Remaking Higher Ed: Looking Forward Requires Looking Back

The disruptions and innovations of the COVID pandemic have shown that the future of higher education isn’t going to look like the past. But the fact is, not even the past looks like the past. The rigid design of college that we are accustomed to today is highly anomalous by historical standards. As we seek to devise innovative solutions and effective educational models for our increasingly complex world, we can learn a lot by looking at the past.

History offers an eclectic range of examples. In the Middle Ages, students paid their teachers directly for instruction. For centuries, homeschooling, often with private tutors, was the norm for upper classes and the aristocracy. Those who did study at university often didn’t take degrees. And in the early days of the American republic, education was characterized by self-improvement and self-instruction.

Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Dante, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen, and Maya Angelou. These people had diverse educational backgrounds, material circumstances, and lived in very different times. But do you know what none of them had? A four-year college degree. Is it possible that the patterns and institutions that produced them—from apprenticeships to religious education to vocational schools to tutors to boarding schools to self-instruction to a year or two of college—might be models for the cultivation of talent today? 

Today’s one-size-fits-all approach—rigid, four-year degree programs often steeped in ideological politics, coupled with exorbitant tuition costs—is in fact a very recent development with little to suggest it’s the best approach. The fact is, there is no longstanding or necessary connection between career achievement and a college degree—and certainly not one that leaves students in debt for decades.

College evangelists would do well to remember that even today many of our most well-known contemporary leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs—Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Food Network star Rachel Ray, Def Jam record label owner Russell Simmons, to name just a few—never graduated from, and some never even attended, college. We should stop and really think about that, not demand further conformity.

The message is not that no one should go to college. College is a wonderful fit for some, and it is certainly a positive advancement that historic admission restrictions on the basis of race or sex have at last been lifted. The point is not that degrees aren’t an important pathway; but that there should be many other avenues to autonomous, richly meaningful lives that don’t require inflexible, high-cost college credentials. It’s high time that we abandoned the ideology of college that forces many people into debt for unnecessary and often dubious degrees.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and life as we once knew it resumes, we ought to pause and consider these educational models from the past, which are in many ways more diverse, more interesting, and much less expensive than those we have today. But if we are going to have the full benefit of COVID-precipitated innovation, we need to be free from our own stifling assumptions of what education needs to be.

Consider that 250 years after our founding, we have more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but little in terms of meaningful choice. Looking ahead, the goal should not be to create more of the same or to further standardize all of higher learning; but instead to encourage educational innovation and creativity—new institutions, online courses, flexible degree programs, industry credentialing, and a lot more self-directed learning, to name just a few—that will allow for students with diverse interests, aspirations, and resources to succeed.

This need for ingenuity and flexibility in higher education is why it’s especially important that the federal government does not maintain a stranglehold on college funding, testing, design, or curricula. To truly serve students from all backgrounds, we must broaden access to different forms of education and eliminate the red tape that too often imposes a crippling financial burden on those students least able to afford it.

The trials of the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated the value of innovation and critical thinking—both of which have been essential not only to those on the front lines fighting this disease, but to all of us who have been forced to adapt to a new way of learning, doing business, and maintaining relationships. In an increasingly unpredictable and complicated world, we are going to need maximal flexibility at all levels of education. As is so often the case, we’ll be better able to look ahead if we first look to the past.

About Stephen J. Blackwood

Stephen J. Blackwood is the founding president of Ralston College, which offers an alternative to the existing model of higher education.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.