Thought Leadership

In Defense of Higher Ed

Why The "College is Dead" Crowd is Wrong


Recently, after a series of rainy days here in NYC, I complained about the weather in front of my five-year-old son, “Rain again today?!” “But, Mom!” he quickly interjected. “If it doesn’t rain, we won’t have any flowers when spring comes!” His wise words got me thinking about the current rain cloud that seems fixed across the vast landscape that is education in America today.

Every day there’s a new set of headlines decrying “the state of higher ed.” From what higher ed has gotten wrong to which trendlines predict its demise to the lack of trust that people have in our education system as a whole…it’s not “a good look,” as they say.

But as someone working closely with teams inside leading education institutions, I’m just not buying it. Don’t get me wrong. Do I think higher education is in need of change? Yes. Do I think there are some challenging headwinds to navigate? Yes. But do I think it’s dying? Absolutely not. In fact, I’ll put myself out there and say that I think higher ed is poised to be stronger than it’s ever been within my lifetime.

Change is hard. Growth is hard. And sometimes it’s hard to discern the difference. Any good gardener knows (for the record, not me) that pruning is an essential part of growth–cutting away the dead or sick parts of the plant encourages more growth of the healthy parts. Think about your own life–personally or professionally. I’d wager that we each have an example of a time during a “pruning season” where we may have confused it for some sort of regression. We may have been discouraged that we weren’t growing as quickly as we wanted–not realizing that the leaves we were losing were actually helping to generate more growth.

It’s human nature to feel that anything less than intense movement forward isn’t progress, but that’s just not true. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, so these seasons may look obvious in retrospect. But they never feel that way in the moment.

I wonder if this is where we are with higher ed–in a “pruning season.” And in this season, there are some very challenging questions to consider:

  • How can education institutions facilitate learning in the truest sense: exploration, experimentation, interrogation? How do safety and inclusivity intersect with learning?
  • Who are students today? Who is invested in learning today? What drives that investment? What’s the ideal outcome they’re seeking? (I actually explored this question back in January, and I stand by those thoughts…)
  • What is the actual value of a campus experience? There’s no question that it’s valuable; the question is how do we articulate that value? And how does that value change if the campus experience is no longer 100% physical?
  • And lastly, what role can generative AI have in helping higher education thrive? Of course, there are risks. And take the classroom out of the equation for a second as you ponder this. I’m challenging us (me included!) to think bigger than that. How might it actually support what it is we’re chasing?

These questions are just a few that are top of mind for me. And none of these questions has a “right” answer. I’m not even certain there will be an answer. But when I imagine a round table filled with the people I’m lucky enough to call colleagues who work within these institutions, my heart is filled with hope. In the midst of the lifeless-looking branches and the unending downpours, I’m seeing green sprouts signaling new growth.

Join the conversation

To get the latest news, sign up for our bulletin.