Higher Education Today: Lessons from History and Challenges for the Present

In the mid-1830s, Greek letter social clubs (fraternities) were launched in the small colleges of New England. In 1845, a scant decade later, the president of Amherst College wrote a letter to the president of nearby Williams College in which he mused, “Would it be desirable to have the societies cease in our colleges?”[1]

As it happens, I served on the board of Amherst College where, in 2014, the wrenching decision was made to ban all fraternities and similar social organizations. And in this academic year, as a long-time member of the Harvard faculty, I have watched the campus being torn apart in a debate about whether students should be penalized for belonging to single sex social organizations—the so-called “final clubs.”

Contemplating these recent fissures, in light of the Amherst presidential communication from 170 years ago, it’s hard not to think of the French phrase translated as, “The more things change, the more things remain the same.”

As one considers the terrain of higher education today, with frequent discussions of disruption and crisis, it’s salutary to reach for the historian’s tools and to determine whether, indeed, the issues confronting education today are really new or have been confronted and dealt with adequately one or more times in the past.

Recently, with Wendy Fischman, I have been leading a large national study of higher education, and I’ve also had the opportunity to read several histories of higher education in the U.S.[2] Once you have read these histories, you realize that there are few wholly new themes in American higher education. Indeed, some themes have recurred over the centuries—for example, the tension between “town” and “gown.” Others have been predictable trends over the years—students coming to campus from ever more distant homes, including ones located abroad. In a keen synopsis of these trends, historian Steven Mintz points out that debates about college mission, and anxiety over educational technologies, have been constants; while trends toward ever greater heterogeneity of the student body and ever more active forms of learning can be expected.

Perhaps most strikingly, as Mintz points out, observers and practitioners have perennially lamented the “crisis” in higher education—and wondered whether the system as currently constituted could endure. And yet, compared to other institutions, the system of colleges and universities in the United States has been remarkably stable; it’s often been said that, next to the Catholic Church, institutions of higher education are the most endurable institutions in the Western world. And durability also characterizes the strength and reputation of specific institutions. If you look at a list of the top U.S. corporations fifty or sixty years ago, there is little overlap with the list today—no Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. In contrast, if you look at the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States (and in Europe) over time, the list is remarkably stable.

But in the 21st century, several issues appear far more acute than ever before. They may be particularly glaring in the United States, but they are not restricted to this country.

In my view, five causes for concern stand out:

1. Cost: If one wants to go to a four year private liberal arts college, the costs including room and board can be up to $60,000-$70,000 a year. At public universities, the costs for even in-state students can easily go to $25,000 a year. At very well-endowed schools, or with respect to students who are especially valued, generous scholarships are possible. But for the rest, the out-of-pocket costs are prohibitive; and so college debts average $30,000 a year and sometimes are multiples of that figure.

2. Financing: Relatedly, in the case of public state universities, the percentage of actual costs that are covered by the state is steadily decreasing, with no sign of a reversal. While at one time the states typically contributed 30-40% of the total budget, the figure is often down to 15% or even less. And while the most prestigious state universities are able to raise funds from public and private sources—and therefore in effect become private universities sporting a state mascot—the rest have less and less guaranteed support and often have to cut even essential services. For a discussion of one controversial practice that has arisen from this challenge (colleges offering additional money to admitted students to influence their decisions after enrollment deadlines have already passed), click here to read a blog post by my student Barbara Hou on The Professional Ethicist

3. Inability to deal with a truly diverse student body: Even though student bodies have become increasingly diverse over the decades in a variety of ways, most student tensions have been directed outside the university and/or toward university leadership. That was certainly the story in the 1960s. But in recent years—no doubt exacerbated by the election of 2016—powerful fault-lines have emerged within the student body, and these may not easily be bridged. The fault-lines can occur within or across campuses—compare the modal political views in coastal states versus those in the “fly-over” states.

4. Vocationalism over all else: My baptism in history indicates that American colleges have always been directed toward training for relevant occupations—be they the ministry, medicine, the law, or, more recently, business. But with the increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” along with the desire to “have it all,” students feel the need to think of college as the place to gain vocational skills—and they are accordingly resentful of requirements that do not connect directly to jobs. Increasingly, as a response, colleges and universities seek to cloak all courses and programs in vocational garbs. “Knowledge for knowledge sake” is a dirty phrase. Of course, with the vocational terrain ever more uncertain in the decades ahead, this move may be ill-considered, if not counterproductive.

5. Suspicion of, or downright contempt for, cultivation of the life of the mind: It would be misleading to suggest that scholarship and academics were ever that central in American higher education—the legendary liberal arts curricula of Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and St. Johns were the exceptions that prove the rule. But nowadays, many leaders across sectors and sections of the country hide whatever scholarly knowledge they themselves have acquired, focusing laser-like on the vocational opportunities and the “cash value” of a college education. We are coming close to the time when colleges are evaluated on how much their students make—and that result would be catastrophic in my view.

It’s my hope that our colleges and universities—so long the justifiable pride of our nation—can withstand these pressures and reverse these trends. In the case of the first three issues, additional governmental funding—local, state, and/or federal—is probably essential. With respect to the last two issues, institutions of higher education must themselves take the lead—though they will need support from other sectors of the society.

It will not be easy to return to calmer days. And while history may provide a guide for dealing with some of these trends, it may be that they are unprecedented and that new or even transformative thinking may be necessary.

[1] Frederick Rudolph (author) and John Thelin (foreword), The American College and University: A History, 2nd edition (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 144.

