Burck Smith on the Changing Model of Education

Barry Lenson

The Changing Model of Higher Education: Burck Smith’s Comments to the American Enterprise Institute

As we have written in the past, our CEO Burck Smith is one of the real innovators in American higher education.

We were reminded about that again recently when we reviewed this video of some comments he made to members of the American Enterprise Institute.

Here are some outtakes from what he had to say.

On the past structure of American higher education . . .  

“In the late 1800’s, we basically decided that yes, college is a public good, and we do want to subsidize it, and the market will not fulfill it. So at that time, in the late 1800s, college was pretty clearly defined. It was a clear, time-delimited, residential environment with a cohort of people and professors.  There wasn’t much deviation from that model. There wasn’t much moving from school to school, it was what it was.

“There weren’t many providers to address [the need]. The Morrill Act created the land grant colleges. We’ve seen community colleges grow to address that as well. There weren’t many consumers . . . the population was much smaller than it is now.  And the percentage of the population of students who wanted to go to college was much smaller than it is now.

“So there wasn’t a viable market for college in the late 1800s, really going through until after World War II, when we created additional incentives to go to colleges . . . the financial aid system, to ostensibly lower the cost of going to college. So that’s the model we’ve been under, which tied accreditation to financial aid policy . . . at least since World War II.”

On what colleges are today . . .

“Now if you look at the characteristics of today, really of the last decade, it looks really almost exactly the opposite. College is not well-defined now. It is not a residential environment where people go to one place and stay there for four years. At least, not for the majority of students. It is for some, but not for most.

“It is not time-delimited in many cases. Students are transferring credits from place to place to place. There are very different modalities, with different cost structures associated with them, and we don’t really even know what it should be. There are certificates that are being offered by colleges. There are adult-ed programs. There are online programs. We don’t really know what college is any more.  Or to put it another way, there are lots of different options for it.

“There are many providers, 6,000 colleges in the U.S. alone. Not only are there lots and lots of colleges, their geographic reach is now global.  It used to be that geographic reach was confined to a fairly small geography and public institutions had a fairly defined geographic catchment area.  Not so any more.”

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