Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation
reviewed by Christopher S. Collins - June 28, 2011
Title: Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation
Author(s): Ben Wildavsky, Andrew Kelly, and Kevin Carey (eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742872, Pages: 300, Year: 2011
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The premise, purpose, and motivation for this volume are outlined by the editors at the beginning of the book:
Why, in spite of a steady increase in the enrollment of nontraditional students, a steep decline in tenure faculty positions, and revolutionary developments in technology that have touched nearly every other part of society, do most universities still operate much as they did fifty years ago? (p. vii)
To respond to this question, the editors commissioned eight pieces of new research from policy analysts and researchers (p. vii). In addition to the usual preview of chapters in the introduction, the editors provide clues as to the intentional and unintentional themes throughout the volume. The intentional themes reference scarce resources, the need for increased transparency, quality control, and the increasing cost of higher education. The authors utilize these themes to demonstrate the case that higher education needs to be more innovative. Whether intentional or not, the volume promotes for-profit education as an important model for innovation.
This volume will be best utilized if it is employed by the right audience. Although the editors claim that the book offers new research in response to a big question, it is better described as an extensive literature review accompanied by expert commentary. Only a few chapter authors actually gathered data and offered an analysis. The chapters offer little in terms of methodology and almost no theory. As a result, the best audience for the volume might be a Presidents cabinet or a think tank looking for a common platform to begin a new project. It is not, however, a collection of cutting edge or new research that will aid the scholarly pursuit of understanding higher education.
The first chapter sets the tone and pace of the volume, introducing the themes that recur throughout the other chapters. Dominic J. Brewer and William G. Tierney focus on the barriers to innovation, including accreditation which they claim "diminishes the potential impact of for-profit institutions" by erecting obstacles to entry (p. 14). This assertion is loosely substantiated with an endnote referring to a social work article from 1999 and an engineering article from 2005. Unfortunately, the authors do not clarify if these references refer to regional accreditation or discipline specific accreditation. However, the authors cite accreditation as a barrier specifically for for-profit institutions. This theme continually recurs throughout the volumea higher value is placed on proprietary higher education in connection to innovation. The editors and over half of the chapter authors reflect the sentiment that for-profit institutions are more willing and able to innovate because they have to be responsive to student needs and the market. Further, for-profit institutions are not tied to an endowment or the need to uphold a certain standard of prestige, like their non-profit counterparts. This unfocused argument is used to support the notion that regulation prevents innovation. However, the authors do not clarify the fact that regional accreditation serves as a carrot and stick incentive for federal financial aid. Institutions have the choice to forgo the regulatory environment by creating an entirely separate system to finance their institutions. For example, Grove City College in Pennsylvania has instituted a system to fund the school and to provide aid to students without any federal aid...or regulation, for that matter. The fact that this unique institutional option is not dealt with, highlighted, or considered innovative, is a weakness in the overall argument.
Conceptually, private and/or proprietary ventures are often valued by people who believe that the market is the arbiter of value and that successful institutions are the ones that should persist. However, proprietary institutions consume 20 percent of federal aid and enroll 8.5 percent of students in higher education. This begs the question whether not for-profit institutions are truly driven by the market. Only 90 percent of a single institutions budget can be funded by federal aid, yet some for-profit institutions exceed this limit. For all of the defense of for-profit education, neither the editors nor their chapter authors deal with the underlying, theoretical premise that if the proprietary sector has the greatest ability to innovate, even if the sector avoids the regional accreditation system and federal aid, then the market will decide if their innovations are of value. Perhaps this problem is not addressed because a significant part of the for-profit sector is siphoning profit from federal funds and leaving students without the skills they need to succeed. A theoretical framework about dependency theory and how institutions change when they are forced to would serve to provide some background for understanding the principles on which the authors operate.
Richard G. Ehrenbergs Chapter 4, Rethinking the Professoriate, offers some of the most well researched information in the book, highlighting historical patterns of part-time and full-time faculty. Again, the author leads to conclusions that defend for-profit institutions. By highlighting the decrease in tenure-track positions and the rise of the University of Phoenix (a large employer of part-time faculty), the author seems to suggest that increasing part-time faculty is a positive model for higher education. Given the size of Phoenix and other for-profits, it would be interesting to see how much the growth in part-time faculty accounts for the drop in tenure-track positions, as a percentage of the national professoriate. How would this change the analysis? Paul Ostermans Chapter 5 offers a very good focus on community colleges. The careful attention to language and the use of research lead to good recommendations. There is a non sequitur piece on for-profit institutions, with an odd focus on alternative options to the community college. The focus on alternative pathways creates some confusion as to how they would strengthen community colleges, but overall the chapter was very sound and a great contribution to the volume.
Peter Stokess chapter about online learning was a highlight of the volume. A section entitled, "What is Innovation?" provides a review of the theory of disruptive innovation. This was likely the best section in the entire book. Technology is shaping languages around the globe and the rapid development of technology is increasing the pace of change. The content of language is changing, and language shapes thinking. Students feel more comfortable texting their friends than calling or speaking to them in person. Social media plays a vital role in garnering support and participation in protests and revolutions. This chapter has a good disposition highlighting the challenges and benefits to classroom and online teaching and learning. The theoretical framework enhances the discussion and offers a refreshing component to a volume that does not typically draw from a theoretical perspective. It is also refreshing that Stokes does not utilize accreditation, regulation, or funding as an argument as to why things are not changing the way they should. Stokes does not advocate on behalf of for-profit education or imply that it is the most innovative aspect of higher education. Instead, the chapter ends by noting that both classroom and online learning modes have much to offereach with limitations and challenges and a great deal left to understand about innovations in learning. Kevin Careys Chapter 8, a case study on the ground-breaking approach taken by the University of Minnesota-Rochester, is another highlight of the volume. The University of Minnesota-Rochesters approach is certainly innovative, representing an important model for future study.
Overall, innovation in higher education is the largest focus of the book, with the for-profit sector being highlighted as a leader of innovation. Some chapters reference that poor-quality service providers cannot earn revenue and survive. Essentially, if for-profit institutions fail students, the market will not sustain their existence. Guilbert C. Hentschke in Chapter 6 uses the exodus of many for-profits in the 1990s as an example to assert that the failure of for-profits has already happened in higher education. However, federal and state subsidies can sustain institutions that are low-quality providers. Proprietary institutions receive sizable subsidies and can sell a credential even if it is not accompanied by learning. This possibility of disconnect might mask the usual impact of being a low quality service provider.
Although the volume offers some good systems analysis, there is some redundant information with no real critical perspectives. Avoiding dealing with some of the critical perspectives on for-profit education effectively weakens the overall argument about innovation.