An hour reading the news might suggest that this is the worst of times for higher education. Rarely have things seemed so acute. A perfect storm of enrollment and funding pressure, finger-pointing on cost and ROI, and politicization and self-doubt has created a swirl of uncertainty. The looming Higher Education Act reauthorization and the anti-regulation and anti-higher education posture of the Trump administration only add to it.

Our annual Eduventures® Summit, Higher Ed Remastered: The Great Debate, will tackle these and other issues head onWhat is the truth behind the headlines? To assist in this endeavor, we’ve lined up:

  • Outstanding Speakers. This year we open with Adam Braun, Founder and CEO of MissionU, the company offering a one-year alternative to the bachelor’s degree; and close with John Friedman of The Equality of Opportunity Project, the organization behind the groundbreaking ranking challenging the notion that colleges are engines of economic mobility. We also have renowned author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, chronicler of U.S. presidents, who will discuss presidential leadership and parallels with college leadership. Other speakers include Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and Michael Goldstein, higher education’s lawyer supreme.
  • A New Partner. For the first time, Eduventures is co-presenting the Summit with a partner: Strada Education Network, the education policy advocacy organization that is making a name for itself through a series of high profile investments and acquisitions. Adding new data and thought leadership to our line-up, Strada will share results from its partnership with Gallup to gather the nation’s largest consumer panel on attitudes about education and work.

For “The Great Debate,” we need to accurately identify the problem and carefully weigh solutions:

What’s the Problem?

By some measures, higher education has never been more successful and significant—just look at the scale of enrollment, diversity of access, and number of lives impacted. Many say it is mission-critical for the nation’s economic health and social cohesion.

The history of higher education is a long series of tensions and renewals, spawning new curricula and institutional types to accommodate societal shifts, all the while reaffirming the timeless values of a liberal education. The net result has always been a stronger, more flexible system, moving higher education from the margins to the center.

Are today’s troubles really any different?

If not different in kind, then different in degree. Higher education is suffering a rare lack of consensus—about everything from mission to product, and regulation to values. It is easy to romanticize the sector in generation’s past—plentiful full-time, tenured faculty and generous public funding—while overlooking gender and racial inequities and perennial disagreement about the role of college.

But what we did agree on was the fundamentals. Higher education stood for disinterested inquiry and pushing back the boundaries of knowledge. Students—if they paid attention—were exposed to the best contemporary thinking, emerging intellectually and personally transformed. Expertise was valued, college was something to aspire to, and the degree was the gold standard.

This consensus looks increasingly threadbare. The critics’ view of higher education might be summarized as:

  • My Truth, Your Truth. Today colleges are partisan rather than above politics, pushing liberal (or sometimes conservative) values without giving the other side a fair hearing.
  • I Don’t Trust You. The self-regulation of accreditation and bonds of professional trust have given way to an unwieldy federal rulebook and performance-based funding.
  • How Much??? Sticker price tuition has long left inflation in the dust, financial aid resembles more labyrinth than lifeline, and total student debt—approaching $1.4 trillion—now exceeds that of credit cards.
  • Culture Ate the Strategy. Productivity gains remain elusive—beyond employing an ever-larger army of adjuncts—despite splurges on technology and online learning. “Innovation” has meant finding inventive ways to squeeze a 120-credit bachelor’s degree into a shorter time span, not rethinking the bachelor’s degree itself.
  • What are your Qualifications to Teach, Professor? Teaching and learning, the heart of higher education, remains more an amateur pursuit—bottom-up, overly-personalized, inconsistent—than a profession. Lots of students never graduate, particularly part-time and adult learners, waylaid by strings of isolated courses and bloated programs.
  • College Doesn’t Pay. While the median wage of a college graduate still far outpaces that of non-graduates, net wages have stagnated over the past decade. The enrollment boom of the past 20 years coincided with yawning economic inequality that has not favored the typical college graduate. Higher education both perpetuates and challenges economic stratification.

The Trump administration epitomizes this popular revolt against traditional higher education values, forcing the sector to jostle for position like any other rather than stand above the fray. Populism and higher education make awkward bedfellows.

What’s the Solution?

All this leads to the second take on The Great Debate. Manifest tension and disagreement, present throughout higher education’s history, may once again be bulging and breaking into something new. But what form should renewal take?

There are no simple solutions but here are a few broad-brush ideas:

  • The Degree. Alternatives to the conventional bachelor’s degree might offer more choice to a mainstream market, alleviating pressure on cost, time, and value.
  • Smarter Data. The routinization of data that controls for inputs would help focus the accountability conversation, judging how far colleges have moved the needle on economic mobility.
  • Blend. What some see as the antithesis between the traditional campus and online learning may give way to creative combinations of the two that balance convenience and enhanced pedagogy.
  • Deregulation. Sweeping away—as the would-be reauthorizers of the Higher Education Act seem wont to do—old certainties like the line between nonprofit and for-profit schools, accreditation as the prerequisite for financial aid, and the credit hour, may unleash compelling new models and approaches, or encourage abuse and fraud, or both.
  • MOOC Degrees. These may enable colleges to do the impossible: widen access, improve quality and lower cost. But it will only work if student engagement is paramount.

These ideas—and more—will be debated at Summit 2018.

The bottom line is that higher education, one of the jewels of American society, sorely needs more open, honest, and rigorous debate about its future. Waxing lyrical about the past or demonizing the other side of the argument is not a strategy. Eduventures Summit 2018 is a forum for the kind of debate we need.

Please join us June 13-15 at the Intercontinental Hotel on Boston’s waterfront, for The Great Debate.

And one more thing: we will announce the winners of our 2018 Innovation Awards at Summit. There is still time to nominate your institution or client. Nominations close May 15.

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