Fast Forward 2008

Fred Rogers

The Forum for the Future of Higher Education’s Aspen Symposium provides an opportunity to examine the forces shaping the future of higher education in the United States and around the world. At the 2007 Aspen Symposium, more than 20 Forum Scholars shared their insights about the challenges those forces present and how higher education leaders might more effectively respond to them. Overarching themes emerged throughout the course of the Symposium and sparked several key questions, among them:

“We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” —The Ephebic Oath of the Athenian City-State as posted at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University

  • Are we able to utilize the academic tools of research, data analysis, critique, reflection, and dialogue to examine the academy itself—including the pedagogy and the outcomes that we assert as our purpose?
  • As the United States seeks to advance opportunities for democracy and freedom worldwide, how well are we preparing our citizenry for upholding these values at home?
  • How might higher education help address foreign policy challenges such as the war in Iraq and the search for lasting peace in the Middle East?
  • How will American trade and budget deficits impact the strength of our national economy and the future of U.S. higher education?

The summaries of the presentations and discussions contained in this volume should serve to highlight the issues and insights shared during the Symposium and inspire you as you consider both the future of your institution and the role of higher education in our globalized world.

Global Trends

Broad global trends unfolding independent of any action or inaction on the part of higher education leaders are likely to have deep and profound effects. Forum Scholars address a number of such trends and their implications for how and what we teach and for the fundamental structure of our institutions of higher learning.

Demand for education is surging worldwide, with enrollments in India and China increasing exponentially. Richard Freeman of Harvard University notes that the United States’ share of higher education enrollment and degrees conferred is falling, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and particularly in science and engineering. Historically, American educators have prided themselves on being part of the world’s best system of higher education. In light of shrinking market share, Freeman argues for pursuing that advantage with an increased emphasis on quality over quantity. He envisions American higher education as the center of spokes of networks linking scholars around the world, and as a source of excellent students and faculty even while its worldwide enrollment share declines. Freeman also documents the surge in female higher education enrollments in the advanced countries, which he believes is to the United States’ advantage, especially as women are added to the U.S. supply of science and engineering graduates. He expresses concern, however, about the fate of the boys and men in these countries, where female enrollment is high and continuing to rise.

Broad shifts in education worldwide, global labor markets, and the credit crisis are among the many factors that threaten America’s global economic dominance. Retired General Montgomery Meigs believes that Americans generally have a naïve sense of the linkages of economic issues to our national interest and, moreover, seem to lack a basic awareness of the economic realities we face today. Meigs draws from the ancient Athenians, who well understood the importance to their democratic state of an informed citizenry. He notes that civic education is crucial to fulfilling America’s hopes to maintain and restore an inspired and respected democracy. Observing that the issues of terrorism and economic strife have little to do with Iraq per se, Meigs urges us to look more deeply at the underlying issues and forces that energize these struggles. He asks how colleges and universities can help engender greater understanding and civic engagement on the part of the American people. He suggests that Americans tend to underestimate the value of “soft power” so eloquently described by Joseph Nye at a previous Aspen Symposium. Meigs urges all institutions to examine the Ephebic Oath and to ask how they are helping to instill in their students a sense of civic virtue and a passion for leaving our collective city better than we found it.

Samantha Power of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Representative Lee Hamilton of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars emphasize the need to engage today’s college students with substantive issues and tap their energy for positive change. Hamilton quotes Senator Claiborne Pell’s statement that, “The strength of the United States is not the gold at Fort Knox, or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and character of our people.” The question today, he continues, is the same as Lincoln’s rhetorical query at Gettysburg, i.e., whether this nation “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Power describes students’ success in generating national and international awareness of the genocide in Darfur despite initial indifference on the part of American leaders. She believes that our nation’s colleges and universities present the best hope for cultivating greater knowledge and understanding across cultures, and preparing future generations to thrive in a global society. She offers Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy killed in Iraq, as a role model who learned to be pragmatic while holding on to the idealism that originally motivated him. This, she implies, might be the goal of all educators.

