Deja Vu: Reflections on Higher Education

Dec 7, 2015 by

Tom Watkins –

Yesterday the White House held a, “summit on college opportunity.” There is a crisis brewing in higher Ed across the land. Some things are worth repeating: In 2012, I wrote on these pages that we need to re-imagine our system of higher education (see “Higher Education Calamity,” @

My thoughts were attacked—I felt as beat up then as the U of M football program is today. At that time, I wrote:

“I can imagine the hate mail from the President’s Council, faculty, students and alumni from Michigan universities for daring to raise the issue. Put your hands down, don’t go on auto pilot and email me nasty notes. I am on your side and value education and know it will be our state’s and, indeed, the nation’s salvation.”

Yet, the attacks and slams did come from many who value higher education and whose devotion to protecting the status quo was equal to their fear of change.

So, with bruises only recently healed and as Governor Snyder plans for his second term in Michigan office, I again ask: “Should we re-imagine higher education” (perhaps including Pre-K through life-long learning or from cradle to grave?). Isn’t reflection and questioning valued in the halls of academia? Clearly, our institutions of higher learning are the envy of the world. Yet, the world is not static. Just because we have been at the top does not guarantee that we get to stay there.

As a first generation college grad, I am personally aware of how knowledge can change one’s life. Mine was enriched on multiple levels. The knowledge I gained along the way from professors, instructors and my fellow students was earned at Wayne State, Michigan State and Oakland Universities as well as Madonna and Henry Ford Community Colleges. Yet, shouldn’t the delivery mechanism of knowledge change as radically as the times?


Big Data, Big Deal

Far too many first generation college students never obtain their degree.

Universities must do a better job ensuring that students get their money’s worth (along with their families and American taxpayers), for the investment made. Not graduating—or graduating with a degree with little prospect of meaningful employment—is a travesty.

Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of, “American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know,” is the Paul Revere of the higher education crisis. She challenges university administrators to know their student body through various tools of technology such as data mining, data analytics and the study of students’ digital footprints, then intervene to keep them on track.

Blumenstyk points out that the data is there to determine if, “…their attendance [has] slipped? Have they stopped logging in to read course packets or file assignments? Did they just drop the very class they needed for their major?”

“Colleges face no shortage of challenges these days: A skeptical public, fragile business models, stratification of students by income and uncertainty of government financial support, to name just a few. Data solutions can’t and won’t save higher education from all of that, but they could certainly put colleges on the right path,” Blumenstyk concludes.

Let’s be clear: I am a strong proponent of knowledge and the exceptional higher educational system that it is the foundation upon which much of our great nation is built. But, I am also a proponent of the power of asking the word, “Why?”

Why do we fall back on tradition when the world has changed in fundamental ways?
We are living in a global, transformational, disruptive and technologically-driven environment where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world effortlessly. Is our higher education system keeping pace? Why not have an honest debate on the future of higher education in Michigan?

Trapped In an Ivory Tower

CNN recently aired “Ivory Tower.” The film should encourage all funders of higher education—be they governors, legislatures, other policymakers, businesses, parents or students—to pause and reflect upon how higher education should be structured, funded and supported going forward. The film points out that, “Tuition rates spiral beyond reach for many students, and student loan debt passes $1 trillion (more than credit card debt).”


The film asks, “Is college worth the cost? From the halls of Harvard to public colleges in financial crisis to new models for accessing higher education influenced by Silicon Valley, the filmmakers assemble an urgent portrait of a great American institution at a transformational breaking point.”

Shouldn’t we aspire to make Michigan the brain bank of the world, where everyone comes for deposits and withdrawals? A place where education and training prepares more and more individuals—and our communities—to prosper? Clearly, Education DOES Matter. Yet, are we organized to perform as the 21st century unfolds?

Three years ago I wrote:

“There has been much debate swirling around our public schools and municipalities which have failed to lead, manage, and control spiraling health care and pension costs and are now engulfed by debt, layoffs, service elimination and, in some cases, the appointment of emergency managers or draconian consent agreements to rein in costs and mismanagement.”

Why should we think that some of our institutions of higher learning may not be subject to these same pressures and maladies? According to a story in The conomist, “The College-Cost Calamity,” many American universities are in financial trouble and have been piling on debt at alarming rates.

Between university debt, changing demographics, legacy costs, competition from for-profit educational institutions, soaring student debt, poor graduation rates, state funding cut backs, philanthropy drying up and skyrocketing tuition rates and fees, we may be heading for a crisis. Many universities have gone on building sprees at a time when technology, especially e- and blended learning with its anywhere, anytime, anyplace, any pace learning, may make the need for dorms, huge lecture halls and other institutional edifices obsolete.

