How U.S. Colleges Can Make the Grade

13 minute read

Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.

Higher education in America could be headed for rock bottom. Tuition has continued to rise at a steady pace, and years of deep cuts in state funding have forced colleges and universities to absorb many of the costs. As for the well-documented burden of student loan debt in the U.S.—well, even Taylor Swift can’t possibly pay off the entirety of what so many young graduates owe.

Going beyond crisis-intervention mode, however, educators and administrators are also tasked with a more complex set of challenges—bigger questions about how to direct young minds in the face of rapidly advancing technology, an increasingly global economy, and a shift in marketable skills in the wake of a major recession.

In advance of the Zócalo event, “How Do We Fix American Universities?”, we asked scholars: What does the ideal 21st century American university look like?


Mark Bauerlein — The antidote to youth culture—a moral obligation to be intelligent

I don’t know what the ideal school looks like, but I can tell you about the ideal experience for a student in his first two years of college.

The student takes a broad range of courses and becomes immersed in great books and artworks, important historical events, profound religious convictions, and basic scientific knowledge. No pop culture, no topical current events, and no political correctness or identity politics.

The student studies 25 hours per week, limits email and text messages, and frequently leaves the iPhone and tablet at home. He spends two hours each week talking to professors in office hours. During those four years, the student finds his taste in entertainment changes, his desire to communicate with peers lessens, and his sense of time and space expands.

He will learn the necessity of arduous and solitary mental labor. He will learn to be alone. His speech will improve—no more “like” and “awesome” and “stuff” in his sentences—and his knowledge of history, politics, philosophy, art, religion, and science deepen.

After those two years of intellectual challenge and growth, the student selects a major and begins to adopt career expectations. These formative semesters will serve as the antidote to youth culture—“the moral obligation to be intelligent,” as eminent 20th century writer and critic Lionel Trilling put it.

These academic rigors create a counter-culture: anti-adolescent, anti-consumerist, anti-utilitarian. College should reject the currently popular urge to be up-to-date and socially conscious. Relevance should be expelled. We want the first two years of college to be a reprieve from the rush of social media and the pressures of the 21st century. Let’s give American youths some time to reflect and ponder and listen and see, within a space shielded from all the concrete demands that will hit them as soon as they graduate.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.


Veronica I. Arreola — Future leaders need liberal arts more than ever

Our higher education system is having a moment. We need it more than ever, yet it is becoming more and more out-of-reach for middle and working-class families. The ideal 21st century American university is one that not only welcomes students of all classes, but also provides financial support.

In order to reach that goal, we must get out from under the weight of student loan debt. This pushes students and their families to question the need for a well-rounded liberal arts education and value only courses that will lead to “real jobs.” Too many people believe there is no need to know how to read and analyze a book or to ponder philosophy or understand how gender and race impact our interactions.

As our economy becomes more globalized, our future leaders need a liberal arts education more than ever. They will need to understand the people they are working with and for. An engineer in Miami will need to know how to relate to her coworkers in India. An accountant in Chicago will need to know what motivates his boss in Hong Kong.

As our economy continues to move towards a knowledge economy, we will need great thinkers, not just great doers. We need economists who consider the human impact of their decisions, not just the numbers on the page. We need computer scientists who keep in mind the privacy issues of their algorithms, and not just what they can build.

And this can only happen if we return to supporting our state and land-grant institutions with our tax dollars. We also must increase support for low-income and first-generation college students. The affordability of our universities is connected to our ability to develop the kind of thinkers who will propel the U.S. to great heights while keeping us grounded in our humanity.

Veronica I. Arreola is the assistant director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Research on Women and Gender and directs its Women in Science and Engineering program.


Richard DeMillo — Ingenuity and diversity will decide who survives

The rapid growth and diffusion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), learning analytics and adaptive learning platforms has convinced many that higher education is undergoing revolutionary change.

Some have speculated that the old, familiar institutions will be swept away as bigger and better institutions claim a greater stake. Some have even suggested that the very idea of college is doomed. But this is unlikely.

What is likely is that colleges will fail, evolve, or prosper according to the inexorable laws of Web commerce. After all, higher education in the U.S. is comprised of a decentralized system of largely autonomous entities, and the Internet has become a necessary organizing tool for how they run as businesses.

In the same way that Google, Amazon, and Facebook dominate the online consumer market, higher education will increasingly become dominated by a relatively few institutions—ones with the scale and brand to serve large numbers of students.

But as student populations shift, some colleges will also adapt to become smaller and more specialized, serving the so-called “long tail” of a marketplace that demands diversity: not only of content, but pricing, credentialing, and scheduling.

A possible model for this is the Online Masters of Computer Science at Georgia Tech. It’s a MOOC-based degree program of 2,300 students who pay less than $7,000, which coexists with a traditional Master of Science program of 200 residential students, some of whom pay more than $40,000 for the same degree.

Every student satisfies the same entrance requirements and the degrees themselves are indistinguishable. The University of Illinois has just announced a similar MOOC-based MBA program for one-third the price of their traditional degree.

No industry has ever withstood the kind of change we’re seeing now due to an onrush of new technology. The only lesson we can draw from history is that ingenuity and diversity determine who survives and prospers. One thing is clear to me: the future of college is not a cookie-cutter world of ideal institutions.

Richard DeMillo is the Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren professor of computing and a professor of management at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities and author of Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable.


David Hoffman — Take action, and leave the ivory tower stereotype behind

This is certainly a difficult moment of reckoning for American higher education, but also one of great energy and potential—many universities, including the one I work for, have become hubs for discourse and action around today’s most pressing problems.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, students, faculty and staff gathered on campus to discuss the ongoing protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Engaged scholars contributed insights about the origins of Baltimore’s complex social and economic inequalities. Students shared stories of frustration, as well as their deep commitment to working for a better future.