…creative approaches on the part of institutional leaders in all sectors will help preserve higher education’s key values while challenging traditional methods and approaches.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution describes Opportunity 08, a Brookings project aimed at helping presidential candidates, and the public, focus on critical issues—and less on partisan politics—throughout the presidential campaign now under way. Brookings scholars have produced succinct papers presenting ideas and policy recommendations about a wide variety of issues we face today. They note that increased understanding of the vastly different cultures around the globe is fundamental to guiding and improving America’s international standing—particularly with regard to our relations with the 1.4 billion people of the Islamic world. O’Hanlon believes that much of the long-term solution to the problems we face in the Islamic world lies with higher education rather than with politicians in Washington. He suggests approaches such as a greater focus on teaching Arabic languages and translating both Arabic and English materials related to history, politics, and literature to enable a broader and more direct dialogue across these widely disparate cultures. O’Hanlon also encourages more higher education leaders to use the bully pulpit afforded by their positions to argue for a truly global, sustainable, and diverse economy and a more honest examination of the flaws in American policies abroad and at home.

Strategy and Finance

The unstable global economic environment presents serious challenges to both those who manage the U.S. economy and managers responsible for the financial condition of colleges and universities. Forum Scholars approach these challenges from widely different perspectives.

Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, decries the poor performance of American government today. He notes the bias in higher education toward “public policy” and advocates a return to deep intellectual and professional interest in public administration, focused on engendering good government. Volcker also emphasizes his belief that the academic and Wall Street fascination with elaborate financial engineering creates wealth for a few but no real productivity growth for the economy as a whole. Noting that Americans consume 6% to 7% more than they produce, and have done so for some time, he predicts a correction accompanied by major challenges for the American economy, such as inflation.

Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School addresses the mission and purpose of the nation’s top colleges and universities. He explains that most market research is descriptive, adopting the established categories of its products and customers for analysis and thus for targeted innovation. Higher education falls into the same approach by focusing on community colleges versus four-year colleges, public versus private education, or liberal arts colleges versus research universities. Christensen notes, however, that every service, education included, is ultimately chosen and adopted by its “consumers” based on the purpose it fulfills in their lives and not for the style or mode in which it is offered. He argues that as the nation’s top institutions—the original leaders in the higher education market—continue to move up the quality chain and increasingly focus on prestige, they are losing touch not only with the needs of mainstream Americans but also to some extent with their own missions. Emphasizing that there are far more cost-effective and even performance-effective ways to teach and learn than via traditional—and increasingly costly—residential colleges and universities, he urges that we “rethink the model.”

The McKinsey Project on Global Higher Education, led by Paul Jansen and Deborah Bielak, focuses in its second year on the trends and risks affecting American higher education. Jansen and Bielak recognize the limitations and pressures bearing on the nation’s colleges and universities. Their conclusion is that traditional higher education delivery models are high cost and do not scale well to growth; thus, in the face of a growing and increasingly diverse population, newer for-profit models of higher education delivery may become even more relevant. Jansen and Bielak’s presentation is enriched by the perspectives of Molly Broad of the American Council on Education, Lloyd Armstrong formerly of the University of Southern California, and Pamela Gann of Claremont McKenna College, representing public higher education, major research universities, and small liberal arts colleges, respectively. They concur that creative approaches on the part of institutional leaders in all sectors will help preserve higher education’s key values while challenging traditional methods and approaches.

William Massy and John Core, formerly of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, discuss the challenge of risk management for higher education’s financial managers. They argue persuasively that capital structure and risk management for higher education is not about just asset allocation in the endowment portfolio; rather, the risks of competition, economic cycles, and disruptive technologies should be taken into account as well. They suggest that managers consider hedging against this broader scope of risks by adjusting the endowment asset allocation to reflect their institutions’ exposure to them. While Massy’s portfolio theory is not currently in vogue, it is clearly worth considering, particularly in light of the substantive and broad range of issues identified and discussed at the Symposium.

