Friday, May 3, 2013

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Finis The College Campus?

The picture of modern college and university campuses
has become so indelible in American minds for the past
century, and the trillions of dollars spent to create and expand
them is so great, that it is preposterous to suggest that they
might become virtually empty and unused for their present
purposes in the foreseeable future.

Or is it?

A recent study of an allegedly top-rated liberal arts college,
Bowdoin in Maine, (“What Does Bowdoin Teach?) has
produced a firestorm of concern and controversy
about the state of undergraduate education in America,
particularly at its top schools. This study, written by Dr. Peter
Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS),
and Michael Toscano, is so thorough and so devastating that it
raises anew whether college age American men and women,
sometimes paying up to $60,000 per year to attend the nation’s
leading public and private college and universities, are getting
even a minimally respectable and useful higher education.

I have raised this question in this space recently (cf. THE
PRAIRIE EDITOR: “To The Last Degree” March 5, 2013) in a
general format, citing my own alma mater, the University of
Pennsylvania, and the University of Minnesota, as examples of
prestigious schools in decline. The NAS study exhaustively and, in
my opinion, irrefutably documents a similar phenomenon at
Bowdoin, with direct implications for so many other institutions of
higher learning across the nation. Many others, educators and other
commentators, most of whom know more about the subject than
I do, have similarly indicted the leadership and faculties of many
colleges and universities for the narrowness and triviality of their
programs, and their preoccupations with issues of “diversity,”
“sustainability,” and “political correctness.”

Considering the extremely high costs of higher education in
most schools in America today, the lack of credibility of many of
their curricula, and the extremist politicizing of so many
college and university communities, I don’t think there is much
question that the whole institution is in a grave crisis.

So what will happen next?

Dr. Wood recently spoke to the Minnesota Association of Scholars,
and following his remarks, was asked a question about the future of
higher education. His answer included a comment about the
possibility that the new institution of online higher education might
be the only way to circumvent the entrenched faculty and
administrative establishment, and restore higher education in
America to its intended purpose and high standards.

As I listened to Dr. Woods remarks, it occurred to me that he might
be right. Initially, I had reservations about online education. Part of
this response, I must admit, came from the bias that I received my
entire education --- secondary, undergraduate and graduate schools ---
before the modern use of the computer.  Another part of this response,
I must also admit, probably came from a residual attitude that I had
attended the “best” schools on major campuses, and that no off-campus
educational experience could match them (even though I had, over time,
become critical of those same schools).  But the present crisis in higher
education, and its astronomical rise in costs, I now believe could bring
about radical change. If college and university presidents, boards of
trustees and faculties do not quickly adapt or change in the face of this
crisis, I think parents and students, the customers after all, will force a
change by turning to online higher education, more technical community
colleges and other new institutions to prepare them for their adult careers.

It won’t happen overnight. The “prestige” of the colleges and universities
now at the highest level will persist, especially as long as employers pay
attention to them. But as these same institutions continue to turn out
poorly-prepared graduates, albeit intelligent ones, American business and
professional employers will adjust their criteria and procedures for
locating and hiring the best and the brightest.

Online higher education in the U.S.has just gone through a shake-up,
as it is in the process of upgrading its standards and overcoming
widespread past attitudes that online colleges and universities were
“diploma mills.” But the best and some of the largest of these online
institutions are surviving and growing. Able to provide quality
undergraduate and technical higher education at much lower cost,
and without the contemporary issues of “diversity,” “sustainability,”
and political correctness now so out of control on so many of today’s
college campuses, the online education industry is poised to grow
exponentially and change the physical character of higher education in

In the past, the college campus offered a student an”experience” beyond
just book learning. But today, the college campus has lost its balance and
its economy in so many ways. The tyranny of political domination of the
campus, grown unabated  for the past 50 years, is about to be upended.
This educational revolt is not going away.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman.   All rights reserved.

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