Home Book Reviews The Uncertain Future of American Public Higher Education by Daniel M. Johnson
The Uncertain Future of American Public Higher Education by Daniel M. Johnson

The Uncertain Future of American Public Higher Education by Daniel M. Johnson

Uncertain future of higher education Daniel M. Johnson

Former University of Toledo President Daniel Johnson’s career, spanning many years and roles at multiple institutions, provides him with an insider’s perspective on higher education. In his introduction, while he acknowledges defending the system for the last 25 years of his career, he also notes that assessing it from the outside gives him a new point of view.

According to Dr. Johnson, paradigms can change and “the paradigm that provides the conceptual, pedagogical, legal, regulatory and financial structures for advanced learning and certification has multiple cracks – some large and some small – all seriously weakening the infrastructure, the very framework, and foundation upon which our public colleges and universities currently rest.” The failure of the higher education paradigm to meet the challenges of today’s education environment brings substantial pressure for change. He maintains that the current manners and modes in which higher education functions are costly and ineffectual and have been for years. Our future success depends on how we prepare our students to find meaningful roles in an economy driven by artificial intelligence, robotics, and an explosion of digitally-based enterprises and industries.

Johnson addresses the issues head-on, beginning with the cost of public higher education. Increasing tuition and higher loan balances for students have caused the public to question the wisdom of pursuing a college degree. The substantial cost increases stem from two causes: (1) the addition to university programs, services, amenities, facilities, technologies, and salaries and (2) the reduction of state support. In fact, from 1975 to 2010, state support decreased from approximately 60% of revenue to 34% of revenue for state institutions. State support in 2017 alone was reported to be $9 billion below that in 2008.

Johnson criticizes the ancient standard of academic credit based on seat time, asserting that it measures neither education nor learning. In other words, time spent in class measures nothing more than time spent in class. New metrics that measure knowledge or competency could be the catalyst for reform and increased public confidence in higher education. He describes several models that measure knowledge — including the European Bologna Process, the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), and the Tuning Initiative — all of which stress learning, knowledge, and competencies as the path to a degree.

As applied in American institutions, tenure policies are one of the deepest cracks in the American higher education paradigm. These guarantees reduce flexibility, and market-dependent businesses like most colleges and universities must be able to retain the flexibility to adapt accordingly.

The increasing role of online education will disrupt that of campus-based education. Johnson posits what this means for thousands of campuses and tens of thousands of related buildings. The displacement of campus-based education is happening without an alternative plan for what to do with many of these facilities. These buildings and their associated debt are becoming financial albatrosses for both the universities and states that own them.

One of the most interesting arguments made by Johnson is the role of duplicative programs, citing the unnecessary duplication of state universities just 20 miles apart in Ohio. Adding to this needless cost are those of supporting graduate professional schools just miles apart. The pressure to add these prestige programs blinds trustees to their fiduciary obligations. Having multiple colleges of education, business, and other professional schools serving the same region of a state does not make sense from a fiscal policy perspective. Public universities should reset their academic priorities in order to mitigate the pressures from declining legislative support. Johnson also believes that allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees (as some states have) is a further recipe for financial disaster with more duplicative programs supported by the state.

In the book’s last chapter, Johnson provides strategies for governors, governing boards, and college presidents to address the changing paradigm in higher education. The die has been cast and for some, it may be too late, for others, better late than never. In recent days, the public higher education sector has witnessed what can happen when a governor and legislature withdraw substantial funding as the governor of Alaska has done for the University of Alaska System. While change for most in higher education comes slowly, my advice would be for many more to read Daniel Johnson’s observations and recommendations.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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