“We were not a wealthy nation when we began improving our highways … but the roads themselves helped us create a new wealth, in business and industry and land values. … So it was not our wealth that made our highways possible. Rather, it was our highways that made our wealth possible.”
~ Thomas H. MacDonald | Chief (1919-1939) and Commissioner (1939-1953), U.S. Bureau of Public Roads
This quote by Thomas MacDonald references the passing of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (commonly known today as the “interstate highway system”). In it, he speaks to the connection between infrastructure and progress, structure and innovation and infrastructure and wealth.
It’s an apt metaphor for higher education, which is poised to provide greater value to the United States save for the urgent need for more modern infrastructure to support such potential.
As MacDonald points out, it’s infrastructure that built this nation and made us great. Our nation was built on transportation and the movement of goods. Initially, rivers provided a natural means of transportation for the colonists. They gradually carved a primitive road network to transport goods, people and ideas. The evolution of transportation continued through the centuries, with wagons and stagecoaches, flatboats, steamboats and railroads providing ever more efficient, faster service.
Higher ed is at a similar inflection point. It’s a collective institution with a rich history poised to do great things, even as it struggles with many challenges (including, but not limited to):
- Rising Costs: The average tuition at a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the past three decades, while incomes for the average family grew by only 16 percent, according to College Board and Census data;
- Dwindling Resources: Declining state funding has forced students to shoulder a bigger proportion of college costs. Tuition has nearly doubled as a share of public college revenues over the past 25 years, from 25 percent to 47 percent;
- Spiraling Debt: While a college education remains a worthwhile investment overall, the average borrower now graduates with more than $26,000 in debt. Loan default rates are also rising, and too many young adults are burdened with debt as they seek to start a family, buy a home, launch a business or save for retirement.
- Poor Outcomes: Only 58 percent of full-time students who began college in 2004 earned a four-year degree within six years;
So how can institutions rise to the occasion? Well, higher ed could address its challenges like President Eisenhower did, by investing in infrastructure.
Congress talked about consistent, manageable and predictable interstate commerce for 69 years, but until the infrastructure existed to implement them, these policies were little more than hollow promises. It’s the same today for universities: will they offer flipped or hybrid learning? Can they create a more dynamic and engaging experience for the most digitally-literate generation in history? What about the use of Massive Open Online Courses? How will they create a more collaborative environment for students, faculty and staff? Might they use synchronous and asynchronous video as learning assets, and to improve accessibility to education? These ideas are being talked about on nearly every college campus in America, but they cannot evolve without the structure to support them.
The MacDonald quote points out that infrastructure (in this case, roads) brought commerce to scale in the United States. Again, it’s the same for education; the right digital infrastructure can enable a more engaging and dynamic learning environment for students and help us scale to meet the needs of more learners.
We were all struck by the partnership announced between Starbucks and Arizona State University Online (ASUO) last month. One of the most amazing things about that partnership, though, is the capacity for ASUO to scale its operations to serve such a huge influx of students.
Furthermore, with demand for H1B visas — meant for employers to bring in temporary foreign workers — from American companies still outstripping supply, it’s urgent that our institutions scale to create more graduates. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “The United States has a long way to go as only 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have earned college degrees. To lead the world, President Obama wants this proportion to be 60 percent.”
Can we build more buildings and hire more faculty? Unfortunately, today’s economic model cannot support scaling in conventional ways. So we need to think in hybrid ways, and be thoughtful about how digital tools can help us scale with quality.
After all, if it’s good enough for Starbucks, then maybe it’s good enough for the rest of the nation.
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