S&P predicted a bleak future for higher education last week. Last month Moody's downgraded the sector to from "stable" to "negative." Leaders know financial issues usually aren't root problems but point to them.

Here are 10 signs pointing to problems among American universities independent of finance, from most obvious leading to the broadest and most important.

10. The most successful students leave American universities. The following people left American universities (or never went), not out of ignorance but knowing that what universities offered would hold them back:

  • Elon Musk
  • Bill Gates
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Sean Combs
  • Sergey Brin
  • Larry Page
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • LeBron James
  • Michael Dell

... to name a few.

Academics might say these people aren't academics, but is the purpose of academia to create academics? These people are citizens and leaders. People follow successful leaders.

The list prompts one to ask how much American universities are contributing to the ranks of successful citizens and leaders. Our president has an Ivy League degree, but suffers historically low approval ratings.

9. Expensive, shiny distractions from education. In No College Kid Needs a Water Park to Study, the New York Times recounts a national trend to attract students with amenities that distract from education. Whatever students they woo in the short term, the leadership decisions to fund and feature them undermine the school's educational missions.

One school doing it might not be a problem. Universities at all levels do it.

8. Not matching foreign investment. In If the U.S. Won't Pay Its Teachers, China Will, Bloomberg recounts increasing investment in education in other nations, especially China. The New York Times, in As Flow of Foreign Students Wanes, U.S. Universities Feel the Sting, describes American universities' resulting loss of income.

Many American educational leaders blame government policy and decreasing funding, which are serious issues, but American universities' tuition increases outpace inflation, with significant amounts going to non-teaching administrators.

7. Blaming politics and politicians. The news assigns decreasing foreign enrollment in American universities on the president, populism, tightening immigration, and so on.

While politics and politicians impact universities, how long would we expect foreign governments to watch idly while their top students go to the U.S.? We can expect them to create new educational institutions that leapfrog American universities, just as they skipped landlines for cell phones and are skipping central power grids for distributed solar.

Blaming others keeps would-be leaders from seeing how they can take responsibility.

6. Ignoring domestic competition. Founded in 2011, General Assembly has 20 campuses in 6 countries on 4 continents and was planned as a coworking space, not a school. Its niche was wide open and universities didn't fill so it did.

Many similar organizations are filling needs universities could, including Seth Godin's AltMBA and Khan Academy. Many university leaders view non-traditionally-academic organizations as vocational and therefore not competitive, even lesser. But students increasingly attend them as replacements.

More importantly, alternatives don't only provide jobs. Many students are learning and developing personal values, civic values, and other ways to mature outside universities.

5. Delivering 20th century value, decades late. American universities provide excellent educations for knowledge workers--a tremendous value before the internet made information and knowledge ubiquitous. Automation will exacerbate the declining relevance of factual recall and abstract analysis.

University educators often see themselves as stewards of millennia-old traditions tracing their roots to Plato's Academy and beyond. But one could equally see universities today as aberrations from this tradition.

Ivy League professor and provost Robert Nisbet's 1971 "The Degradation of the Academic Dogma" said that government funding since World War II degraded universities' purpose of knowledge, scholarship, and reason in favor of professors' self-serving pursuits of creating centers and and institutes.

His criticisms echo today, often more loudly, in criticisms from disillusioned professors such as William Deresiewicz's "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League," David Brooks' "The Organization Kid," and a peer-reviewed paper, "Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition," describing how much deeper that degradation grew as the funding that fueled it dried up.

Meanwhile, throughout history, education included active learning beyond the classroom.

4. Arts, athletics, and active learning. Many educators see a dichotomy--a false one--between sports and academics, illustrated in The Atlantic's The Case Against High-School Sports, which could apply to university sports: 

Imagine, for a moment, if Americans transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports--the rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride--to high-school academics.

Who said sports had to mean obsessive intensity? What about casual competitions, recreational fitness, and yoga?

Let's separate individual athletic activity from big athletic programs. Why distinguish? Because individual athletic activity involves training, practice, teamwork, resilience, winning, losing, discipline, fitness, diet, and many emotional and social skills that classroom learning doesn't touch. All students can participate, not just varsity athletes.

Many universities treat art academically, offering or mandating classes in art history and appreciation but not creating art. But making art and performing, which all students can do, involves exploring truth and beauty, vulnerability, criticism, resilience, expression, rehearsal--more emotional and social skills beyond classroom learning.

Sports and art involve performance, which involves motivation, emotions, and other people--how we learn the social and emotional skills that adulthood and citizenship demand. Sitting in classroom rows and writing analytical papers don't teach these skills.

Many treat internships as active learning. While professional work can teach, students simply working at jobs doesn't necessarily add value that they wouldn't get after graduation.

By contrast, incorporating active learning into university pedagogy--project-based learning--can teach students autonomy, initiative, responsibility, and more. American universities neglect what performance-based fields and project-based learning do.

3. Conflating "practical" and "vocational" with jobs, in opposition to academic learning. Many academics see practical and vocational fields as lesser than academic and not really the domain of universities.

But practice is how we learn to perform. Practice makes perfect. Practice leads to genuine, authentic self-awareness, expression, and more. Vocation--from vocatio, meaning a calling--implies a practice one is called to do, a passion. Motivation matters in life, why not in school?

Focusing on academic pursuits neglects performance and doing. Academics publish or they perish, so professors teach many subjects wonderfully. If, however, you look at what they do, and what they teach students to do, much is writing based on abstract analysis, practices of limited value in society. Few domains outside school require publishing academic work.

2. Not heeding history. The internet and automation are devaluing factual-recall-based skills. Other industries have seen similar seismic shifts.

America's car makers in the 60s, for example, missed warning signs of consumers moving from power and style to reliability, safety, and efficiency. Volkswagen and Toyota responded to rank among the world's largest companies. GM didn't and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

To avoid becoming like GM or Kodak, university leadership must consider that education outside their walls is changing. To be sure, some changes are short-term market trends, but many are long-term returns to what students, their families, society, and culture demand of institutions transforming youths into responsible, thoughtful, mature adults and citizens.

Many American universities have shifted away from fulfilling these roles, however long their histories and despite the conceptions of many within them.

1. Valuing credentials over growth, development, and skills. The final deliverable of a university is a diploma--a credential, from credentia, meaning trust. A diploma says, "trust me, this student is prepared."

But many employers no longer require college diplomas--notably Google, with its choice of the top students from the top programs in the top schools. The company researched its decision thoroughly, finding no correlation between academic performance and performance on the job.

American universities don't focus on performance, but society and employers do. No actor got a role for his or her GPA or diploma, nor leader, athlete, or any other performer. Schools can help students develop portfolios of work they can share and the world can value beyond trusting schools in a sector downgraded to "negative."

What we can do

Factual recall and analysis have value. Nobody says they should be removed from education. But they are not the be-all and end-all of education, nor do they guarantee success outside academia.

Active, experiential, project-based learning won't solve everything, but it does develop many social and emotional skills of mature adults and citizens.

Some universities and individual professors embrace that pedagogy and practice it effectively (some ineffectively). Those who do will survive the shift Moody's and S&P warn of.

Published on: Jan 29, 2018