The Future of American Higher Education


The Emergence of the Fifth Wave in American Higher Education
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I admire the educational egalitarianism that Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars embrace in “The Emergence of the Fifth Wave in American Higher Education” (Issues, Spring 2020), and I support their call for a transition to universities where “broad accessibility and academic excellence are complementary and synergistic.”

They liken this to a “coupling within single institutions the research excellence of the University of California system with the accessibility offered by the California State University system.” Having spent 30 years in the classrooms of UC and having studied both systems, I think Crow and Dabars’s ends are good, but the financial means are not adequate to their goals.

The goal of Fifth Wave universities is to bring nonelite students—the authors say “the top quarter or third of all 18-to 24-year-olds”—to “internationally competitive levels of achievement.” It is also to produce more social value in research. How would the Fifth Wave accomplish these tasks?

The answer for education, Crow and Debars say, lies in harnessing educational technology to teach students. The authors’ institution, Arizona State University, has the country’s most advanced online learning systems, with eAdvisor and related services making the school arguably the best-case working model of hybrid learning.

The answer for research is focusing on technology for the whole society, not just for big corporations. I will assume that the Fifth Wave differentiator is local technology for regular people. ASU has created a remarkable number of schools and research centers that address the concrete challenges of the overall social and environmental situation in its region.

The problem is that genuine versions of world-class learning and whole-society research cost enormous sums. Most of ASU’s growth has been in online programs: these can improve pathways for the less-prepared students ASU rightly wants to bring to college completion. But can online or hybrid instruction make these students internationally competitive intellectually? Almost certainly not. In the absence of transformative technology, less-prepared students need more attention from instructors and support staff than do elite students, which costs money.

Can online or hybrid instruction make these students internationally competitive intellectually? Almost certainly not.

Research poses a similar problem. Research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—preferred by policy-makers and business people takes large revenue streams to do well. Extramural grants to universities require various kinds of support in excess of the “indirect costs” covered by sponsors. Public universities such as ASU typically provide 24 cents of every dollar of research expenditure out of their own pockets. As a particularly ambitious campus, ASU puts in as much as 39 cents of every dollar allotted.

In addition, ASU’s whole-society research naturally moves it toward building high-cost forms of public infrastructure. Does ASU need to build some or all of its local communities’ solar power grid? Even with good local partners the school doesn’t have the budget to realize Fifth Wave goals.

I particularly like Crow’s signature call for universities to judge themselves by whom they include rather than exclude. ASU is tirelessly self-inventive, attuned to multiple needs, and exciting to follow. But the Fifth Wave is a symptom of the retreat of government from society. It asks universities to provide public goods that governments have stopped properly paying for, and that they can’t pay for either. To use Fifth Wave terms, forming human and intellectual capital are costs not revenue streams, and there’s no point in trying yet again to convince ourselves that public-good universities can be self-supporting by redesigning themselves and using more technology.

ASU is right to want to lead other universities toward making less-prepared students world-class, and rebuilding a sustainable local community and state—and even nation. But the government and its publics are going to have to pay ASU properly to do it. Decades of underfunding have scoured a valley that is far too wide for the Fifth Wave to cross. I’d like to see Crow and Dabars work explicitly on the government funding bridges to the other side.

Distinguished Professor
University of California, Santa Barbara

The COVID-19 pandemic colors all critiques and predictions of the future for higher education. Nonetheless, Crow and Debars, in calling for a Fifth Wave in higher education, provide a persuasive argument that highly selective public and private universities with strong research profiles should open their doors to a wider swath of the American population. My own university system has been extremely slow to broaden access by, for example, offering more online degree programs—the path that the multicampus Arizona State University under Crow’s leadership has taken with robust results, including generating additional income in the midst of cuts in state funding. In many ways, the early strategic focus on reorganizing ASU’s academic programs and integrating faculty into online degree programs, expanding the school’s total enrollment more than twofold, has become an even more powerful model in the COVID-19 era.

As Crow and Dabars state, virus or not, there is a great need to expand access to postsecondary education and to provide degree programs that meet future labor needs, enhance personal growth, and help mitigate growing socioeconomic inequality. But where I respectfully disagree is the seemingly sole focus on research-intensive universities as the primary vehicle for meeting this need. This is accompanied by a rather old-fashioned notion that excellence in teaching, and therefore degree programs, cannot be excellent and fit-for-purpose at various other institutional types, such as community colleges or teaching-intensive public universities and small colleges.

Why such a narrow argument? One of the hallmarks of America’s system of higher education is the diversity of institutional types. Although there are many poor performers, particularly among a large portion of for-profit schools, there are many that excel in their sphere of responsibility. Excellence in teaching and learning is not just the exclusive realm of research universities. What is more, the current crop of elite public and private universities, with highly selective admissions, cannot sufficiently grow in enrollment and offer the array of programs needed to serve a changing labor market and promote socioeconomic mobility.

The world of work is rapidly changing. Middle-skill jobs that typically required a high school degree are in decline. Many jobs lost over the past two decades will not come back, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. This is only one part of the larger story of growing inequality and economic dislocation in the United States.

Higher education institutions of all types, but particularly public multicampus systems that enroll most students, need to adapt rapidly by rethinking their curriculum and incorporating, for example, short-term job-related badges and certificates into traditional bachelor’s degrees, and by making a sharper break from the old school model that focuses on time in a classroom versus the quality and nature of learning experiences. If not obvious already, online courses and degree programs are one major path for providing greater access and increasing educational attainment rates. But it should also be noted that attrition rates are high among the traditional college student age cohort, and there are ethical issues regarding the probable clustering of lower-income and minority students into the online world.

Elite universities need to be part of devising needed reforms, but efforts also need to include the larger landscape of American higher education. I don’t sense that this reality is lost on Crow and Dabars. Their passion is to influence a certain sector of elite universities toward a more progressive, inclusive, and innovative model. That is the compelling part of their Fifth Wave argument.

Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor
University of California, Berkeley

Cite this Article

“The Future of American Higher Education.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 4 (Summer 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Summer 2020