During the event, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, observed that a university’s value lies in its ability to help caring people think critically together about the challenges we face.

Two aspects of that powerful campus-wide conversation were vital. First, its focus was on deploying knowledge to support action that could produce tangible improvements in people’s lives. This is a notable departure from the caricature of higher education as an isolated and inward-looking ivory tower. Aside from its positive community impacts, a focus on deep engagement and learning-by-doing corresponds with improved academic outcomes for students.

Second, and most importantly, the tone and dynamics of the conversation reflected an appreciation for the value of all participants’ stories and their capacity to make meaningful contributions to our collective well-being. That spirit of mutual respect and creativity belies the dichotomies common to conventional thinking about higher education: distinctions between teacher and learner, scholar and citizen, research and action, university and community.

Similar ideas and practices are emerging through higher education networks like Imagining America and the American Democracy Project, and in publications like Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship & the Future of Colleges and Universities. They embody a vision for 21st-century university education that is both enriching for students and deeply relevant to everyday life.

David Hoffman is assistant director of student life for civic agency at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an architect of UMBC’s BreakingGround civic initiative.


Claire E. Sterk — Ignite passion for research—and allow for failure

Here is a recipe for the ideal university, in nine easy-to-follow steps:

1. Start with an emphasis on diversity that not only reflects the world’s changing demographics, but also brings wide-ranging perspectives to solve its most challenging problems.

2. Add a heaping helping of innovation in teaching to take students beyond typical classroom approaches and immerse them in learning from teachers and each other, in order to shape them into critical thinkers.

3. Bring thoughtful use of technology to instruction by engaging “digital native” students with the newest tools, from creative formats for testing to online instruction for select basic-level coursework.

4. Sprinkle the academy with a liberal education that leads to lifelong learners who have broad analytical and communications toolkits at the ready, not only for their first career but also for their entire lives.

5. Stir in one cup of the nature of evidence to ignite a passion for research from within and across disciplines.

6. Whip up data from benchmark institutions and internal assessments to calibrate the process and demonstrate value through quantifiable measurements.

7. Mix well and let the batter settle—but not for long. Nimbleness and adaptability are crucial ingredients to this recipe. Test the temperature often, evaluate the product, adjust the ingredients, and repeat the process.

8. Allow for failure from which comes true advancement.

9. The final and most important ingredient is empowering the university community of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors to work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world.

Claire E. Sterk is provost, executive vice president for academic affairs, and Charles Howard Candler professor of public health at Emory University in Atlanta.


Steven W. Anderson — What I wish for my daughters’ future

I remember the first computer I ever owned. It was 1998, and I was a freshman at Western Carolina University (where I would go on to earn a degree in education in 2003). This was the first time ever that I had enjoyed access to a high-speed Internet connection.

Fast-forward almost two decades, to the year 2015, and look how far we’ve come. We can plug in from anywhere in the world, gaining access to just about anything we’d want to know. This rapid shift in capability has forced a change in the way we go about higher education.

Forcing young people to sit in large lecture halls crammed with 300 peers while someone bores them to death with PowerPoint slides does a disservice to today’s students. It robs them of existing opportunities to go further with learning.

For my young daughters, ages six and one, I hope that in the years to come we see major leaps in the way that institutions of higher learning structure their lesson plans around technology.

An ideal, modern, American university needs to embrace the “anywhere, anytime” learning model and get students more involved. Professors and teachers need to focus less on the “stand and deliver” methods of teaching and allow students to solve problems that provide meaning to their learning and allow them to work in situations of learning where they can collaborate with others around the globe. Traditional, front-of-classroom, hands-off learning is not what modern employers need or want. That may have worked in the Industrial Age, but it certainly won’t in the Digital Age and beyond.

Steven W. Anderson is a learning and relationship evangelist who works with educators across the globe to help them discover the power that technology has in learning. On Twitter, as @web20classroom, he promotes the use of social media for learning, reflecting and growing.


Jonathan Kroll — Outside environments don’t matter—it’s what happens in students’ minds

Universities take on many forms. There are the traditional brick-and-mortar campuses, the online spaces that may have thousands of students in a course—or the hybrid, which might utilize hotel conference rooms, as well as homegrown electronic hubs.

More important than the appearance of the physical environment, though, is the reality of the learning that is taking place within it.

The learning relationships cultivated in college can often become rooted less in learning than in putting on programs (for instance, in the residence halls), winning competitions (for instance, athletics), or reactively navigating cultures of hazing (for instance, fraternities and sororities).

Rather than engaging students with reflective queries for hands-on learning, we mindlessly dictate to them what they should be learning or doing. Not only does this method weaken students’ potential to absorb knowledge, it also limits their development as people.

21st-century universities will become ideal learning centers—places where students acquire the knowledge and skills for technical competencies, enhance their leadership capacity, and advance along the developmental spectrum—when a holistic focus is enacted, not just espoused.

So how do we create this kind of environment? As educators, we need to consciously relinquish control and provide opportunities for students to wrestle with important questions. An initial set of questions should assist students in thinking through how they might apply their technical knowledge and skills. And another layer of engagement should challenge students with questions of significance and depth: What lights your fire or quenches your thirst? Where is home? When do you feel most alive? What will you accomplish next?

Questions can provoke deep thinking—a critical tool in the developmental process. Let our next interactions with students include reflective questions and the space to ponder responses.

Jonathan Kroll earned a doctorate in human and organizational systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. He is co-founder of The Institute for Leadership and Training, which focuses on preparing college athletes for optimal performance in competition, leadership, and life.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.


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