[2] I am indebted to Philip Altbach, Robert Berdahl, Derek Bok, William Bowen, Ronald Ehrenberg, Roger Geiger, Julie Reuben, Henry Rosovsky, Sheldon Rothblatt, Frederick Rudolph, Harold Shapiro, and John Thelin for informing me about the history of higher education in America.

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2 Comments on “Higher Education Today: Lessons from History and Challenges for the Present”

  1. Steven Mintz June 13, 2017 at 7:47 pm #

    As higher education enters into a unpredictable future, beset with a host of challenges, we would do well to look to the past. After all, history is the best guide we have to the decisions that will shape the future, and as Howard so persuasively argues, the issues higher education faces today aren’t nearly as novel as many assume.


    The debate over college costs has become so politicized that certain realities tend to be overlooked. Declining inflation-adjusted state spending per student is certainly one driver of increases in tuition and fees.

    But institutional budgets have also increased far faster than inflation, in part due to expenditures on financial aid, technology, student support services, and compliance. Research spending, too, has shot up at many institutions, and not just R1s, as colleges and universities seek potential new sources of revenue.

    Even if inflation-adjudged per student funding had remained constant, state funding still would have made up a declining share of university revenue. At my home institution, the University of Texas at Austin, spending rose 250 percent over a 15-year period, while student enrollment remained relatively static. Over that period, the cumulative Consumer Price Index rose 42 percent.
    1999-2000 $1.084 billion
    2014-2014 $2.693 billion

    The fact is that higher education’s business model underwent a radical transformation.


    Student and family debt is a terrible problem that is exerting a great deal of pressure on the decisions students make about which institution to attend – often to the detriment of their future success. Going to a community college can save a great deal of money on the front end, but too often leads to wasted credit hours or worse.

    For many low-income students, the opportunity costs of college mount every year, and too many decide to drop out without a degree. That’s why my unit, the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning (ITL), is proposing new kinds of credentials that don’t require four (or six) years to vest.

    Much of the talk about unbundling is fueled by the cost of an education at existing institutions. It has led the ITL to design more optimized degree pathways. These are 4-year, 120-credit hour versions of community colleges’ guided pathways, emphasizing tightly aligned, synergistic courses and clearly identified learning outcomes tagged to marketable skills.

    Fault Lines:

    I taught for many years at the University of Houston, which was then the second-most diverse 4-year campus (after Rutgers-Newark), and it struck me as a sort of multicultural oasis. But it was also a commuter school with an economically homogeneous working-class student body, which may have militated against the kinds of tensions that one is seeing at certain campuses (Evergreen, Northwestern, Middlebury, and Yale, among others) today.

    Campus tensions are cyclic. What’s notable about today’s tensions are two-fold. First, are tensions that have emerged among faculty who consider themselves liberal. These include tensions over curriculum, admissions, free speech, student activism, and sexual assault policies. Second are tensions between liberal faculty and students, sometimes with a racial tinge, involving issues of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and multiculturalism.


    In my view, the ongoing liberal arts versus pre-professional debate needs to be reframed. To many students, large portions of the curriculum seem irrelevant. Gen ed typically consists of a smorgasbord or grab bag of disconnected disciplinary-based introductory courses, none of which were specifically designed for general education.

    That’s why it is exceptionally exciting to see a “bottom-up” movement at Harvard to create a next generation model that includes the Humanities 11 Frameworks courses that teach the arts of looking, listening, and reading. The faculty who created these courses have a passionate commitment to providing students with a transdisciplinary introduction to the humanities that has a genuine pedagogical justification.

    Life of the Mind:

    How can we best trigger genuine engagement in the life of the mind in our students? The problem, I am convinced, lies not simply with an anti-intellectual philistine society or with hedonistic students, but in the fact that few students have the opportunity to informally engage with faculty on intellectual and aesthetic topics. At most institutions that I have been associated with, mentoring is expended only on the most promising students, typically graduate students.

    Columbia’s core curriculum was a real but rare exception. There, I taught the core alongside faculty luminaries and public intellectuals like Max Frankel (the former New York Times editor), who regarded Columbia’s core as a model of intellectual engagement. Anything but a glorified bull session, the core was a rare opportunity for non-specialists and students to actively and critically engage with some of the most challenging texts there are.

    In my view, faculty need to think of themselves as learning architects, designers of educational experiences that are developmental and transformative along multiple dimensions. That can be done one course at a time, one classroom at a time – but it really should be done at the curricular level.

    The ITL built a biomedical sciences pathway in the lower Rio Grande Valley (among the poorest, fastest-growing, and most ill-served regions in the country) that included a literature course on narratives of pain and illness, an art history course on representations of the body, a history course on the history of disease and public health, a philosophy course on medical ethics. The goal was professional identity formation – and that identity needed to be holistic and humanistic.

    The academy requires provocations to thought, debate, and reflection. Howard’s is a model.

    Steven Mintz
    Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin
    Executive Director, Institute for Transformational Learning, University of Texas System

  2. Howard Gardner July 2, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    I am grateful to Steven Mintz for these extremely learned and helpful comments on my blog. Steven has the advantage of having taught at a variety of institutions of higher learning, ranging in focus, location, and selectivity. One of the issues my colleagues and I have been pondering is whether there are certain experiences (including courses!) that should be required of all students, once they enter college– and if so, which ones. It’s much easier, of course, for each college and university to have its program– and, hence, that’s what typically happens– but I am not sure we are doing a service either for the students or for the society as a whole.
    Thanks, Steven!

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