Waves of Change: We Can Do Better

The waves of change in American higher education are far from over. The imperative for innovation is driven by an accelerating rate of change in society—accelerating in complexity, economic challenges, diversity and size. Yet despite this burgeoning need, higher education remains an under-performing sector, one that is overly dependent on family income. It’s not acceptable when half of our population does not exceed a 15 percent college attainment rate—a key determinant of social mobility and economic well-being. 

That’s why we at Arizona State University are pursuing what we call the “fifth wave” in higher education, a new design for an American university that takes advantage of the remarkable ecosystem of higher education knowledge that has been created and links it to digitally immersive, technologically enhanced learning experiences that increase the prospects for educational success. The commitment to this mission will expand our ability to reach the millions of Americans and people around the world who lack access to higher education and risk being left behind.  

For nearly 400 years, America has provided a model of educational enterprise. Just since 1870, the US has seen unbelievable growth in educational attainment, matching the country’s incredible economic growth. This has fueled our nation’s progress and continuing possibility. Four waves of higher education dating to the 1630s set this in motion, including the creation of American “Greek academies” like Harvard and Yale, then the rise of public colleges, land grant universities and research universities. 

We don’t envision a fifth wave as a replacement for these previous waves of educational design, but as an opportunity to augment them and give shape to where we need to go. This evolving institutional type must be scaled for diversity and accessibility—tapping into our society’s communities that have lacked access and opportunity—without sacrificing a commitment to educational excellence. This includes integrating new technology to help students expand their capacity to learn, rethinking teaching methods, empowering faculty to pursue new multidisciplinary arenas, pursuing new collaborations, expanding research and taking risks. Those who think this means lowering quality may be too dependent on an older way of thinking that prizes selectivity above all else and presumes this is the only way to achieve excellence.  

This fifth wave does not reject the valuable part that “elite” colleges and universities have played in advancing knowledge. But it argues for a different role in advancing society, one that makes it possible to address the societal failure expressed in a 9 percent college completion rate among the bottom quarter of family income. How many people of aptitude and talent remain locked out, unable to improve their own lot in life and fully contribute to the betterment of society? This is a missed opportunity that we can and must tackle.


Michael Crow is the president of Arizona State University and author with William Dabars of Designing the New American University.

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series.