In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

Complexities of Higher Education

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Author: John V. Lombardi, Michael M.E. Johns, William B. Rouse, and Diane D. Craig

Complexities in higher education are due to cultural legacies, differences among disciplines, and resource disparities across institutions. These differences suggest that one-size-fits-all higher education policies will be ineffective. Policies need to both be tailored to these differences and foster potential unifiability.

The ways higher education is organized, financed, and delivered varies immensely across the United States. Yet the structure of the University of Bologna formulated in 1088 persists today in most institutions. This time-honored structure of colleges, schools, departments, and programs imposes substantial complexity, fostering “guilds,” as in humanities versus medicine versus engineering. Well-resourced institutions thrive on and can sustain this model; lesser-resourced institutions not so much.

The ecosystem of higher education has been criticized as costs have steadily risen. The financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have been enormous, giving rise to many fundamental questions for the enterprise. Technology has rescued teaching in the short term, but diminished the value of brick-and-mortar campuses. These challenges are happening while the nature and priorities of students are morphing.

Statistical Snapshot of US Higher Education

According to the Center for Measuring University Performance, student enrollments have grown from 1.5 million in the 1940s to almost 20 million. The number of degree-granting institutions has more than doubled, from 1700 in 1940 to over 4000, and the number of degrees awarded has greatly increased, particularly at the graduate level.

Higher education is perceived to be composed of interchangeable institutions, reinforced through a curricular structure that leads to a 4-year degree with relatively standardized content. Accrediting institutions and various state and federal regulatory organizations reinforce this notion.

But public (33 percent) and private (66 percent) institutions have very different governance mechanisms, financial structures, and size and scope. In terms of enrollment, 88 percent of private institutions have fewer than 2500 students, while 87 percent of public institutions have more than 30,000. Among students, 73 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in public institutions and 27 percent in private institutions; at the graduate level, 53 percent are at public institutions and 47 percent at private institutions.

Institutions are classified into ten categories of the Carnegie Classification®. Those with very high (R1) or high (R2) research activity account for only about 5 percent (219) of all US degree-granting institutions. This subset includes many of the well-resourced institutions with very large research budgets and endowments.

The curriculum generally provides a liberal arts core and a specialization (major), relatively comparable across institutions. External accreditation agencies set specific requirements for disciplines such as engineering and health care.

Governance is shared: the board of trustees or regents has final authority, but faculty typically control curriculum, hiring, promotion, and tenure. These processes can differ significantly for public vs. private and large vs. small institutions (size here relates to resource avail-ability rather than number of students).

Differences in Institutional Brand Value

Institutions differentiate themselves in the marketplace by emphasizing the context (versus the content) in which activities take place. This context translates into a brand value designed to project a quality image, which reflects a range of attributes provided at significant cost.

Among these attributes are high-visibility and high-quality student activities and a wide range of personal and academic support services, as well as a high-quality physical environment and facilities. Faculty with stellar credentials and accomplishments enhance the brand by offering students the possibility of engaging with the best minds.

Brand value is a key element differentiating institutions. The ability to sustain the cost of brand value leads institutions into various competitive niches, determining their ability to recruit students and secure resources.

Rising Costs

The competition for brand value has driven costs higher. Only the most well resourced institutions can sustain these costs.

The principal sources of funding for all institutions are tuition and fees, state and federal instructional support, private gifts and grants, and federal, state, or private research support. The differential ability of institutions to obtain funding affects their brand value.

High-brand-value institutions established themselves early in the postwar years and set the standard for excellence, which other institutions may seek to emulate. Top performers maintain their positions by capturing larger shares of educational and research revenue. The hierarchy of institutions has consequently remained remarkably stable.

In the 1970s, roughly 80 percent of faculty members were in tenure tracks. This has fallen to 20 percent, driven by needs to make faculty costs contingent on enrollments. This has led to growing employment of much lower paid adjunct faculty members, and a bit of unrest.

Poor K-12 student preparation is pervasive, so institutions spend very large amounts on remedial services to compensate.

Beyond the normal educational services, there are health services (including for mental health), career counseling, placement services, dispute resolution services, management of intramurals and clubs, etc.

Activities associated with university and discipline-specific accreditation, certifications of workload distributions, auditing of travel expense reports, compliance with policies and procedures, and sundry other forms consume significant faculty and staff time, increasing costs.

The covid-19 pandemic has caused many in higher education to recognize that online learning is -better than expected in terms of efficacy and ease of use, thanks in part to programs hosted on platforms developed by major institutions (e.g., Coursera, edX, and Udacity). This can enable much lower tuition, but only a few better-resourced institutions have lowered prices.

Increasing equity of foreign institutions, immigration headaches in the United States, and now pandemic worries are steadily decreasing enrollments of full-tuition-paying foreign students, threatening almost $50 billion of revenue to US universities.

Possible Futures for Higher Education

Top-ranked institutions have the resources and confidence needed to explore potential innovations. Lower-ranked institutions understand pending changes and will emulate successes if resources allow. Poorly resourced institutions will struggle to sustain their seriously threatened business models. Different disciplines will address needs to change in different ways.

  • Online education. Everyone has to entertain the prospect of greater use of online teaching. However, disciplines may differ in emphases based on content. The extent that face-to-face interactions are central to a discipline and can be technologically mediated is also important.
  • Interactive technologies. Technologies can enable compelling interactive portrayals of phenomena ranging from chemistry and physics to human physiology and behaviors to social and cultural interactions. The quality of these immersive portrayals has steadily improved and costs have decreased. The economics of such technologies depend on the number of students across which costs can be amortized.
  • Knowledge management. The nature of knowledge artifacts differs substantially across disciplines. In particular, the technological infrastructure associated with science and technology has benefited from substantial sustained investments; humanities have seen important investments and innovations but not on the same scale (the knowledge artifacts of the humanities were seldom originally created digitally).
  • Process improvement. This is affected by the extent to which educational processes are interwoven with operational processes. This is greatest for medicine, where much education happens during delivery of clinical services. In engineering, considerable research happens with industry and under-graduate cooperative education programs are pervasive. Humanities have few similar processes. Scale is also important so that investments can be amortized across many students.


It is critical to understand the overall economics of education, despite the fragmentation among federal, state, and local stakeholders. Such understanding could enable sharing of investment resources (e.g., in technology platforms) while minimizing cost shifting downstream because of upstream underperformance (e.g., if K-12 education poorly prepares students, then higher education has to provide remedial services, which increase costs).

Thinking in terms of unifiability, policies need to address the education ecosystem of K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities.

About the Author:John Lombardi is a professor of history and former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Michael Johns (NAM) is a professor of medicine and public health and former chancellor of Emory University. William Rouse (NAE) is a research professor and senior fellow at the McCourt School of Public Policy of Georgetown University. Diane Craig is a research associate at the University of Florida.