Why Now?

Why do I think we have reached a Red Balloon moment?  I think we in higher education, particularly public higher education, face a substantial danger.  Things could happen very quickly, and the changes could be catastrophic for us.

Malcolm Gladwell writes persuasively about the concept of a tipping point, a moment when suddenly rapid change occurs.  As human beings, we’re really not well prepared for sudden change.  Ray Kurzweil describes the singularity as a similar moment, when what we assume will be a slow, steady advance is profoundly disrupted by a sudden and dramatic turn.  He uses a vivid illustration in comparing arithmetic to geometric progression.  If you take 30 steps arithmetically, at the end you will be 30 steps away from where you started.  But if you take 30 steps geometrically (that it, doubling the number each time), by the end of 30 steps you are a billion steps away from where you started.  The problem is that both arithmetic and geometric progression, when on a graph, look similar when they start but then geometric growth takes a very sharp upward turn, and change occurs with great rapidity.

One illustration of our vulnerability is the lower division coursework.  There are models being developed, particularly by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, to offer substantially less expensive and more accessible general education coursework.  What’s wrong with that?  Carol Twigg (and others) estimate that 33% of the undergraduate enrollment is found in as few as 25 courses.  What if those courses could be offered very inexpensively?  Could we see a hollowing out of the undergraduate credit hour production?  What might be the consequences of that?

Jane Wellman, whose work on the delta Project has been widely acclaimed, comments that higher education is plagued by cross-subsidies.  Graduate education is subsidized by undergraduate education; upper division programming is subsidized by lower division programming.  If you reduce the student credit hour generation in the lower division sequence, does that potentially lead to a collapse of the whole system?

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About George L Mehaffy

Vice President, Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
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