(Eva Vazquez for The Washington Post/ )

Janet Napolitano is the president of the University of California. She is a former secretary of Homeland Security and a former governor of Arizona.

The Great Unbundling of Higher Education

By Ryan Craig

Palgrave Macmillan.
238 pp. $27

Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere

By Kevin Carey

277 pp. $27.95

Imagine, if you will, an American business that other countries, from China to Saudi Arabia, seek to emulate. A business that routinely accounts for the advances in science, medicine, technology, arts and humanities that have established the United States as the most innovative nation in the world. A business whose customers number about 20 million in this country alone, spanning the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. A business that conservatively contributes more than $400 billion annually to the U.S. economy. A business that is commonly recognized as one of America’s greatest contributions to civilization.

That enterprise is America’s system of higher education. Why, then, is it routinely characterized as in crisis? This diagnosis comes mainly from three groups: those who believe that technology inevitably, and radically, will transform how education is delivered, whether the traditionalists want it to or not; others who cite rising tuition prices and foresee an escalation of the divide between the privileged and the disadvantaged; and finally, and I consider myself in this camp, advocates for public higher education who are raising alarms about a retreat from the commonwealth ideal that gave rise to this nation’s great public universities in the first place.

For the past few years, this chorus of doom has grown steadily louder: The model is broken and outdated and must be replaced with . . . something. Costs have climbed past benefits, both for students and for society. Traditional pedagogy has become passe. What propels these grim prognostications? I’m tempted to say that eulogizing higher education sells books, fills newspaper columns and makes for fetching political sound bites. But a more optimistic view would be that the raging debate reflects an appreciation of the importance of universities and colleges in shaping American society and securing this country’s place as a world leader. The stakes, after all, are high.

So let’s be clear. Higher education in this country is not in crisis. Instead, it is in motion, and it always has been. Higher education evolves as knowledge expands, societies change and new technologies are introduced. This does not mean that we should relax: There should be no comfort taken in maintaining the status quo.

As our universities and colleges undergo an intense period of evolution driven by advances in technology and better understanding of cognitive learning, and by concerns about cost and job-market demands, we should be asking ourselves questions, but they should be the right questions: Is higher education evolving in the right way? Will it continue to be able to meet the needs of students and their families, to keep pace with an expanding list of responsibilities that range from promoting civil discourse to preparing the next generation of scientists and researchers, and to ensure that the fundamentals of American higher education — fundamentals that have served this country so well — remain strong?

When people think of higher education, they generally think of residential, four-year colleges and universities. In truth, just a little more than half of college students attend such institutions. Roughly 40 percent attend two-year community colleges, and the rest are enrolled in for-profit institutions. Yet the bulk of commentary about higher education concerns four-year, residential colleges and universities, perhaps because that is where America’s contribution has been greatest — and because the commentators themselves attended such institutions.

Two recent contributions to the higher education commentary are Ryan Craig’s “College Disrupted” and Kevin Carey’s “The End of College.” Craig, a former management consultant, is a founding managing director of University Ventures, self-described as “the only investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector.” Carey is a higher education policy analyst who serves as director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Craig’s point — when one cuts through the jargon and the unnecessary stories about pranks he pulled as a Yale undergraduate — is that American universities have too many non-education-related expenses bundled into their cost models. He characterizes these as the 4 R’s: rankings, which force all universities into “pernicious isomorphism” (i.e. unnecessary duplication); real estate, or absurdly expensive campus buildings, especially dorms and dining halls; rah, an awkward alliteration that refers to intercollegiate athletics, especially Division I football and basketball; and research, which he asserts subordinates teaching and is mostly superfluous.

Craig’s solution is to unbundle these types of expenses and convert higher education into “competency management platforms” that better match what students learn with what employers need. He has ideas about how this can be done. Pointing to Linn State Technical College in Missouri, he recommends “double click degrees,” with which employers can double-click a transcript to learn about a course and the competencies a student has mastered. His other recommendations are more mundane, such as improving “rigor” and moving more students from part time to full time. Nowhere does he confront the tremendous practical and political challenges associated with unbundling existing institutions — dismantling college sports, for example.

