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  • Speculations about the Increasingly Indeterminate Future of Higher Education in the United States
  • Clark Kerr (bio)

A new century is now (1996) four years away. A new America is already here: an aging population, a reduced rate of increases in productivity and thus of available resources to meet faster increasing needs, and advancing worldwide industrial competition. The past century is now almost gone. It was a great century for higher education in the United States: 4% of the college-age population attended institutions of higher education in 1900, and over 40% in 1995; total enrollments rose from 238,000 to 15 million; there was virtually no research activity at the start of the century; but at the end, the United States clearly led the world, not Germany or Great Britain. It has been a golden century. [End Page 345]

What may the future hold? We cannot predict with any certainty but we can speculate and, perhaps, identify some underlying developments. We cannot control the future, but we can make some choices and identify some areas of potential influence.

In thinking about the future, I turn, without any hesitation, to Howard Bowen. Among our contemporaries, he has the best record: Facing the possibility of the great demographic depression of the 1980s, he set forth the startling “possibility” that there would be no depression. At that time, the standard prediction was an enrollment decline of 20–25% paralleling the decline in the number of young people of college-going age. Some estimates went as high as 40%, factoring in what Richard Freeman (1976) called the “overeducated American.” The Carnegie Council (1975) predicted a decline of 5 to 15%. A member of our faculty advisory committee at Berkeley came to a meeting on a draft of our Carnegie report, slapped the report on the table, announced, “This is the most irresponsible report I have ever read,” and walked out of the room. Many others felt the same way. Yet Howard Bowen (1974) said enrollments might actually rise. That prediction looked like the height of irresponsibility. But he turned out to be correct. Making that statement took a high level of analytical ability and great courage. He earned respect for both.

In the 1970s, Bowen (1980) was the first person to make a careful study of the rising costs of higher education and how they might be reduced. In the 1990s, financing higher education has become the single most overwhelming problem for American universities. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bowen (1982) set forth the prospect of “a nation of educated people” and of what effects this might have. This report still stands as the great vision for higher education and for the United States. In the 1980s, Bowen (1982) looked upon the neglect of teaching ethics as the great failure of American higher education and the greatest disservice to American society. Here was an area where higher education might influence the future.

Thus, in thinking about the future, I start with Bowen’s (1986) lecture at the University of Iowa, where he had been president from 1964 to 1969. This address, which inaugurated a lecture series named after him, was titled: “American Higher Education: Problems and Opportunities.” The lecture summarized his views as a long-time student of and administrator in American higher education at both the college and university level. 1 I refer in what follows to his major “propositions” and my own reactions to them.

Proposition 1. “The future of higher education is on the whole not predictable.” It is “inscrutable.” Bowen made a strong case based on the immense [End Page 346] impacts of many past unforeseen developments: the Great Depression, World War II, the GI Bill at the end of World War II, the Cold War and Sputnik, the Vietnam War and student unrest, and the inflation and recessions of the 1970s. Since so much was “not predicted and probably not predictable,” it follows that “academic administration consists not of orderly planning . . . but of adjustments to a continued succession of surprises” (Bowen, 1986, p. 8).

I note, however, that Bowen did not act the way he spoke. At Grinnell, at Iowa, and at Claremont, he is best known for his...

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