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Merisotis: Nostalgia Is No Way to Make Education Policy

With the swirling national dialogue about college affordability and student debt, there has been no shortage of ideas and pronouncements made by political leaders, pundits and experts. Many of those statements are illustrated with examples from the personal experience of the speaker.

But what role should personal experience play when it comes to making policy decisions about the important changes ahead for U.S. higher education?

The short answer is, not much.

Because while the buildings may look the same — and even some of the people who teach and lead the institutions may be constants — for the most part what higher education does, and who it serves, is dramatically different than it was only a few decades ago.

Many of our political leaders have recognized that new approaches are needed. Some are helping to strengthen community college systems across the country. Others are advocating for performance-based funding to help students complete their degrees faster and more affordably. But more needs to be done, and here’s why.

Thirty years ago, America’s economic capacity was driven by manufacturing, and its global prowess in finance and the service sector was near its zenith. Our position in the world was largely defined by conflict with the Soviet Union. And our social and cultural lives were framed in large part by television and the limited programming available through three TV networks.

In the post-World War II/GI bill era, higher education in the nation was democratized. It changed from a system that served the privileged few to one that served increasingly larger groups of people. Still, in the early 1980s, no one could have predicted how critical higher education would become, with nearly two-thirds of all jobs requiring some form of postsecondary education and with demand for higher levels of skills driving debates about everything from immigration to economic policy.

Technology changed a lot of things. In 1982, the Commodore 64 computer had just been introduced, and Time magazine declared the computer as its Person of the Year. Yet few could have envisioned how dramatically and fundamentally technology would change how we live and work.

The effect of technology on the demand for higher education and how it functions has been profound — with one important exception.

Technology has spawned online learning and money management systems as well as virtual content/project management, not to mention Wikipedia, the use of cellphones and smartphones, and remote access for those who previously have been shut out of higher education. Social networking has changed higher education as well, especially the student experience, with much more peer interaction taking place virtually.

Yet, with all of this innovation and growth, what hasn’t changed significantly is that pedagogy has remained the same. It’s the one area where “when I was in college” is probably still a safe bet. Of course, that raises all kinds of other issues given that collaborative coursework, remote learning and real-time feedback are seen by many of the insiders as icing when, in a knowledge economy, they need to be the cake.

Who higher education serves has also changed dramatically. Today, fewer than 1 in 5 college freshmen graduated from high school in the prior year and immediately enrolled in a residential four-year institution. Today’s student runs the gamut racially, ethnically, socially and economically.

Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system of higher education will work for these students, and it won’t serve us as a nation. Yet many of our policymakers hark back to a more narrowly framed higher education system that no longer exists. Using the “when I was in college” predicate to offer solutions about what ails higher education is like saying, “when I was watching ‘Dallas’ on television.” It’s irrelevant because it bears little resemblance to the current reality.

If our political leaders are going to make the kinds of important decisions required to redesign our higher education system for the 21st-century economy and democracy, they need to stop looking at their personal history and start looking to the future.

They must stop focusing on how things were when they attended college and start focusing on what needs to change. How can we increase postsecondary educational attainment to match or exceed the dramatic gains in virtually every other nation except the U.S.? What should community colleges do to drive our need for better-educated, middle-skill workers? What should students know and be able to do with an associate’s, or bachelor’s or master’s degree to be successful in our modern economy and democracy? How do we deliver more high-quality learning to a much larger group of Americans, without forcing ever-higher tuitions?

These are the kinds of questions that must be explored for the future of our nation. Looking ahead to the learner-centered, skills-driven world that will need to be delivered through higher education is much more important and urgent than looking back on a system that no longer exists.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education.