February 16, 2022

The Past, Present, and Future of Higher Ed and What Needs to Change Next

It may be hard to link how past Presidents have shaped how we learn and work today, but with President’s Day coming up, we thought we’d explore the topic. This is a bit longer than usual, but by no means comprehensive. Grab your favorite beverage and let’s dive in:

First, the elites

In 1636, the founding of Harvard College in Boston signified the beginning of higher education in America. Like most things at that time it centered around two things: religion and white men. Still, the need for education was felt so strongly by the Massachusetts Bay Colony that Harvard was established without a single instructor, student, or building.

200 years later, Lincoln stepped in.



During Lincoln’s presidency, the federal government became directly involved in higher education, with the Morrill Act of 1862, where states received profits from the sale of western lands if used to establish programs focused on agricultural, engineering, military sciences, and liberal arts. Unfortunately, the property often came from violence-backed cessions of Native American tribal land. Many universities today now stand on ancestral lands of the first people. Ugh.

Then, private money began flowing.

The country began to expand and as people became wealthier, they began endowing universities to leave a legacy. These endowments helped build the infrastructure needed to take on more students, thus leading to education growing its reach and offerings.

Who run the world? Girls!

By the mid-1900’s, higher ed had established itself as a hub of research and beneficial to the entire country. But a major part of the population was missing: women. Roosevelt changed that. With men being drafted to fight in the war, US women stepped up to take their place, allowing a new class of students to receive a type of education that used to be rarely available to them. Finally.

From elites to the masses

As the wars ended, higher education became a staple in the American Dream. Truman concluded the federal funding of research should continue even in peacetime (hallelujah). The G.I. Bill was designed to fund veterans to attend colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions (although it generally excluded Black veterans — especially in southern states. The impact of this is still being felt today.)

Then Johnson’s administration created programs for the arts and humanities, including both the Head Start & Secondary Education Act programs which aimed to provide funding for lower-income school districts.

Can you loan me a few (thousand) bucks?

The Higher Education Act of 1965 set up federal scholarships and low-interest loans for college students, and subsidized better academic libraries. The HEA has continued to be updated and reaffirmed through the years. If you got a Pell Grant during college, you can thank LBJ.

On the flip-side, student loans have become one of the heaviest weights on American society and have made the entire world facepalm when they hear the numbers. There’s too much to address about how we’ve mishandled student loans in this piece, but let’s be clear: it’s not just a problem, it’s a crisis.

What’s Next? From the Elites, to the Masses, to all people….always.

It’s no secret that colleges and universities have been absolutely critical to our global, economic and cultural development. But, there are a few giant leaps ahead of us. On the most basic level, higher ed is still out of reach for many Black, brown, lower-income, and other marginalized students across the country. Efforts such as Affirmative Action seek to disrupt this barrier, but have a long way to go.

But there’s an even deeper shift.

And it’s how society views learning altogether. Institutions have their place in administering education, but they do not own the act of learning. That belongs to all of us. And thanks to the tiny device in your hand, all of the content you could ever want is more accessible than ever.

So what happens if universities are no longer the gatekeepers of education? How can your experiences in life and work be highlighted and even added to so that you are able to grow in your career without massive debt? What if you (and all of us) had the tools and permission to be a lifelong learner through your experiences?

The first people who are going to have to think this way aren’t just at universities, they’re at companies.

  • When an HR Director creates an apprenticeship program with minimal pre-reqs, or even funds the training of individuals who don’t have all of the technical qualifications, universities in their current iteration become less necessary.

  • When an individual creates a self-directed learning program, and wins a role at a company over someone with a traditional degree, our view of career pathways change.

  • And when someone in their 30’s or 40’s or 50’s engages in a learning program with their company to level-up their work, and then gets that promotion over someone with a university certificate or degree, our view of who is an “expert” adjusts.



Picking Up The Pace

This is why experience matters so much. It’s the lynchpin of the change that needs to happen in higher education and workforce development. We don’t need better content, campuses, etc, we need individualization (despite age or background), community, access to experiential opportunities, and recognition of new types of learning from individuals and leaders across industries.

All of that will continue the shift from the elites, to the masses, to learning as a human right.

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