demographics, part 2

IMG_9845In a post a couple of months back, I pointed out that my home state of California and the whole world are on parallel actuarial tracks.  On both scales, we’re seeing a declining share of the demographic groups well served by current educational practice, and rapid growth in the populations that colleges and universities don’t serve well.  That is, more people are born every day to the ethnicities, countries, and socioeconomic strata for whom earning a degree is less likely.

In the long run this threatens not just our sense of fairness, but also our world’s economic and civic vitality, and its people’s health outcomes, happiness, and ability to get along.

Maybe it’s because I work in education, but it’s hard for me to picture a more urgent problem — especially since solutions to all the other problems we face, with climate, energy, food, and human rights, will come from people who’ve been well educated.

I wish I could say we had an answer in California, since we’ve had such a head start offering college to a diverse populace.  But in fact our answers are patchwork and provisional.  They seem to turn on contextualized learning, reconceptions of education that locate student work in real-world settings to vary the performance cues, surprise the learner, and illuminate proficiency.  You can see in a recent report that our faculty have no shortage of good ideas for making the first two years of college feel integrated and purposeful, but administratively we have very far to go; most of the time when we say learn we mean sit and listen.

My earlier post emphasized the mismatch in pacing:  global demographics are changing quickly, while our higher ed machinery is still organized to serve the old majority.

Yet I’m happy to note that the world seems at least on track to get more of its educational act together, in a few ways.

International_Islamic_University_in_Islamabad,_PakistanReason for hope #1: growing demand. Countries in the developing world are showing record interest in postsecondary education, and they keep inviting U.S. consultants to show how it’s done. Since starting this blog I’ve been to the United Arab Emirates and Kenya on such missions, and my friends are getting flown around too, often to obscure and poor countries. Those cultures have prized learning for a very long time, but it’s a new thing to make universities your marquee infrastructure project.

(I’m not alone in this particular zeal:  see a recent Smithsonian article on how a former California college administrator is leading an American university in Nigeria, and what she believes it can do.)  This makes me hopeful because the learning from such interaction is inevitably two-way.

Reason for hope #2: migration. Most observers think this century’s imbalance in birth rates will be offset by migration, so that developed countries really won’t shrink. In the words of a Rand study, we “will see increasing pressures for migration to the developed world.”  (You think?  It’s been a harrowing few weeks of evidence on that point.)

A Roland-Berger analysis concurs: “International migration will continue . . . with North America and Europe the main destinations for migrants.” But presciently, Rand singled out the U.S. as the developed country best prepared for this:

Japan, which faces the prospect of losing a quarter of its population over the next 25 years, makes little allowance for immigrants. In Europe, any liberalization of immigration policies must involve a multilateral response, and an attendant surrender of sovereignty will be opposed on national sovereignty grounds.

Furthermore, unlike in the United States, citizenship in most European countries and Japan is based on blood (ethnicity) rather than country of birth (nativity). Given the complexity of these issues and the fact that most developed countries have no history of immigration, it is instructive to look at the debate about immigration policy in the United States, where immigrants are currently responsible for about two-thirds of total population growth.

Between the lines, Rand is suggesting that we in the United States might benefit from our head start, if we can just rein in the rhetoric, and figure out how to bring in newcomers fairly, legally, and intentionally.

And combined with the global vogue for higher ed, these are signs we could eventually make up for the shortfall in the world’s production of college grads.

Syrian refugees in Hungary, in an image from The Guardian.
Syrian refugees in Hungary two days ago, in an image from The Guardian.

What do we do in the meantime? Well, the usual but for more reasons.

First, we need to close our dang gaps. Our present diverse population – especially California’s – is teaching us how to educate them, and the rest of the world is counting on us to listen and respond better. Because more are coming – by birth rate, by growing interest in college-going, by migration. And we want them all in college, and then we want them out there, with degrees, pitching in.

Second – and this is just me talking – we should support more of the half-baked ideas from our colleagues about how to embed liberal learning in unusual settings, like work. We need our students writing everywhere, and not just in freshman comp. We need them quantifying problems on internships and in their communities, not just in workbooks.

Many experiments will fail, but others will teach us how to make GE look less irrelevant, and more like what it is: the source of the expansive and versatile intellectual capacity that drives opportunity and equity.  That’s the defining feature of American higher education.

To the extent there’s truth in advertising, we seem to be what the world needs now.

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3 thoughts on “demographics, part 2

  1. It is cool to see you trending toward optimism, especially because I know at heart you are a realist. This mixture is difficult to sustain.

    The only minor element I would tweak is this: We don’t need to learn to embed liberal learning in unusual settings, like work. We need to learn to discern it and give credit for it and plan our own programs to accommodate and support it. Your broader point is well taken. It is a mistake to assume a one-way street between liberal learning/college and the work setting. Clearly, liberal learning is not defined just by a course number or an academically approved program. Emerging clarity in this regard could come from the Academic Passport Project sponsored by WICHE. It is good that California remains involved in it.

  2. These two phrases struck me: “we should support more of the half-baked ideas from our colleagues” and “Many experiments will fail”. We’re so gripped by being transparently accountable stewards of public resources (and boy do we hear about it if we aren’t) that we have internalized the “failure is not an option” mantra. As a result, we tiptoe around potentially groundbreaking and transformational ideas, analyzing and drawing them out for so long, the students we had planned on helping have students of their own in college.

    Pilot programs, experimenting, and throwing stuff against a wall to see if it sticks are all fine with our individual research and in our own classrooms, but rolling these out regionally or consortially is risky, scary, and often quashed by higher ups and even our own colleagues at the conceptual stage, before they have a chance to have no effect, let alone fail. (egads!)

    Because of this internalized dialogue, we are not walking our own talk. We encourage our students to experiment, and we give them a variety of soft places to fall — multiple ungraded paper rewrites, extra credit, course withdrawals and incompletes, mulligans of all sorts. I wish we had the same leeway on a campus or system level, at least a small corner carved out where we could give things the old “college try”. (pun intended).

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