The idea has been expressed in many ways over the previous several years – overhaul, reform, revolution, and now a reboot – but however it is put, the facts it describes are still the same: the American higher education system is in need of some drastic and immediate changes if it is to continue to remain competitive in the global marketplace and produce graduates ready and willing to become the pillars that support and grow the nation's economy.
Although there are a number of challenges facing the higher education system in this country, according to Steven Bell writing in Library Journal, the three mains hurdles seem to be the ever-increasing cost of attending college, the stagnation that keeps many universities from breaking with the status quo, and a failing primary and secondary education system that leaves its graduates unprepared for college-level academic work.
All these issues were brought up and discussed recently during the Summit on Higher Education hosted by Time Magazine. In all, 100 leaders of academic institutions and higher education experts gathered together to discuss the steps colleges and universities need to take in order to ensure continued success. The matter of finances got a lot of air time, with many attendees admitting that out-of-control spending by many schools — often with the goal of raising their prestige to become more attractive to the best potential students — is forcing them to recoup these expenses by continuously raising tuition.
Whatever you think of those three themes, and there's no mistaking that higher education has other significant challenges—retention, accountability, athletics, adjuncts, deferred maintenance, just to name a few—it's clear that the vast majority of colleges and universities have substantial opportunity for change and improvement. It would be hard to claim that academic libraries, as with other academic support services, contribute to the overall problem. Maintaining our resources certainly adds to the escalating cost of tuition, but much of that is owing to circumstances beyond our control.
Bell issues a reminder that university libraries, some of the most useful resources made available to students and faculty, have an important role to play in the higher education revolution. Over the years, they've continually set an example of fiscal responsibility by weighing the pros and cons of the allocation of each dollar from the budget. They have also been strongly committed to expanding access to academic publishing to more people both on and off campus .
They've also led the way on digital innovation and have embraced the integration of information technology into their domain.
When academic librarians demonstrate the value of their services and the institution's return on its investment in the library in research dollars or student graduation rates, the assessment effort helps all of higher education to achieve greater accountability. Despite these positive contributions to a better, more effective higher education, academic librarians know they can't rest on their laurels. Higher education is headed for a reboot, and we will want to be right there helping it along.