Philip Altbach et al. (eds.)
American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (Third Edition)
Prepared by Michael Marien



July 2011
American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges (Third Edition).  Edited by Philip G. Altbach (University Professor and director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College), Patricia J. Gumport (Vice Provost and Prof of Education, Stanford U; director, Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research), and Robert O. Berdahl (Prof Emeritus of Higher Education, U of Maryland).  Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins U Press, June 2011, 511p, $60; $29.95pb.


The literature on higher education trends and problems, similar to the literature in all other sectors, is highly fragmented.  Thus an overview is to be welcomed, especially one that is extensive, thorough, and authoritative.  Although largely devoted to American higher education, there are global applications, especially in the initial chapter by Altbach on global trends.  The 17 chapters are in four parts: The Setting, External Forces, The Academic Community, and Central Issues for the 21st Century.
“Clearly,” the editors write, “American higher education is in a state of ferment.  Of course, this is nothing new.”  But Altbach, in his chapter (#9) on the professoriate, goes on to point out that US higher education “finds itself in a period of significant strain,” despite the American academic model being the most successful in the world.  The basic conditions of academic work in American have deteriorated, and “the golden age of the American university is probably over.” (GFB emphasis)  “Considerable change is taking place, and much of this will adversely affect the academic profession.”  The period of expansion and professorial power in the mid-20th century will not return, due to budget cutbacks and demands for accountability.  “The curriculum lost its coherence in the rush toward specialization.  Now it is necessary to reestablish a sense of academic mission.”
Part I: The Setting

1. Global Trends.  “After almost a half century of dramatic expansion worldwide, universities in many countries are being forced to cut back on spending and, in some cases, to downsize.  The unwritten pact between society and higher education that provided expanding resources in return for greater access for students, as well as research and service to society, has broken down, with significant implications for both higher education and society.”  Altbach also discusses the Western academic model and its many variations, the circulation of students and scholars worldwide, the English language and the Internet as key elements in the contemporary knowledge network, post-WWII expansion of higher education in virtually every country (first in the US, then in Europe, and later in the Third World), the central reason for expansion being increasing complexity demanding a more highly trained workforce, the managerial revolution that has increased the power of administrators, vocationalization as an important trend in the past two decades (with declining enrollments in the social sciences and humanities), the shrinking of university autonomy (“without exception”), and the increasingly close relationship between universities and industry.  Still, “it is unlikely that the basic structures of academic institutions will change dramatically.”

2. The Ten Generations of American Higher Education.  The history of US institutions, from the founding of Harvard in 1636 through the current era, where demand for places in public institutions is growing, even as public investment declines.

3. Autonomy and Accountability: Who Controls Academe?   Intellectual fetters must be opposed, but institutions may legitimately be expected to be held accountable for the integrity and efficiency of their operations.  They are now being asked to provide data on attainment of defined outcomes and evidence that results have been gained at a “reasonable” cost.
4. Academic Freedom.  New protective forces have entered the stage in the last half century, while older institutions like the ACLU and the AAUP have been far readier to come forward and even to take government officials to court.  As a result of such efforts, “the climate seems to have improved markedly.”
Part II: External Forces

5. The Federal Government.  Despite the primary role of the states, the federal government has played an essential role in shaping the size, scope, and character of higher education.  Total federal spending in 2008 was $100 billion, including $45 billion on R&D, $32 billion for student assistance, and $18 billion tax expenditures for students, families, and institutions.  Massive budget deficits in nearly all states are likely to accelerate tuition inflation at public institutions, in turn overwhelming the federal student aid system as more students borrow ever-larger amounts.

6. The States.  Four broad trends: higher expectations for what an increasingly diverse student population should know, severe economic constraints (even with gradual economic recovery), public frustration with the academy’s resistance to change, and more turnover of state political leaders (accelerating the trend toward larger and more dominant legislative staffs).  “These conditions are certain to exacerbate already frayed state relationships with higher education.”

7. Increasing Legalization.  Higher education has become legalized by the traditional means of legislation, regulation, and litigation—and by growing areas of informal lawmaking such as ballot initiatives, insurance carrier policies, and commercial or contract law in research.  Timeless values such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and due process are in danger of being legislated or litigated away.  Self-policing is needed, because “there are many police outside the academy all too willing to do so if we do not.”

8. External Constituencies.  Discusses the growing number of private foundations (their awards range from $32-35 billion/year, mostly to higher education), the growing strength of institutionally-based membership organizations (e.g. the American Council on Education), voluntary accrediting organizations (e.g., the AMA), voluntary consortia (>100, as of 2004), and quasi-governmental regional compacts (e.g., the Southern Regional Education Board).  These organizations increasingly stand in the middle between control-oriented state and federal agencies and the public and private institutions.
Part III.  The Academic Community

9. Harsh Realities for the Professoriate.  There are 1.3 million full- and part-time faculty members in America’s 4,300 institutions of postsecondary education, of which almost 1,400 grant baccalaureate or higher degrees and 213 give doctoral degrees.  A growing number of faculty are part-time, now numbering more than half of the professoriate, and they have little or no job security.  The proportion of women in academe is now 36% of the total and about half of new entrants.  African Americans are about 15% of the total professoriate.  Professors seem to be working longer hours in recent years, with pressure to focus more on teaching.  The academic job market for new entrants has dramatically deteriorated, leading to “a missing generation of younger scholars.”  Achieving a sense of community is more difficult, due to the growing size and diversity of institutions, and increasing specialization.  Economic status of the profession has eroded after a decade of significant gains in real income in the 1960s.  The growth of academic unions has slowed, and unions have been unable to save faculty from retrenchment or a deterioration in working conditions.  Cutbacks in budgets for academic libraries have placed added stress on younger scholars in particular.

