Clay Shirkey: The plight of American colleges – disruptive change and the loss of the Golden AGe

University of Oregon 

There isn’t enough money to keep educating adults the way we’re doing it
[Via Clay Shirky]

Interest in using the internet to slash the price of higher education is being driven in part by hope for new methods of teaching, but also by frustration with the existing system. The biggest threat those of us working in colleges and universities face isn’t video lectures or online tests. It’s the fact that we live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.

In the first half of the 20th century, higher education was a luxury and a rarity in the US. Only 5% or so of adults, overwhelmingly drawn from well-off families, had attended college. That changed with the end of WWII. Waves of discharged soldiers subsidized by the GI Bill, joined by the children of the expanding middle class, wanted or needed a college degree. From 1945 to 1975, the number of undergraduates increased five-fold, and graduate students nine-fold. PhDs graduating one year got jobs teaching the ever-larger cohort of freshman arriving the next.

This growth was enthusiastically subsidized. Between 1960 and 1975, states more than doubled their rate of appropriations for higher education, from four dollars per thousand in state revenue to ten. Post-secondary education extended its previous mission—liberal arts education for elites—to include both more basic research from faculty and more job-specific training for students. Federal research grants quadrupled; at the same time, a Bachelors degree became an entry-level certificate for an increasing number of jobs.

This expansion created tensions among the goals of open-ended exploration, training for the workplace, and research, but these tensions were masked by new income. Decades of rising revenue meant we could simultaneously become the research arm of the Federal government, the training ground for a rapidly professionalizing workforce, and the preservers of the liberal arts tradition. Even better, we could do all of this while increasing faculty ranks and reducing the time senior professors spent in the classroom. This was the Golden Age of American academia.


I think Clay hits the historical perspective right on the nose. Higher education as we used to know it is long gone and the edifices standing now are living on borrowed time if they think they can ever restore it.

They need to be focussing on how to replace them using the disruptive technologies available. because the need is still there, just a different mode of operation will be required.

But the problem of the Innovator’s Dilemma –  even when an organization knows it must change, it often fails to do so productively because it is imbedded in the infrastructure of the previous incarnation – hits colleges just as much as it does corporations.

Colleges are based on a 150 year old German model. It appears the usefulness of that model is at an end.

Any dscussion on what that model will be?

One thought on “Clay Shirkey: The plight of American colleges – disruptive change and the loss of the Golden AGe

  1. Rarer than a day in June is a college Professor with common sense! Particularly one from NY! I think I am in love.

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