OP-ED higher education not sustainable

Our Higher Education Model is not Sustainable

Sustainability is not merely an environmental ambition, focused on EPA-administered programs and “small footprint” tips and tricks for changing lifestyles. Sustainability, literally, is about doing things in a way that ensures they can continue to be done indefinitely.

With this in mind, critics (especially current students and recent graduates) are apt—and not wholly mistaken—to point at the bubble-like characteristics of college tuition, student loans, and the leaky college-to-career pipeline that sees many more degreed applicants than high-paying jobs being filled by them. Clearly, these features indicate a lack of sustainability; all bubbles burst eventually.

But even if financing an education weren’t the headache it currently is, would our approach to learning truly be sustainable? The problem goes beyond time and money management, bolstering salaries, or even aligning degree programs to the demands of the economy.

Ten years ago, the United Nations convened a world summit, the culmination of many years’ of discussion and planning, to establish a series of global initiatives known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Taking aim at issues like poverty, disease, terrorism, and development, the MDGs were meant to represent a new, higher standard of global cooperation and humanitarianism that would push the whole world forward. These goals were meant to be reached by 2015, and as the year winds to a close, reports show that many of the targets were reached or exceeded on schedule; yet much remains to be done.

That is why the MDGs are being replaced by a new set of targets known as the SDGs: Sustainable Development Goals. Progress is great, but real change happens when it can be maintained and spread, and that is precisely what the new SDGs are meant to promote.

Central to each of the SDGs is an educational initiative. As UNESCO commented in reviewing the SDGs, “…education is a fundamental human right inextricably linked to the realization of other rights.” Whether the issue is gender equality or resource management, resilient solutions emerge from greater knowledge, and individuals become change agents when they are empowered through learning.

Important here is the difference between effective solutions, and resilient solutions: something effective works for now, but may not work tomorrow; a resilient solution is one responsive to change, and adaptable enough to be sustainable over the long term. And this is where, even as the UN’s summit ambitiously pursues resilience, America’s higher education culture and system falls short.

The fact that parents and presidential candidates alike tout the importance of a STEM education as a future-oriented approach to education does not make it resilient; and indeed, even the most cutting edge degree programs are limited by current understanding and the ad hoc demand that feeds them. There’s money in programming, so people take programming courses; management pays better than production, so people acquire MBAs in droves; Obamacare and demographic shifts are colliding, leading to a shortage of healthcare providers—predictably, students are promised jobs if they study medicine.

The critical shortfall in primary care providers is not something that can be sustainably managed simply by training and employing more providers, or even by pushing more nurses and physician’s assistants into leadership roles; the numbers are important, but more necessary is training the individuals to be resilient teams, entrepreneurial thinkers and leaders, and ingrain the culture of lifelong learning not just as a matter of professional enrichment, but as central to competence altogether.

A fast-changing world comprised of volatile industries, disruptive technologies, and evolving scientific realities means lifelong learning has a much greater, more ubiquitous role to play in ensuring anyone’s health, career, lifestyle, and social engagement are all sustainable.

Lifelong learning is no longer a rich-world phenomenon relegated to hobby status among retirees and classroom enthusiasts. Lifelong learning is a core component of a modern, sustainable economy and society. Education, after all, is not merely a gateway to productivity and economic competitiveness (though it is certainly how it popularly presented), but a critical element of responsible citizenship, social development, and human stewardship of everything from the planet to raising future generations and even advancing the progress of knowledge and scientific curiosity.

Perhaps the most consequential element of the SDGs is the recognition that the goals are interconnected, and that progress on any single goal stimulates and builds upon progress on the others. Unfortunately, learning remains highly compartmentalized by a system that emphasizes high-demand degree programs over instilling a commitment, and set of skills, to learn continuously.

Your degree may be relevant now, but that does not mean that you will remain so. The answer is not to replace the old degree with a newer model; an education should not be treated (or packaged) like a smartphone. Disposability is anathema to sustainability, whether environmental or academic. It is time we decentralized higher learning, and made it more sustainable and accessible.

Picture by Dennis Wong via Flickr

Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant.

  • Knox Siwash

    Not much to argue about here. The last sentence is perhaps the most intriguing. I’d like to see an explication of what “decentralized” would mean.

  • asu