Goldie Blumenstyk is the author of American Higher Education in Crisis?: What Everyone Needs to Know. She is a longtime reporter and editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and she is based in Washington, D.C.
Q: You describe the current situation in higher education as “the gravest and most exciting that I have seen in my twenty-six-plus years of higher-education reporting.” What are some of the main reasons for the gravity, and for the excitement?
A: The gravity is because cost challenges are daunting for families and for colleges. There are plenty of opportunities for families to choose less expensive colleges, [but at many colleges] the costs are high.
For colleges, state funding is not going up, and there’s only so much tuition they can raise. Strategies they’ve relied on are harder to justify, and there’s an increase in competition from providers looking to undercut them. More families are choosing community colleges and alternative models.
There’s a great deal of questioning of colleges from the White House on down. Families are less convinced about the value of college. I’m still pretty convinced, but questions about the value of college are the most prevalent [that I’ve seen].
It’s exciting because there’s so much interest in higher education now. The level of attention from outside reform groups has never been higher. All these companies—data analytics, online education, personalized education—the focus on higher education is fascinating now. Not all of that is great, some are boondoggles, but some are really promising.
Q: Over the years you’ve been covering higher education, what are some of the most important changes you’ve seen?
A: It’s a little hard to define, but the corporatization of higher education has been a trend. Everything from the level of salaries, more bureaucracy, more marketing, more for-profit ventures in higher education.
Technology, and ways to go to college, are very different. Online education—there are now 5 million students. One quarter of students take online classes.
The other thing that’s hugely different, not at small elite private colleges [but elsewhere], is the role of the faculty. Twenty-five years ago, adjunct professors [didn’t play as big a role]. Now, 40 percent is done by adjuncts.
When I left college, 40 percent of the faculty was tenured or tenure-track. Now it’s about 25 percent. Adjuncts teach one course—it changes the student’s experience a lot. Some faculty don’t have offices; they’re not as tied to the school. Not that they can’t be great professors, but they don’t have as close ties to the school.
Q: Is there anything that’s remained the same?
A: There still are tons of dedicated people out there who believe in higher education, believe in the mission of their own institution, and care about students.
I love going to campuses—their values are learning, their values are cutting to the quick of things. It’s a special sector in our society…
Q: You write, “Now higher education as an enterprise is once again at a watershed.” How different will things look for the next generation of college students?
A: It depends. Right now I think every college has to stop and look at its value proposition. Are they doing it in a way that’s meaningful to students? Are they doing it in a way that’s cost-efficient? Are they having an impact on their students?
So many places, even places that think they’re fine, have to be a lot more intentional about what they’re doing. I say in the book that it’s not the time for cruise-control management. It requires boards that are more engaged and mindful of money.
[Schools need] to be more intentional about student learning, and making sure the diploma means something when the student graduates. A lot of people have doubts about that now….Education is a process, but [those involved] have to make sure the process is working.
Q: Which fields of study are becoming more popular and why?
A: That’s always changing. For every time you keep hearing about the liberal arts being dead, I talked to someone at the University of Maryland University College who teaches classical history, and their classes are full.
Business has been the biggest major for many years. There’s a push on STEM fields…I appreciate the need for STEM jobs, but I see the values of liberal arts; a liberal education is also important, even for a biology or business major. There are always going to be specialized fields, but I don’t think we can stop learning.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The other thing I talk a lot about in the book is the demographic changes in the country and how it’s reflected in higher education—not that well! Our country is becoming browner, and our colleges [less so] in a very stratified way. It will take a lot of effort to ensure that we don’t codify a stratified system. It’s a big challenge for everyone in higher education, that elite colleges and other universities, that [these] institutions reflect the diversity of the country.