We have to start by doing high school in high school, not in college.

COVID-19 Will Force Us to Redesign Our Higher Education System for Lifelong Learning; You Won’t Recognize It When It’s Done


our higher education system...operates to secure the advantages of those who are already doing very well

Higher education is in crisis. The proximate cause is COVID-19, which has crippled college and university revenues and greatly increased their costs. Many will face bankruptcy in the coming months if they don’t get help. But these vital institutions were in deep trouble long before COVID-19 arrived on its campuses. The top of our pyramidal hierarchy of higher education institutions has been functioning not as a great leveler, but as a reinforcer of a social order that increasingly favors the sons and daughters of the highly educated, powerful and wealthy. No less problematic, the education that the vast majority of institutions in the lower part of the pyramid provides is more like the education provided by high schools than postsecondary institutions in the countries with high-quality, more efficient education systems. An unacceptable proportion of our college students leave college with crushing debt and either no credential or a credential worth much less in the marketplace than the students deserve or had hoped.  

Like our medical system, our education system is more expensive and less productive than many other systems in the world. Like our medical system, it is organized to provide tiered services closely tied to ability to pay that greatly favor those who are already well educated and wealthy. Like our medical system, our higher education system is not an engine for opportunity or for overcoming disadvantage. It operates to secure the advantages of those who are already doing very well. The difference is that, while medicine has not been seen as the great leveler, education has always been viewed in this country as the primary route out of poverty in a land of opportunity that is supposed to reward real merit, not the wealth and power of one’s parents.

Democrats are calling for higher education to be free and for the federal government to relieve adults of the obligation to pay off their existing college loans. The cost of making college free and of paying off existing college debt will be enormous, to say nothing of the cost of bailing out the institutions facing bankruptcy in the face of the virus. This is a vital sector of the American economy, one of the keys to the future of the United States, and fair access to what it has to offer is an essential feature of a fair society. But the people of the United States should not just put all this money on the table and run. The time has come to rebuild higher education for the future. It would be a great mistake to put the old system back on its feet.  

What we need now is a new design for a life-long continuous education system that is designed not to give our young adults everything they need to know to take their place in a stable world, but, instead, continuous access to the complex and rapidly changing knowledge, skills, attitudes and values needed to adapt every day in a rapidly changing high-tech world.  

Before I get to what that might look like, it is important to understand where we are and how we got to where we are.

The United States still has a disproportionate share (in relation to the world’s population) of the world’s top-rated research universities, many of them public institutions. We have a handful of excellent polytechnics and a number of small liberal arts colleges of which we can be very proud. Our Historically Black Colleges and Universities continue to play a vital role in our higher education lineup. And we have community colleges that are doing a good job of providing the first two years of a four-year public college program and preparing many others for mostly traditional-skilled and semi-skilled jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree. 

We cannot, however, be complacent. The United States’ top-performing universities are rapidly declining as a proportion of the world’s top performers. That’s not because they are declining in quality but because other nations, once poor and now rich, have been building their own front-rank institutions. 

When we had something approaching a lock on the best universities in the world, the world’s best high school students left their own countries to come to the best universities in the United States and then stayed to do their own research and build their own companies here. Now, more and more of them are staying in their own countries to go to college and university or coming here and then returning home to make their contribution to frontier work there. We act as though we still have the majority of the world’s top universities and research centers here, driving our economy to higher plateaus. That edge, however, is rapidly evaporating, in part because other nations are building their own, but hastened by actions taken by the Trump administration to limit the ability of foreign students to stay in this country to work and by that administration’s immigration policies. Those policies must be reversed.  

But, even more important, most of our institutions were never among the world’s leading research universities. To the contrary, the texts used in most of our higher education institutions are written at high school reading levels and a large fraction of our high school graduates cannot comprehend what they are reading in them; the first year math required in most higher education institutions is actually mostly Algebra I, a course middle school students are supposed to pass before going to college, but the majority of high school graduates arrive at college not ready to succeed in this course. What this means in practice is that half or more of our college students are taking a program in our colleges that is pitched at what would be high school level in many other countries. 

