Remember evolution? Random mutations create variations, some of which will be better suited to individual environments and will be more likely to reproduce (i.e. survive). Two points here might be useful to our conversation about higher education. First, it is really the environment that decides who survives and prospers. You can produce all of the yellow flowers you want, but if the bees prefer the red ones, your yellow ones are going to struggle. Second, especially in a time when the environment is changing rapidly (think ice age or economic downturn) more diversity gives you more chances for survival.

American colleges are already significantly more diverse than those in other countries (which are largely funded and controlled by governments), but that diversity of type, discipline and funding is not enough. Colleges run under an enormously fragile business model, based upon a radically different environment and set of assumptions that are now being questioned—all at once. We expanded colleges, grew enrollment and (most worrying) borrowed money to build more facilities, assuming that there would always be more students.  In case you missed it, the number of high school graduates is decreasing and the number of students enrolled nationally in college dropped 1.5% this fall (after a 1.8% drop last year) http://chronicle.com/article/Enrollments-Slipped-This-Fall/143573/ 

Our problem is that we sell one product to a very precise demographic and we only sell it once a year. We need to diversify what we offer and to whom.  No, I don’t think American colleges are about to become extinct, but we need to recognize that all of our institutions, degrees and audiences are too much alike, and this is very dangerous in a time of drastic environmental change. Not everyone will make it in the coming ice age, and it is far too early to see what the new paradigm will be, so we need more experimentation and more diversity of approaches.

The government’s desire for some accountability in where financial aid goes (in the new the White House college rating system) is hardly the only reason colleges should be leading the movement to establish better outcome measures.  A whole range of new products, services and institutions are sprouting up to help employers find employees with the skills they want.

Open Education Alliance, for example, is a partnership between a group of employers (Google, Intuit and AT&T) and alternative education providers (Khan and Udacity) that aims both to make “high quality education” (i.e. training) available and connect these new learners with jobs. So instead of a traditional BA degree, these companies say they are willing to hire you, if you have mastered the right set of learning outcomes (i.e. badges). Don’t complain too much—this anti-degree will be a terrific new opportunity for many who can’t afford college.

An even wilder mutation is Knack! Here you play games to discover your “knacks” which might indicate to a future employer that your “behavioral profile” is “creative,” “bold” “strategic” or “perceptive” or that you have skills in finance, sales or the arts (what they call “career knacks”)   Games have already been proven to be great teachers, so this too will surely evolve. NYU, Bain & Co and Shell are early adopters.

So much of what we do is driven by our endless quest to become just a little more like Harvard—or at least a little more like where we as faculty went to graduate school.  As Clayton Christensen points out in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out , all of these innovations (summer break, electives, majors, GenEd, specialized departments, tenure, instruction by TAs, grading on a curve, and big-time football) were meant as specific solutions for Harvard, and ultimately, Harvard had and has the enormous resources required to even attempt the radical plan of trying to be both an English undergraduate residential college and a German research university.  As countless colleges try to imitate Harvard with a fraction of the resources, we end up with one unique and perhaps bizarre model and lots of poor imitations. Maybe being a woolly mammoth is not the best strategy right now.

But the best reason for more diversity in higher education is that it will better serve our students. We know from every study on the affect of college on students that our influence is somewhat random: college can either close your mind and make you more resistant to change, or make you a more autonomous critical thinker. There is not good info on why the same college can have such different effects. (Averages are not very useful here.) It makes me nervous to think that learning styles are that determined, but I also know that people are different and where one learning environment helps student A blossom, it might bore student B to tears. In the end, fit does matter.

We talk about fit all the time in admissions, but perhaps we need to expand this discussion. While there are indeed plenty of good practices that work in general, surely there are also different learning environments and different programs and strategies that will best support different populations in different circumstances.

If colleges are mammals, maybe you think Knack!, Open Education Alliance and even MOOCs are the cockroaches of our world. But in nature, there are lots of different ways for organisms to prosper. In a changing environment, organisms and institutions that can change rapidly and/or produce more diversity of options, have a greater chance of survival. If there is really an ice age coming, you might want to reconsider the chances of the cockroach.

We need (1) to find a way to encourage greater diversity of mission and practice in colleges and (2) find ways to reward different types of success.

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