Teaching and Learning

Rethinking the traditional higher education model fundamentally means rethinking how we teach students. Remarkable advances in cognitive science and neuroscience, as well as extensive data drawn from research about student learning, inform new ways of thinking about education.

Jamshed Bharucha of Tufts University and Carl Wieman of the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado document distressing failures of traditional teaching methods and observe that many prevalent practices—such as lectures—are continued not because of their effective outcomes for students but because of their familiarity and comfort for those who teach. Further, Bharucha observes that abysmal retention of material by students is widespread, and cautions that robust rapid learning does not predict robust future retrieval.

Wieman, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2001, outlines specific interventions to improve scientific learning as straightforward as explaining how a topic operates in the real world and showing how it connects to something the student already knows. Bharucha’s description of cognitive research supports this approach: Knowledge tends to be organized in the brain around reference points that function like hooks. That is, we learn best if new information can find hooks to hang on; therefore, making connections when introducing new material to students can greatly improve their learning.

More broadly, Wieman distills much educational and cognitive research to a basic principle: People learn by creating their own understanding. He notes that effective teaching facilitates that creation by engaging students in thinking deeply about the subject at an appropriate level and then monitoring and guiding that thinking. Bharucha and Wieman present passionate and informed cases about how to improve the quality of the teaching and learning that happens in classrooms and laboratories every day.

The Spellings Commission

The examination of American higher education by the Spellings Commission cites access, affordability, and accountability—as well as quality—as its key areas of concern about higher education. The Spellings Commission report, while not the focus of the 2007 Aspen Symposium, served as an appropriate foil for much that was discussed throughout the course of the gathering.

As is well known, the Spellings Commission report was straightforward in its criticism of the performance of American higher education today. Charles Miller, Spellings Commission chair, notes that while much attention was devoted to the commission’s critique, he believes that the four important forces affecting higher education identified by the commission are equally noteworthy, including: (1) global competitive pressures; (2) technological developments in information and communication that change how people access information and learn; (3) restraints on public finance and expectations of increased productivity from the academy similar to other sectors of the economy; and (4) structural limitations of the academy that prevent scaling up in capacity and increasing productivity.

In reacting to the commission’s assessment of American higher education, Michael McPherson of the Spencer Foundation, Morton Owen Schapiro of Williams College, David Breneman of the University of Virginia, and Richard Shavelson of Stanford University observe that the largely defensive and dismissive response the commission received from higher education leaders is not conducive to dialogue or constructive self-examination and improvement. Shavelson, a developer of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) identified by the Spellings Commission as a tool with great potential for learning assessment, describes that instrument, which indeed can serve as a vehicle for meaningful institutional self-examination. Shavelson reminds us, however, that when harsh incentives or political judgments are based on outcome measures, those measures may corrupt the very thing they are intended to improve—teaching and learning. Unfortunately, “teaching to the test” can discourage creativity and ultimately impede learning. Thus, he argues that the goal of accountability should be tempered by attention to the context and complexity of the learning environment.

Breneman believes that any objective review of American higher education will quickly show that the questions and issues noted by the commission are appropriate, reasonable, and worthy of discussion and study. To not respond to them as serious concerns is to abdicate responsibility. As McPherson and Schapiro observe, “Finding common ground isn’t easy, but these issues are too important to not try.”

The Forum’s Aspen Symposium is an opportunity to reflect, to challenge assumptions, and to connect issues in new and relevant ways. The strength and depth of higher education in the United States is a remarkable gift given to the present generations by our forebearers. As stewards of this legacy, we are called to utilize resources and to nurture talent in ways that serve the needs of today and tomorrow—in a shrinking and interconnected world on an endangered yet resource-rich planet. We seek to enable our students to live informed lives of engagement and service around the globe. The potential to do good is as unbounded as the energy and inspiration of today’s students. As Samantha Power summed up: “The hunger is for the path. Seek to know where to begin.” These readings from the Forum’s 2007 Aspen Symposium seek to define a path, difficult in its choosing but abundant in its opportunities.


Fred Rogers is vice president and treasurer of Carleton College. He can be reached at frogers@carleton.edu.