What I have just described is a colossal system failure. Because we fail to provide a high school level education in high school, we use our colleges to provide what should have been provided in high school to college students at an expense much greater than it would have been if they had gotten that education in high school. But only a small fraction of those high school graduates actually leave college with a credential of any value. So much of the additional cost of doing in college what should have been done in high school is again wasted, because those students don’t finish the high school education they got in college.

How on earth did this happen? Here’s my guess. When children of the baby boom that followed the end of World War II went through our colleges, policy analysts predicted that the fall in enrollment numbers as the baby boomers left college would force many colleges to reduce the size of their student body and let many of their faculty go. That did not happen. The institutions admitted as many students as they had to admit in order to stay in business and keep their faculty employed. In the United States, government supports students, who then decide where to spend the money. In most other countries, government provides the tuition money directly to the colleges and universities and thereby controls the number of slots that are offered in each major program. So, in other countries, the government would have kept admissions standards up by reducing the number of slots it funded as the size of the cohort declined. We let the institutions lower their standards instead.

Over the last 40 years or so, admission standards in other industrialized countries rose. The same thing happened in our top-flight institutions because the demand for places in them soared as they became ever more important gateways to top incomes and power. But, as I just explained, the standards of admission to the lower-tier institutions fell as institutions reached lower in the cohort to fill their seats. The gap between these institutions and the standards in the higher education institutions in many other countries widened.  

Over that same 30 years, the cost of going to college in the United States has risen at a rate way above the rate of inflation in the economy as a whole. That has happened while the income of the average family has hardly risen at all. While the cost of college has been steeply rising, the number of hours of instruction offered each year by the typical institution has declined and the length of time it takes to get a degree has increased—adding even more cost for the students and the government. Finally, large proportions of students who are admitted to our colleges never get the qualifications they are seeking and leave college with large debts and nothing to show for the time and money invested. All of this stands in sharp contrast to the picture in the countries with education systems that are functioning at a much higher level.

One of the reasons that the cost of college has been rising so fast for so long is that the states have been faced with swiftly mounting health care costs. Most have found the money to pay for those costs in their state university budgets. Legislatures have greatly reduced the direct support for these post-secondary institutions and told them that they could make up the shortfall by raising tuition. This happened while all of higher education entered a new era of competition for students driven by the U.S. News and World Report and other similar ratings of colleges, which heavily emphasized the amenities offered by the institutions. The colleges and universities responded by borrowing large sums of money to invest in such amenities. Still, the only way to make ends meet was to borrow even more money to recruit foreign students, especially from China, who were willing to pay two or even three times what domestic students were willing to spend at their institutions.

Then COVID-19 hit. The colleges had to send their students home. A good deal of their business model depends on what they charge for room and board, which they could no longer charge for. A good deal of the rest comes from tuition. But the only way they could keep charging for tuition was to provide some form of distance learning. A few institutions were set up to do that, but most were not and had to spend a lot of money to get the required equipment, train their faculty, build curriculum and pay for the communications software and systems. So, their costs went up again. But they may not have gone up enough to keep their customers if they continue to use distance learning to deliver their services. Some students and parents are suing the institutions on the grounds that the enormous sums they are paying for education in a residential setting far exceed the value they are getting from distance learning off campus.

I noted above that many institutions borrowed very large sums to stay competitive in the changing market, often issuing bonds for that purpose. When the rating agencies saw what COVID-19 was doing to the financial position of the institutions, they lowered the ratings on the bonds, which raised the interest the institutions would have to pay.

Even before COVID-19, a growing number of parents and students were concluding that the cost of college was not worth the benefits. Now a large proportion of institutions are caught in a trap. Their costs are exploding even as their market is evaporating. Many of the Chinese students will not come back to study in the US. That is as many as a quarter of all their students at some institutions. The institutions are looking for ways to socially distance students to bring them back, but doing that in the dorms and classrooms they have will require that they conduct classes for smaller numbers of students than at present and only partially fill their dorms and eating halls. Major reductions in the efficiency with which they use staff and facilities will produce enormous increases in cost per student. If they assume that they can only make this work by relying more on distance learning than they did before the virus, then they will have to invest more in distance learning. If they do it all with distance learning, they will not be able to sell their room and board, which has been the bread and butter of their budgets. If they can’t figure out how to make all of this work, then the rating agencies will downgrade their bonds to junk and they will default and go bankrupt.

