December 10, 1999, the day I began to write this column, I came across two press reports that reinforced my belief that the time was right for Issues to publish this special issue on the future of higher education. That day’s Washington Post reported that the U.S. Army is preparing to offer college-level courses via the Internet for enlisted soldiers stationed all across the globe. On the same day, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Indiana University and the University of Missouri at Columbia were each granted accreditation to operate online high schools. As Jorge Klor de Alva points out in this issue, and as the University of Phoenix has demonstrated, traditional institutions do not have a monopoly on education. We not only cannot be sure how education will be provided, we cannot know for certain who will provide it.
No one doubts that education will play an increasingly important role in the coming century. Not only will all of us have to update our job skills repeatedly, but as citizens we will have to make momentous decisions about how to use our rapidly expanding scientific and technological capabilities. And although there is widespread agreement about the social value of education, we can expect a strong reaction to its rising cost. The productivity of the education system is frozen. Each teacher is training roughly the same number of students as a century ago. Indeed, there is strong public support for reducing class size, which can only increase the per capita cost. With productivity increasing in most areas of the economy and more people needing more education, the relative share of the economy devoted to education will rise steadily. In the competition for resources, education will not get all it wants. The political battles over who has access to magnet high schools, elite universities, and the top professional schools will fill the headlines and distract us from the more important task of improving education of all types for all people.
Our most critical need is not for more desks in the classrooms at the Stanford Law School or the Harvard Business School. The country is not suffering from a shortage of corporate lawyers and business consultants. Nor do we need pale imitations of educational programs designed to train people for the thin layer of jobs at the top. We need vibrant and innovative education programs to prepare people for the vast array of new jobs and opportunities that will be emerging. We need to enhance the quality and cost-effectiveness of public high schools, community colleges, job-based training, and continuing education. The elites cannot drag the nation into the future. A truly New Economy will be one in which creativity and initiative are applied at all levels. George Campbell, Jr., reminds us that the nation grows more ethnically and racially diverse each year. It is in no one’s interest to deny anyone the opportunity to contribute to society to the greatest extent possible.
Higher education will mean something different in the next century. Robert M. Rosenzweig is right that we must continue to do well many of the things that we have done well in the past. The goal is not to overhaul what exists but to expand and enrich what we do. In his call for a new social contract between the universities and society, James J. Duderstadt warns that the question is not whether higher education will change dramatically, it is who will lead and direct that change. He believes that the universities can and should be at the forefront because they can take a broad humanistic view of what the society needs. But if they choose instead to become shrines to their own past greatness, the strong hand of the market will lead the way. Market forces should play a role in the direction of higher education, but so should the forces of openness, independent inquiry, academic freedom, intellectual rigor, and high ethical purpose that are part of the tradition of higher education.