Alan Kantrow: The Elephant(s) in the Room

Boston — Governments around the world are finally getting serious about the need to educate their people to be effective adults, citizens, and participants in today’s increasingly global, knowledge-driven economy. This is not altruistic. Daily headlines remind them that high levels of young adult unemployment, especially when so many critical jobs remain unfilled, is a threat not just to economic well-being but to social stability and even national security as well.

Recognizing this, many have opened wide the spigot of investment  — and enrollment — in the kinds of institutions that populate the US tertiary landscape. They do so in the obvious hope that such once-in-a-generation – perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime– efforts will allow them to stay ahead of the remorseless march of population growth, economic need, and social aspiration. But they miss the chilling irony: the largely US-influenced paradigm of tertiary education in which they are making such huge, if belated, investments is showing disturbing signs of coming apart at the seams.

These strains and fissures have not gone unnoticed. Indeed, even in – perhaps especially in – the US, the litany of dysfunction is by now familiar: college education is highly wasteful; costs too much; burdens students with too much debt; is available to too few; takes too long; is increasingly delivered by adjuncts and part-timers while the core professoriate concentrates ever more fiercely on research, not teaching; and does not adequately develop the critical thinking, analytic reasoning, interpersonal, and communication skills that graduates need to do real work in the real world. Nor, for that matter, does it often do a very good job of building those enlarged sympathies and sense of civic purpose that the most articulate defenders of liberal education properly view as a bulwark against narrow-minded careerism. Not surprisingly, these inadequacies, in turn, are rapidly attracting into the market new (often, for-profit) providers, whose disruptive business models, lower cost structures, and more efficient channels of delivery further complicate life for all but the most elite institutions.

These are all legitimate, important concerns. Understandably, they dominate media coverage of educational issues. They have led to a rich flow of new studies and reports. They have shaped and inspired many exciting new experiments. This is all to the good. Indeed, some of this research and experimentation is truly excellent. But at the center of this flurry of effort and attention, silent and ignored, brooding and immobile, undiscussed and still largely undiscussable, sits perhaps the largest and thorniest obstacle to progress.


Virtually all these diagnostic, as well as reform, efforts are focused on ways to deliver college education better, faster, cheaper, and more fairly. The question they all address is how to improve the way we do “it.” But what if the problem lies, instead, with the very paradigm of college education – the “it” — itself? Leave aside for a moment the question of whether college does “it” well, fairly, affordably, sustainably. Ask instead, at the risk of heresy and great rumbling among the priesthood, whether, for most young adults in most countries, the “it” that college is configured to provide is still what they most need or what their societies most need of them?  That’s the elephant in the room no one much cares to speak about.


The need for such conversation is urgent.  If these institutions unravel, so will the delicate social fabric they support.  Conventional wisdom here – the Charles River consensus, if you will – rests on an implicit social contract. For those who commit to tertiary education, there is comfortable access to decent jobs and decent incomes. The return on effort, energy, and expenditure is a pretty safe bet. For some — the small segment at the top of the educational pyramid — this remains true; in fact, their returns today are better than ever.  But for most, this traditional guarantee is now largely worthless.

As the enrollment lists at colleges and universities swell around the globe, so do the ranks of graduates both who lack the enlarged sympathies such education was meant to provide and who are un- or seriously under-employed. This represents, of course, a hardship for all, as well as a loss to their societies. Worse, given the instant comparisons now made possible by global media, it also quickly breeds resentment.  Worse still, for the growing numbers of those, in many parts of the world, who are the first in their families to achieve tertiary education, the gap between promise and reality is especially bitter – and especially caustic to social ties and allegiances and values.

Before recent budget cutbacks, for example, a survey of some 7000 students in two (non-Moscow) Russian regions found that just over 50% of those in their first year thought their education would likely have some meaningful connection to what they did later in life. For students in their final year, that percentage had fallen by more than half. Here as elsewhere, the promise at the heart of the Charles River consensus no longer holds with any certainty. Actual exposure to the reality underlying the promise kills it.

We can no longer afford to ignore so great a disconnect between the core logic of what most tertiary institutions are actually configured to do and what their students and their societies now need them to do. Or take comfort, even if cold, in the notion that the disconnect is the result primarily of poor execution: broken linkages with downstream employers, ham-handed government, feckless administrators, changing cost structures, or shifts in technology. Or assume that it can be substantially closed just by finding clever ways to do the same thing better. The unwelcome but unavoidable fact is that, for most students in most places, some core elements of the tertiary model itself no longer work.

Such an admission is not sacrilege: the model is not sacred. It did not come down from Sinai on stone tablets. It was largely a creation of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries in America and fit the needs of that place and time and, with gradual modifications, those of several succeeding generations rather well. It fits much less well today.