10. College Students in Changing Contexts.   College-goers in the past were a highly elite group.  Today, 95% of all high school seniors expect to have at least some form of college education, up from 79% in 1981.  From 2000 to 2008, national enrollments grew by 17% to nearly 15 million undergraduates, with a projection of nearly 17.5 million by 2018 (due to population growth and expanded high school graduation rates, from 52% in 1970 to 84% by 2007, as well as the decline of low-skill jobs).  Today’s students increasingly delay entry into college after high school, frequently change colleges, and take time off during college.  As of 2009, 55% of students expressed at least “some” concern about paying for college, and 53% were relying on student loans.  The percent of traditional-age college students attending classes full time and also working has increased from 34% in 1970 to 46% in 2007, and the number of hours full-time students are working has surged.  Over the last 10 years, 90% of directors of college counseling centers report an increase in the number of students with severe mental health issues.  Nearly one-third of college students meet the criteria for alcohol abuse, and nearly 15% have received a diagnosis of depression.

11. Dynamics and Complexities of Campus Leadership.  On the evolution of the presidency, an important position that must lead, manage, communicate, inspire, and shape.  Effective leadership in the future may depend on the “ability to leverage an integrated, shared leadership approach that encourages coordinated and synergistic leadership among many actors…a leadership team is a natural evolution of the history of higher education, which has gone from relatively small institutions with a narrow mission to complex corporate structures with multiple missions and a vast array of stakeholders and external influences.”
Part IV.  Central Issues for the Twenty-First Century

12. Financing Higher Education: Who Should Pay?  The financial fortunes of US  colleges and universities will vary greatly.  The few private institutions with large endowments, generous alumni giving, and deep and affluent student applicant pools will have continuing cost pressures, but only a temporary setback.  Some public institutions may suffer temporary revenue cutbacks but will continue to prosper.
But “most private colleges and universities will experience a fierce revenue squeeze,” and “most public colleges and universities will continue to experience flat or declining state tax support, forcing them to have even higher tuitions, more program closures, and increasing reliance on part-time and adjunct faculty.”  As for using technology to increase the productivity of learning, it will “mainly enable more and better, but not cheaper, learning.”

13. Digital Technologies for Learning and Research.  Digital systems are ubiquitous in US higher education and are playing a critical role.  The transition appears, at this point at least, “to represent a historic moment, on a scale comparable to the introduction of the printing press.”  At a minimum, digital technologies pose opportunities, challenges, and distractions.  “Higher education has only begun to make gains in the quality of learning that appears possible through a panoply of digitally networked resources.”

14. Graduate Education and Research.  Despite the long-standing and pervasive view that US graduate education is the best in the world, “signs of strain are evident on campuses and at the national level.”  Funding constraints are limiting the size of incoming doctoral cohorts, graduate student loan debt has climbed to record highs, talented students consider abandoning their academic career ambitions, 60% of new hires are off-tenure track (a trend that is likely to swell), finding a decent job—let alone a dream job—seems unattainable, and the US is losing its significant market share of international students (from 25% in 2001 to 20% in 2006).

15. Curriculum Reform.  The need for reform arises from changes in the broader society.  “The curriculum can be seen as a lens for social change, but can also serve society by defining the boundaries of knowledge and serving as a force for social change itself.”  The three major tensions in curriculum reform are prescribed courses vs. electives, stability vs. growth (still, disciplines established over a century ago remain at the core of the academic enterprise), and conservation vs. innovation.

16. Increased Commercialization.  In administration, academic capitalism pervades growing numbers of offices and services (e.g., marketing institutions to student consumers).  On the academic side, it spreads across the curriculum (e.g., patenting and marketing of scientific discoveries and marketing of courseware).  Many states have adjusted their conflict-of-interest laws so that universities and faculty can hold equity positions in private corporations, even when those corporations do business with universities.

17. The Diversity Imperative.  Concerns include race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.  Discusses the evolution of diversity efforts and how diversity is being reframed, based on the educational benefits of diversity and attention to effective educational practices.  Increasing attention is being paid to implications of a pluralistic society and a very interconnected world.  “We are now at a time when diversity, like technology, is a powerful presence.  Current work suggests that increasing numbers of institutions will need to address diversity to be credible or, indeed, viable.”


Each of the 17 chapters covers a wide variety of trends and projections, backed up with extensive footnotes.  This Third Edition--the first two were published in 1995 and 2005) seemingly covers all issues in a very effective and scholarly manner.  Clearly, it is the best overview of American higher education, an important sector of growing complexity, and one that suggests developments in other nations, too.  The GFB Update newsletter for July 2011 covers several dozen additional books on higher education that have been published in the past two years.  Nearly all of them are on specialized topics, and can be seen as updates, complements, and supplements to individual chapters.  What is missing in AHEin21C is any exploration of alternative visions for higher education that might suggest new directions to take this troubled sector out of the doldrums while facing the major issues of the 21st century such as climate change.  Several recent books, as well as one underappreciated classic, are discussed at the end of the newsletter.   
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