect and analyze student data; and the student success coaching providers.

Outsourcing’s critics raise difficult questions about the terms of such partnerships: Whether costs or revenue splits are fair, whether contracts are overly difficult to terminate, whether student data is proprietary – and whether these agreements inhibit institutions from developing their own internal capacities.

5. Expanded post-bacc, professional masters, and certificate programs.
Eager to tap new revenue streams, colleges and universities look everywhere: to auxiliary and ancillary enterprises, including housing and dining facilities, rentals, summer programs, contract research, and, especially academic programs targeting adult learners.

With so many institutions pursuing adults, many markets have become saturated and opportunities for substantial revenue plays have declined. Criticisms of such initiatives focus on pricing, quality, and outcomes.  Especially in the non-degree certificate market, there is little rigorous evaluation of post-completion outcomes. Caveat emptor. It’s a buyer’s beware market.

Higher education is undergoing perplexing and disorienting transformations that we struggle to make sense of.  In a bid to understand these developments, a growing number of observers speak of the neoliberal or corporatized university to describe the market’s increasing role in driving institutional priorities, decisions, and behavior.

Many fear that the embrace of market values is reinforcing and reproducing socio-economic inequalities, systematically indebting students and parents, and marginalizing the intellectual contributions of the humanities. Many are further convinced that the consequences include rampant adjunctification, the substitution of vocationally-focused majors and job-aligned non-degree credentials for a well-rounded college education, and a mania for technological panaceas for higher ed’s access, affordability, and student success challenges.

References to academic capitalism suggest that the primacy of market values isn’t simply an accommodation to demanding demographic and economic realities, but is, rather, an outgrowth of ideologies that treat higher education as a private, rather than a public, good, and that privilege funded research over disinterested scholarship, and incentives that encourage institutions (and individual programs) to maximize their own well-being (defined by rankings, resources, selectivity in admissions, facilities, breadth of programs, and funded research – and not contributions to access or social mobility) above the interests of higher education as a whole.

Yet while market forces certainly need to be regulated when they are harmful or distort institutional priorities, unbridled competition has benefits too.  It has emboldened many institutions once regarded as “second-tier” to elevate their reputation and public profile, enhance their campus’ appearance and facilities, and embrace scholarly research and define a distinctive identity. Indeed, competitive pressures and market incentives may well be the most important factors driving campus efforts to increase diversity and improve retention and graduation rates.

I agree with David Labaree’s argument that the institutional struggle for survival in a highly competitive marketplace helps explain why American colleges and universities produce the most cutting-edge scholarship, attract the most prized students and scholars, and draw the most external funding from alumni, foundations, and private donors.

I also concur with Steven Brint’s contention that American higher ed’s dynamism derives, in large measure, from the confluence of several intersecting trends: the incentivizing of academic research, the embrace of technological innovation, the commitment to social inclusion, and ongoing, substantial (if uneven) public investment.

Deep problems remain:  Increasing student indebtedness and reliance on adjuncts, uncertain learning outcomes, roadblocks to seamless transfer, inadequate career preparation, and persistent equity gaps in access, achievement, entry into high demand programs, and post-graduation prospects.

Those challenges are, in part,

  • a political problem – involving levels of institutional funding and student support;
  • an accountability problem – whether accrediting agencies will use their authority to drive institutional improvement;
  • a transparency problem – whether consumers will have thorough and accurate information about cost, quality, and outcomes; and
  • a faculty problem – whether those who control the curriculum and deliver courses will do everything in their power to provide students with the educational experiences and mentoring that they need to reach their full potential.

In higher education, as in so many realms of life, the worst enemy isn’t a reified abstraction – the market – or the disruptors, the naysayers, the third-party vendors, or even the for-profits. It’s the enemy within.

In invoking that phrase, let me be clear: I certainly don’t mean Department of Ed administrators with social justice diktats or student life staff egging on social justice warriors or supposedly bloated, overpaid campus bureaucracies with agendas that fail to prioritize undergraduate education.

Rather, our biggest problem is whether we as participants in one of our society’s biggest sectors are capable of seizing the moment and taking the steps needed to make our institutions more learning and learner-centered.

We know what works; evidence-tested solutions abound: pre-enrollment immersion programs for new students; learning communities with dedicated advising, faculty connections, and a thematic focus; block scheduling of classes; co-requisite remediation; proactive advising, supplemented with success coaching, tutoring, study groups, and supplemental instruction in high DFW classes; and expanded experiential learning, including undergraduate research and internship opportunities.

We might go further and experiment with a host of promising ideas:  expanded dual degree/early college programs; eight-week intensive terms; seamless transfer pathways and co-enrollment for community college students; and incentivized enrollment in intersession and summer courses.

Sure: The future isn’t fully in our hands. But it’s up to us to mold it in the ways we wish.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Inside Higher Ed