Oe of the greatest presumptions in U.S. higher education is that a traditional undergraduate degree, earned in four years while living on or near campus, is a good way to prepare young people to get a job and become well-rounded thinkers, at least according to Mitchell Stevens.
Stevens, a Stanford University education professor, argues that large, prestigious universities like his are too slow to adjust to changing times.
He lists the problems he sees: undergraduates who don't learn much, according to some studies; costs that can be astronomical; and increasing evidence that colleges struggle to deal with sexual assaults.
"It's not a pretty picture," he said.
"We are in a golden age for U.S. higher education, but it is only for a very small number of highly endowed and internationally visible research universities," Stevens said. "In terms of prestige, academic selectivity, and endowments, we are moving ever closer to a winner-take-all system."
Although many upper-middle-class Americans still think that dropping off their children at a dorm freshman year is the best way for them to learn, fewer and fewer students actually go to school full time and live on campus, Stevens said.
About 57% of all first-year undergraduates attended two-year colleges in 2008, according to a book co-edited by Stevens. In fall 1988, about 39% of students attended community colleges, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.
"Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education," which Stevens edited with fellow Stanford professor Michael Kirst, questions the four-year college path that evolved after World War II. The authors advocate for a more flexible model that is based less on the Ivy League and more on for-profit colleges.
Those schools "offer new versions of college that fit more comfortably into people's lives" by delivering courses online at convenient times, Stevens writes in the book's introduction. He acknowledges, however, that some for-profit schools are "bad players" for their predatory lending tactics and poor financial management.
It's also difficult to judge whether colleges are doing a good job educating students because they haven't faced the scrutiny that K-12 schools have, Kirst said. He pointed out that schools, and sometimes teachers themselves, are judged by test scores and attendance.
"Higher education is Teflon compared to that," said Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.
Colleges have begun receiving score cards from the federal government based on their cost and graduation rates, among other factors. And the Obama administration has proposed a ratings system for colleges that would take into account tuition, average student debt and graduation and transfer rates.
Stevens said he sees more innovation in the technology field. Several San Francisco start-ups have started offering seminar-style college courses aimed at training people for tech jobs. And Stanford students and administrators have discussed a program to spread undergraduate studies over a longer period than four years.
But of all the residential campuses, Stevens said he believes Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C., has done the best job of exploring alternatives to the traditional four-year schedule among selective private schools.
The school has offered "flipped" courses in which students watch lectures on their computers and spend their time in class interacting with their peers and professors. The school also started an adult learning institute that offers primarily evening courses designed for adult students.
At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, professors have been tracking results for students taking "flipped" classes and comparing them against the same class in a traditional setting.
Davidson President Carol Quillen said she's not sure what role flipped courses and adult learning will play in the college's future. "No one knows what the impact of new technologies is going to be on higher education," she said.
Quillen said the college is likely to keep trying to find ways to integrate technology in the classroom, but she didn't foresee it tearing down dorms any time soon.
"It would be foolish and possibly irresponsible to ignore it," she said. "I don't know how we can tell students they can make a difference in the world if we don't teach them about technology."