The Learning Class

The coming transformation in higher education

| September-October 2011

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    Ellen Weinstein /
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    Ellen Weinstein /

  • the-learning-class1
  • the-learning-class2

Almost nine out of ten American high school seniors say they want to go to college.

This is a new historical fact. For most of the thousand years or so since it was invented, a university education was thought to be suited only for a tiny group—a ruling class or a subculture of scholars. Since World War II, this country has turned it into not only a mass-market product but also the best hope of achieving a middle-class income. Sending your kids to college is now part of the American Dream, just like home ownership; and just like home ownership, it’s something we have been willing to go deeply into hock for.

Faith in the universal power of higher learning is at the heart of modernity. From enhancing our basic humanity to preserving culture, economic and technological development to social equality, and redressing ills from global warming to AIDS, there are very few needs for which more education has not been prescribed.

Warranted or not, this belief is the closest thing we have to a world religion. And it is winning converts at unprecedented speed. People around the world are demanding more education as a human right and as a pathway out of poverty. In 1900 about half a million people worldwide were enrolled in colleges. A century later the number was 100 million. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),150 million students are now enrolled in some kind of education beyond high school, a 53 percent increase in less than a decade.

That number represents more than one in four college-age young people worldwide. The growth has touched even the most impoverished and war-torn countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, has 5 percent of its population enrolled in higher education, and this is the lowest participation rate on the planet. UNESCO concluded that there’s no foreseeable way that enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand. Young people worldwide are caught between the spiraling cost of college and an apparently bottomless hunger for it.

Meanwhile, here in America, the birthplace of mass higher education, our faith is no longer moving mountains. Since the 1970s, our educational attainment has stalled while the rest of the world is roaring ahead.

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