By Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt
In January of 2015, Arthur and Scott met for the first time at a small restaurant in New York’s West Village. Arthur was seeking a research assistant to help with a new book on the future of higher education, and Scott, a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, of which Arthur was president emeritus, was on the job market. The conversation that started in that restaurant on Hudson Street would, over the next six years, evolve into an expansive exploration of the intersections between higher education and a multitude of other subject areas: technology, demographics, politics, and economics among them. The path that this journey took the authors on eventually led to an unexpected conclusion that would form the thesis of The Great Upheaval: that higher education is at an inflection point, the size and scope of which is unequaled since the time of the Industrial Revolution.
The United States, like many other nations, is in the midst of an extraordinary transformation. The industrial era models that have underpinned our societies since the 19th century have started to shift with unprecedented speed, giving way to a global, digital, knowledge economy. No sector has proven immune. It is within this context that we consider higher education, broadly defined as referring to any and all postsecondary learning.
Historically, higher education institutions have been engines of growth: economic growth, personal growth, and information growth—the production, preservation, and dissemination of new knowledge. Today, though, those same institutions are at risk of stagnation—of unforced obsolescence. Like so many other social institutions, colleges and universities were built for an industrial era that is quickly fading. The models of the industrial age—exemplified by fixed processes and a focus on inputs—are insufficient for the challenges of today and tomorrow. Instead, what is needed is a focus on outcomes, and a new vision of equity that provides equal access to those outcomes.
This is not a work of advocacy, but one of analysis—with an eye toward nuance. We explore the potential (as well as the risks) of technological innovation, which will serve as an enabling force in higher education. We examine the changing demographics of the United States, as well as shifting economic contexts. And most importantly, we look sideways, at other sectors that have already felt the impact of these changes. By examining these cross-industry trends, we surface the tensions and challenges that higher education is likely to face in the years to come and outline a model for how changes might play out in the sector.
Of course, it is impossible to write a book about higher education without touching on its many perennial challenges: the student debt crisis, the “two steps forward, one step back” struggle toward equity, and the dilemma of public funding. However, the writing of this book was driven not by dissatisfaction with the state of higher education, but rather by a deep faith in the power of education to change lives, empower learners, and foster new kinds of equity. That is precisely why we wrote this book, at this time—simply put, the stakes are too high. At only one other point in American history has a generation had the chance to reshape our most critical social institutions for a new age. Today, we have that chance once more, and the opportunity is too precious to squander.
Arthur Levine is a distinguished scholar of higher education at New York University's Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy; a senior fellow and president emeritus of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation; and president emeritus of Columbia University's Teachers College. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Students. Scott Van Pelt is the associate director of the Wharton Graduate Communication Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a lecturer. Together, Levine and Van Pelt are the authors of The Great Upheaval: Higher Education's Past, Present, and Uncertain Future.