By way of quick, top-level illustration of what no longer fits the current needs of the vast majority of students and societies, just consider:

  • THE “ACADEMIC” MODEL OF CURRICULUM.   The bulk of the disciplinary courses students are required to take to get their degrees make sense if those students have both the intention and the capability to do graduate work in those same disciplines or in professional fields for which those disciplines are good preparation. Most have neither. They are, as a result, prisoners of a model designed to serve – and serve well – the needs and interests of a tiny segment of which they are not (and have no real wish to be) members. In the past, this kind of assumed slop-over effect was, perhaps, not so big a problem; close enough was good enough. Students picking up the droppings of academic programs configured for others could find in them an adequate and affordable, if somewhat wasteful, diet. This is true no longer. Everywhere one looks, the universe of student need, ability, and aspiration is highly segmented, but the traditional model treats it, de facto, as if it were monolithic.
  • THE MONOPOLY OF ASSESSMENT RIGHTS. Surely it is right and proper that faculty be held responsible for making binding, evaluative judgments about the academic performance of their students – that is, about their mastery of discipline-based subject matter. It does not follow, however, that these are the only assessments worth making or that academic faculty should automatically “own” all supplemental types of assessment. To better prepare students for downstream real-world employment, why should schools not track and evaluate with equal care, for example, their interpersonal styles and collaborative effectiveness? And why should anyone assume that traditional academic faculty are the best judges of either?
  • THE ARC OF INSTRUCTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Tertiary institutions understandably believe that their plates are already more than full trying to deliver sound academic instruction in the face of rapidly growing and changing knowledge, limited time, and escalating costs. That said, the strategic decision not aggressively to help students “bridge” from school to work is just that – a decision, not a holy commandment. There is no moral or legal requirement that forces schools to draw a line in any particular place and say our responsibility stops here; after that, you are on your own. The argument against doing so is primarily tactical (this is too hard, too much messy extra work), organizational (we are not configured to do this), and economic (it will cost a lot). These, of course, are perfectly sane arguments. Accepting them blindly, however, means accepting without question their implied corollary: namely, that carefully extending the arc of responsibility will not – indeed, cannot – sufficiently change the value proposition offered to students and employers in ways that support new, mutually attractive economic arrangements. There are, for example, many contexts in which people have been known to pay handsomely for money-back guarantees.
  • THE “CURRENCY” OF CURRICULUM.  With the notable exception of the small segment of tertiary students intending to do graduate work in their undergraduate fields, there is little need for many parts of the college curriculum to be absolutely aligned with the newest research. The value and quality of a basic exposure to, say, the plays of Shakespeare will not suffer much if not informed by the scholarship of the past several decades. In a tertiary system shaped by the influence and prestige of research universities, however, the incentives operating on faculty in even a liberal arts teaching-focused college put an implicit premium on such currency. In fact, there is often a pervasive inverse correlation between the need for such currency and its existence. The less it is essential for real student benefit, the more likely one is to find it in place. The Shakespeare course will quite likely be up-to-date; the practical instruction in arc welding, if available, will not.
  • HUMAN ASSET METRICS AND THE USES OF BIG DATA. The degree to which many schools, especially non-US institutions in developing economies, closely track their alumni has long been quite limited. To the extent this is changing, the primary driver has been a recognition that alumni, properly managed, can be an important source of revenue to schools and friendly career advice, even support, to students. It seems to have largely escaped notice, however, that aggregate data on the work experiences of alumni in different jobs, sectors, and geographies, if suitably identified and taxonomized, can offer an immensely valuable experimental window into the relationship between types and levels of tertiary preparation and later performance in the workplace – and that an understanding of these relationships, if appropriately harnessed and leveraged, could have significant implications for improving the design and delivery of tertiary curriculum and related learning experiences.

To the extent that schools work to capture and analyze such data now about their students, past and present, the leading edge of the effort has been to tap the oceans of information generated by on-line learning initiatives and by the creation of shared data architectures for storing student records. This information, appropriately crunched, then gets put to use developing algorithms that offer individual students customized advice about the courses they need to take to meet requirements in which they have the best statistical chances of doing well. Given legitimate worries about wasted credits and graduation rates, this makes perfect sense. What it ignores, however, is the even more expansive opportunity to create “next generation” human asset metrics not for predicting course completion or performance but for tracking in granular detail the time, effort, success rate, and preferred pathways needed to transform the current knowledge/capability profile of specific student segments into the profile required by downstream employers. At its best, education is transformational; the tertiary paradigm in place is designed neither to track nor to make visible – and, therefore, addressable — the underlying mechanics of these critical transformations.

At a minimum, then, acknowledging the elephant in the room means revisiting long-held assumptions about what gets counted, who gets educated, when they do and why they do, and how and by whom all dimensions of performance get evaluated. It also means revisiting assumptions about how much of this quickly changing, far more granular terrain any one institution can reasonably aspire to occupy. The necessary starting point is letting go the belief that the traditional tertiary paradigm can still fit or serve all. Such a loss of certainty inevitably brings discomfort. But is also brings – none too soon —  the welcome freedom to explore a much more varied and flexible landscape of tertiary value proposition and delivery model.

Alan M. Kantrow