We need to consider the following question: Is higher education organized for our past or our future? How and will technology be used to advance learning and knowledge? In this report: “Exploring e-learning reforms for Michigan Schools: The New Education (R)evolution,”
(, I explore how e-and blended learning can and should change the educational paradigm moving forward.


As a result of the report, the state did implement the call to have an e-learning experience as part of the K-12 graduation requirement. Yet, there are other policy recommendations, such as instituting a Certificate of Need (CON) or technology impact statement which would prohibit the building of new buildings if technology would serve the same purpose.

Change Must Equal Progress

There is no argument about the need for higher and better skills to thrive in our hyper-competitive knowledge economy. The question remains: Are our institutions of higher learning positioned to help take the citizens of Michigan where they need to go to be able to collaborate and compete on the world stage?

Clearly, Michigan Future Inc. (, led by Lou Glazer, has demonstrated the value of higher education and has been a strong advocate for additional public investment in higher education. Yet, we would be wise to pause and study the financial status of our universities, asking how to make them stronger moving forward. Are we receiving an adequate return on our investment now and how should we best invest for our collective future?

Fareed Zakaria, a CNN commentator and thinker, concludes, “The U.S. system of education and training is inadequate in the new global environment.” Yet, educators, alumni, and parents recoil at the thought of our system of higher Education—historically “the envy of the world”—is now in decline. It is not that America is simply falling behind, but that other countries are now catching up.


Real Change Requires Real Change

There is a powerful force that resists change within the education industrial complex. It comes from within institutions and their trade associations. Even reformers in the Legislature often bend to the will of their local K-12 school board members, unions, superintendents and presidents, faculty, alumni and university trustees. Every day is a fight against the monolith behind the inertia to protect the status quo. The supporters often realize that the status quo needs to change, but can’t bring themselves to see it through.

We are Great — We Need to be Better

The meltdown of U of M football and the collateral damage it has created has the community abuzz about college athletics and its place in academia.

In a thoughtful commentary, Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, ponders, “We need to start asking ourselves whether we can love the game and still acknowledge its shortcomings while pushing for change.”

This same energy and attention should be devoted to the role of universities in our society and what we should be doing to assure that they survive and thrive for generations to come. It would be wise to acknowledge our love for our universities while accepting their shortcomings and pushing for sensible change.

There is no doubt that Michigan’s major flagship universities Michigan State and Wayne State Universities and the University of Michigan, will weather the storm.

They have solid leadership and endowments to help smooth out the rough patches they have been managing for some time. Yet, even these Ivory Towers are not immune from reality. As Stien’s economic law reminds us: “Things that cannot go on forever-won’t.”

Just how stable are Michigan’s smaller institutions and how will they manage these pressures going forward? The first step in problem solving is problem identification. Simply sticking our collective heads in the sand will not make problems disappear. With leadership, clear thinking and time, we are capable of solving any problem.

“Training” and/or a Four Year Degree?

William J. Bennett, the U.S. Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988, wrote an
Op-Ed stating, “According to a recent world economic study, about 10 million manufacturing jobs worldwide are going begging because of a lack of skilled workers. In the United States alone, at least 600,000 manufacturing jobs cannot be filled. Meanwhile, legions of arts and humanities majors occupy the unemployment rolls. Many students are ill-prepared for the labor market, whether by fault of their own or by colleges and universities that are out of sync with the needs of a skilled work force.”

Governor Snyder pledged to address this skills gap in his second term. He has provided little detail on just how he would do so. Stay tuned.

Higher Ed Calamity?


I suggest that before a calamity hits Michigan, it would be wise to explore the following questions:

  • How stable are our universities?
  • What can we do to strengthen them to assure that they remain strong to help prepare us for our increasingly global knowledge economy?
  • What are their roles in our society?
  • How and why should we change the investment we make in higher education?
  • Will an increase in state funding using the funding formulas of the past produce the results we need today or tomorrow?
  • Do we have the right number of universities, concentrating on the appropriate academic areas to drive knowledge, innovation, creativity, job and wealth creation going forward?
  • Are we leading change, or simply protecting the status quo?

We do know that significant changes have impacted the private sector, cities and K-12 school districts across the state. Have our universities kept pace with necessary change? Have our institutions of higher learning been leading change, reacting to it, or ignoring the new realities altogether?

Perhaps the answers to these questions will demonstrate whether we are heading in the right direction…or not. How stable are our institutions of higher education? Is there opportunity for improvement?

As I concluded in 2012, a calamity, crisis and an opportunity to reflect and act are terrible things to waste. The status quo will not take Michigan where we need to go.

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools and was President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida. His travels in China for nearly 3 decades coupled with his life-long interest in that country forced a realization on just how fast the world can and does change. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at: @tdwatkins88.

Source: Deja Vu: Reflections on Higher Education

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