The more thorough, more thoughtful book is Carey’s “The End of College.” It begins with a discussion of the evolution of the modern American university, something that is particularly useful for those who presume that universities have never changed. In fact, universities have transformed alongside the societies they serve. Carey continues by explicating the rise of online technology, which, in a variety of forms, is permeating higher education today. The critical insight, however, is his combining of online technology, which after all is only a delivery device, with our increasing knowledge about the brain and how students actually learn. Not surprisingly, the more interactive the technology and the more precisely aimed at an individual student’s capabilities and understanding of the course material, the better the educational outcome. But inserting the right kind of technology into the classroom is not cheap. Not surprisingly, a lack of educational interaction contributed to the troubles experienced by the early iterations of online learning, such as “massive open online courses,” which in their initial incarnation were mistakenly believed to be a way to cut college costs dramatically.

In Carey’s view, universities that develop personalized online platforms will succeed in the global higher education market. In addition to traditional degrees, they will offer “open badges,” essentially searchable, open-source credentials that will allow employers to look up the assignments and exams a student was required to master. They will invest in immersive digital learning environments, rather than building $100 million student unions. They will become the “university of everywhere.”

This is thought-provoking, fascinating material. But one finishes Carey’s book with a sense of unease. Our universities are among the most complex, difficult-to-manage institutions around. While they most certainly will evolve over the long term, there are near-term challenges that must be addressed. This is especially true for public universities, which educate almost two-thirds of all undergraduates at residential, four-year institutions. These schools have undergone a decades-long period of public disinvestment — during the years of the Great Recession, 44 out of 50 states cut funding on a per-student basis to their public institutions of higher education — resulting in increases in tuition and a diminishment of the student experience.

No doubt the severity of cuts varies from state to state. For the University of California, nearly $1 billion in funding was cut after the economy went into free fall in 2008 — a 30 percent reduction to the university’s core budget. The state has restored only about half of the recession cuts, even as the university system has continued to meet demand and increase enrollment. Indeed, at the University of California, the costs of education on a per-student basis have not risen; tuition increases have occurred only to fill the gap left by state cuts. Neither Craig nor Carey offers any realistic — or magical — solutions to the problem of public funding.

Likewise, neither book really addresses new roles that our universities have undertaken. They are now being asked, for example, to prevent and prosecute sexual assault — and rightly so. The demand for mental health services continues to mount. As large employers, universities must pay ever-growing retirement benefits and satisfy union contracts. All of these (and many other new roles) result in additional legal and regulatory oversight, all with considerable cost.

At the same time, chronic underfunding of the true costs of delivering a quality education has been mirrored by underfunding of the basic research that underlies so much of the innovation in our economy. Basic research is time-consuming. It has a high rate of failure. No wonder the private sector is increasingly abandoning the field to institutions like the University of California.

These are the sorts of issues that are on my desk and on the desk of every leader of public research universities today. But beyond those immediate real-world concerns lie more fundamental questions. What do we lose in the college experience if we over-rely on online learning? How amenable are online-learning platforms and open-source badges to teaching in the arts and humanities, and to producing a well-rounded, well-educated citizenry? If we focus on preparing a student for his or her first job, are we ignoring the likelihood that students will have many jobs over the course of a lifetime? How do we best prepare students to be lifelong learners and adapters, to be critical thinkers?

Universities are not factories; students are not widgets. They come from different backgrounds, with different degrees of preparation, and with different talents and skills that they might not even know they possess when they enter. Universities are not venture-capital-based software companies, the vast majority of which fail. When it comes to public higher education, failure is not an option.

If every crisis presents an opportunity, then the opportunity is now to ensure that higher education remains a distinguishing feature in the fabric of our republic. To that end, some immediate measures can be taken to meet our near-term challenges: simplify financial aid applications and extend Pell grants from the school year to the full year; ease the extensive and expensive regulatory burdens placed on all schools and focus instead on removing low-performing ones from eligibility for federal aid; and prioritize the flow of federal research dollars.

In exchange for these types of reforms at the federal level, the states should invest in their public universities, even as those universities continue to adapt to new forms of learning. Too many states, including California, spend more money on prisons than on higher education. Community college is not enough. It is time for both the White House and our state capitols to apply a laser focus to the challenges facing our four-year universities and colleges.

Besides near-term fixes, however, these times call for the development of, and dialogue about, a much larger vision for higher education in America. We need to end conversations about colleges that linger too long on costs, computer learning, Cassandra-like predictions and canards such as PhD baristas.

Instead, we need a national dialogue that gives rise to serious, thoughtful perspectives and creates a common belief in what our great schools have meant and must continue to mean. We are not degree factories. Our business, if you will, is to transform individual lives and to transport new knowledge into the world. As university leaders, we must strive to convince the general public that higher education is a common goal worthy of public investment. This is our grand challenge. This is our great hope.