Thoughts on ‘The Great Upheaval’

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Back when I used to watch local news, I always got annoyed at the running joke whereby the anchors scold the meteorologist for bad weather. Saying that a storm is coming is not the same as advocating for a storm. It was meant as tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes it came off a little too strong. A forecaster who gives warning before a storm hits is just doing their job.

In that spirit, The Great Upheaval, by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt, predicts some serious storms for American higher education. It asks the reader to distinguish between prediction and advocacy, mostly honoring the distinction in the telling. But it’s a bracing forecast.

Levine and Van Pelt argue largely by analogy. The first section of the book, “Looking Backward,” offers a concise and well-written history of the emergence of the American higher education system. (“System” is the wrong word, but it’ll do for present purposes.) It’s useful, as far as it goes, but it’s table-setting.

The middle section, “Looking Sideways,” does the conceptual heavy lifting. It offers short tales of the rise and fall of the newspaper, film studio and music industries. In each case, by this telling, the industries made similar mistakes. They failed to recognize challenges coming from outside. They misunderstood their own businesses. (The usual paradigm case for that is the railroad industry, which lost so much to cars and planes.) They “projected tomorrow to mirror yesterday” (205), resulting in short-term adaptations that fell far short of the generational challenge. And they made such basic errors as cutting costs “rather than making investments in the future” (205).

The third section, “Looking Forward,” connects the dots between the first two sections and makes predictions. The short version is that we should expect to see a panoply of new providers of postsecondary credentials start to emerge, challenging the primacy of regionally accredited colleges. As they put it, we should expect “the rise of anytime, anyplace, consumer-driven content and source agnostic, unbundled, personalized education paid for by subscription” (212). It’s not a new prediction, though I was struck by their characterization of OPMs as “transitional.” If true, it suggests that the evolutionary path of for-profit higher education will go from imitation—stand-alone colleges—to infiltration (OPMs) to initiation, as in Google offering free online training as an on-ramp for prospective employees.

The most intriguing prediction, to my mind, was around accreditation. They predict that the object of accreditation will shift from the institution to the student, with something like accreditors verifying that students have achieved certain defined competencies. Where they achieved them is much less important.

A system like that would require much more standardization of outcomes, while paradoxically allowing much more diversity of providers. That will necessarily put strains on existing providers, especially those without a clear and distinctive niche. Levine and Van Pelt characterize the struggle for colleges to survive, especially in the Northeast, as a game of musical chairs. They foretell drastically increased attrition among existing providers, in which colleges with weaker economic foundations go the way of afternoon newspapers. Although the name “Looking Backward” conjures the ghost of Bellamy, this is not a sunny set of predictions.

From a community college perspective, the niches that appear most sturdy in the brave new world are equity and local employment. Local employment gets its due in the book, but equity is treated as an afterthought. As long as that’s true, community colleges (and regional four-year public colleges) will get short shrift. For instance, the notion of “unbundling” as a sort of consumer liberation works well for students who already have the social and economic capital to navigate or construct systems themselves. But the guided pathways movement has shown us that aggressive bundling actually benefits students who come in with fewer resources. Often, those students either don’t know what they don’t know or simply have no slack to spend on pursuits that turn out not to matter. They need guidance and rules, which is to say, they need institutions.

Although Levine and Van Pelt acknowledge the difference in passing, the fact that public higher education is nonprofit—as opposed to the three knowledge industries to which they compare it—suggests that it serves a mission other than its own growth. It does. It serves a civic mission, based both on equity and on a notion of democratic citizenship. Balancing that civic mission with the more pragmatic need to prepare people for well-paying employment isn’t easy, especially in the face of political and demographic headwinds. But it’s a fundamentally different task than ginning up earnings per share.

We can’t expect the market to solve for that. If it could, it would have by now.

Oddly, the political considerations Levine and Van Pelt underplay may work in the other direction as well. If the battles over transfer credits are any indication, the places I’d most expect to see fight against standardization of competencies are the elites. Standardization would suggest that their classes are no better than classes at Compass Direction State a few towns away. While higher education is about teaching and learning, it’s also about signaling and prestige hoarding.

Exclusivity and standardization don’t mesh well.

Caveats aside, this is one of the more thoughtful, well-researched and thought-provoking books of its sort that I’ve seen in a while. The suggestion that OPMs are “transitional” was worth the price of the book all by itself. It’s even well written, which isn’t a given in this field. I won’t get mad at the weather forecaster for alerting us to the coming storm. Instead, I’ll thank them, even as I wonder if they got a few readings wrong.

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