Here is what will happen if we just pump money into the higher education system to keep it afloat. Demographers tell us that we are in for another big fall in the size of the college-going cohort. If I am right about how college entrance standards fell last time, then they will fall again, for the same reason, when the colleges face a declining number of young people of college-going age. And they will respond the way they did the last time, by lowering their standards even further, taking once again whoever they have to take to fill their seats. If that happens, they will give up requiring entering freshmen to take a course called College Algebra that is actually middle school algebra and will replace it with another course called College Algebra that is actually mostly arithmetic.

We have to start by doing high school in high school, not in college.The foundational step in fixing our higher education system is to redesign the elementary and secondary education system to do the job it is supposed to do. Right now, it is doing a poor job of preparing our high school students to go to what in the top-performing countries is just high school. We have to start by doing high school in high school, not in college. That would save an enormous amount of money. But more than money is at stake. Our colleges and universities now must find a way to provide an education to young people from working class families who go through school experiencing mounting failure. Many can only afford school if they work full time, but can only find work that pays little and leads nowhere. Entering college with a poor command of high school reading and middle school mathematics skills, it is little wonder that they often fail to finish even a two-year college program. Many wind up jobless and poor. As more and more of our low-skill and semi-skilled jobs are automated, their prospects will get worse, not better. These issues can be ameliorated at the college level, but they cannot be fixed there. If we want to have a competitive, efficient, powerful higher education system, we must fix our schools. I have described policies designed to accomplish this goal here.

Then what? If we do in high school what we are now doing in the first two years of most of our colleges, what does college look like? A very rough sketch of the answer is emerging from the higher education response to COVID-19. We think of attendance at college and university as what many students do before they go to work. The reality, however, is that a very large proportion of college and university students are already in the paid workforce, either part time or full time. Many have families, and many of those families include children. Imagine that we think of higher education as providing the backbone of a continuous education system, not as the front end of anything. Now imagine that the institution is not a residential campus for young people enjoying the good life but a nerve center of an institution that reaches way out into the community, state, nation and globe, connected by a web of electromagnetic networks to students, researchers, businesses, governments and homes. Relatively few students live at the headquarters of this institution. Most are working. They are of all ages, most seeking a wide range of credentials. Learning takes place at home, in the workplace, in community facilities and, of course, in classrooms. Some learning looks like formal instruction. Much more looks like apprenticeship, mentoring, self-study with good feedback and group study with colleagues who are also students.  

For years now, medical and engineering education has moved from taking courses for years before one is allowed to work with patients or design bridges to getting students in these fields involved in practice almost from day one and building the theory they need as they learn how to do the work. In this way, these fields have figured out how to create a form of education and training in which the learning of theory is blended with application of theory in a way that enables students to find out what they need to know when they need to know it. In a world in which it is no longer possible to teach everyone everything they need to know before they get started, it becomes essential for them to build a foundation first and then just keep learning. Imagine now that we set up our colleges and universities to do that for all their students. That would mean that both young people and older ones would spend much more time learning their theory in real world settings, partly from professors, partly from practitioners. Educational institutions would partner with all kinds of other institutions to get the job done, but it would never be done.

Now imagine that we fully employed intelligent technologies to support such a system, to chart learning paths through the system, provide short courses just when they were needed, to connect students to each other and to their teachers and mentors, to provide vivid and engaging dynamic environments in which learners could literally see how the theory works in practice, to provide day-by-day and minute-by-minute feedback to students, to assess student progress toward objectives they have set for themselves and their employers have set for them and to award credentials when standards have been met.

Institutions are now lurching toward something like this. But lurching is not good enough. There is an opportunity for the leaders of this country to pull together teams of brilliant people from many different fields and backgrounds in a kind of moonshot effort to design a new system, not a new system of higher education but a new system of continuing education, to replace the broken system we have now, to propose designs, try them out and find ways to support a smooth transition from what we have to what we need. It will require a new business model and, from the government standpoint, a new financing model. It will require a dedicated mission-oriented effort. This country can once again lead the world with creative solutions to our most pressing problems and bring those ideas to fruition if we can seize the moment and reimagine our whole system of higher education.