The changing ecology of higher education

Michael Kirst and Mitchell Stevens’ recent book, Remaking College: The changing ecology of higher education, asks nothing less than that we reconceive the character of American higher education.

They believe that our attention to elite colleges has led us to ignore the schools doing the lion’s share of undergraduate instruction – community colleges, comprehensive public universities and for-profit institutions.

Such attention has also blinded us to changes in patterns of early adulthood. Many students move in and out of college, integrating their education into complex personal and work lives. They are older, and they often attend school part-time.

By imagining the traditional college student as the norm – the student who goes to a residential college, away from home, immediately after graduating from high school, and who completes his or her degree in four full-time years – we distort the picture of American higher education and fail to attend adequately to the needs of the invisible majority of students.

The subtitle of Kirst and Stevens’ book – “the changing ecology of higher education” – is methodologically significant. They insist that higher education is an ecology – “as comprising myriad service providers, instructional and administrative labour, funders and regulators interacting in a messy system of educational production”.

They feel we must attend to this ecology if we are to make adequate sense of the enormous changes unsettling higher education. They are critical of the methodologies that social scientists have used to study higher education – cohort analysis, assuming linear models of students moving through college, models that fit well with an interest in social mobility and with linear regression analysis.

Even the traditional classification of colleges and universities, developed by the Carnegie Foundation and now reified in ranking systems such as US News & World Report, has a distorting impact, the book argues, as schools may have membership in a number of different categories.

Although there may be homogeneity among elite research universities, lower-tier broad access institutions have much more heterogeneity. Our classification system obscures these differences and even exerts a normative force.

Imagining the future

Remaking College is a collection of essays by a group of writers on higher education whom Kirst and Stevens assembled, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to engage in a series of discussions on “the fate and future of US higher education at this moment in history”.

They chose the most provocative writers they could identify, regardless of field, and asked them to reimagine “how the study of college might be pursued in light of the seismic changes taking place in US higher education”.

Although attention to digital technologies is not absent from the book – indeed, one of its most provocative essays, by Anya Kamenetz, is entitled “DIY U”, about a future world in which students may be able to create their own degrees from online resources – this is not primarily a book about college in the cloud. Rather, it seeks to shift our attention to broad access institutions and the students who attend them.

Our attention to making the student bodies of elite colleges and universities more diverse, Regina Deil-Amen argues in her essay, excludes and makes invisible the realities of most non-traditional students with non-traditional pathways, thus narrowing the diversity agenda.

Invisible students

Kirst and Stevens address their book principally to scholars in the field of higher education. They call for a different research agenda, one that attends to the complexity and messiness of the higher education “system” in the United States, that seeks to understand how it is changing, and that focuses attention on the invisible majority of students and strategies to help them succeed. However, anyone interested in US higher education can learn much from this book.

Indeed, Kirst and Stevens raise the question of whether the greater public scrutiny devoted to higher education may lead to a kind of governmental intervention that has been more characteristically exercised in K-12 (primary and secondary education).

Kirst’s essay in this volume analyses the conditions that led to policy changes in K-12 and speculates about those that might lead to governmentally initiated changes in higher education.

Accreditation, Kirst and Stevens believe, is a weak coercive instrument; they wonder whether what they term a “policy window” may open for governmentally mandated policy changes in higher education.

For the prospective student coming from outside the United States, Remaking College gives a richer, fuller and more complex sense of the landscape of American higher education – the ecology as Kirst and Stevens term it. It thus may lead to a broader sense of choices, although this is not a book about college choice.

It also provides a fuller understanding of the space college occupies in adult lives, as one factor in a web of interdependencies.

“Lives today have irregular rhythms,” Richard Settersten Jr argues in his essay “The New Landscape of Early Adulthood”. Four-year institutions, in his view, are not the only route to a successful adulthood.

Perhaps international students, like domestic students, may take more advantage of “the most varied and flexible academic ecology the world has ever known”.

Carol Christ is director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, or CSHE, University of California, Berkeley, USA.