Headlines and pundits proclaiming a crisis in American higher education seem to proliferate on a daily basis. Accounts of skyrocketing sticker prices at our nation’s colleges and universities vie for attention with dire pronouncements about the value of a college degree in today’s challenging economy.

Yet the idea that higher education is only worth the investment for the rarified few admitted to one of our nation’s most selective institutions threatens to undermine the future of our collective quality of life, standard of living, and national economic competitiveness

Arizona State University, whose president says it has become a model of how higher education can solve many of its problems. Credit: Arizona State University

To an alarming extent, the American research university is captive to a set of institutional constraints that no longer aligns with the changing needs of our society – their commitment to discovery and innovation, carried out largely in isolation from the socioeconomic challenges faced by most Americans, will render these institutions increasingly incapable of contributing decisively to the collective good.

Related: Is Arizona State University the model for the new American university?

The institutional model that we delineate in our new book, Designing the New American University, is intended to provide an alternative to the successful major research universities, and is only one among many possible variants on this institutional type. In this article, we briefly describe one possible path forward and one full-scale, real-time experiment to move down this pathway as decisively as possible.

How selectivity threatens national competitiveness

Although our leading research universities, both public and private, consistently dominate global rankings, our success in establishing world-class excellence in a relative handful of elite institutions does little to ensure the broad distribution of the benefits of educational attainment, nor does it sufficiently advance the innovation that contributes to our continued national competitiveness, especially if we stop to consider the disproportionately few students fortunate enough to be admitted to these top schools. The entrenchment of the present model is the very measure of its success.

Because the prestige of these schools remains unrivaled, there is little incentive for them to seek change. As a consequence, these institutions have become so highly selective that the vast majority of academically qualified applicants are routinely excluded.

Related: Colleges, how in good conscience can you do this to kids?

If leading research universities deem it appropriate to maintain limited enrollments while excluding the majority of applicants, other research-grade academic platforms must emerge that offer accessibility to substantially greater numbers of students— especially among public research universities, which typically serve more first-generation and socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Such limited accessibility to research-grade institutions is out of proportion with workforce projections that indicate a shortfall by 2018 of three million educated workers. The idea that these institutions could exercise their potential to produce millions of highly qualified, workforce-ready critical thinkers threatens the current business model.

Nearly all leading colleges and universities offer opportunities to students of exceptional academic ability from underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. It is always possible to recruit academically gifted students from across the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. This way, a measure of diversity can be achieved without actually drawing more deeply from the broader talent pool of socioeconomically and ethnically diverse populations. But intelligence is distributed throughout the population, and for many it manifests through skills, abilities, and experiences that current admissions protocols disregard.

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Admissions policies that merely skim from the conventionally defined top shortchange countless gifted and creative individuals. At issue is not the education of students from the top 5 percent of their high school classes, which represents business as usual at gold standard institutions, but rather the imperative to educate the top 25 percent to very high levels of achievement.

The New American University Model

The New American University model attempts to transcend this self-aggrandizing zero-sum trade-off. The model brooks no compromise in the quality of knowledge production and insists that equity is attained only when all academically qualified students are offered an opportunity for access regardless of socioeconomic background. Whereas other assessments underscore focus on the socio- economically disadvantaged and historically underrepresented, the New American University model embraces equally students from all demographic strata capable of accomplishment in a research-grade milieu, including the gifted and creative students who do not conform to a standard academic profile.

“As de facto national policy, excluding the majority of academically qualified students from the excellence of a research-grade university education is counterproductive and ethically unacceptable.”

Accessibility is at the core of the reconceptualization of Arizona State University, which represents the foundational prototype for the New American University. In the course of a decade, ASU reconstituted its curriculum, organization, and operations through a deliberate design process undertaken to build an institution committed to the pursuit of discovery and knowledge production, broad socioeconomic inclusiveness, and maximization of societal impact.

We offer our account of the reconceptualization as a case study in innovation in American higher education.

To revive the social compact implicit in American public higher education, ASU revived the intentions and aspirations of the historical public research university model, which sought to provide broad accessibility as well as engagement with society.

Related: How much should you pay for a degree?

ASU resolved to expand enrollment capacity, promote diversity, and offer accessibility to world-class research and scholarship to a diverse and heterogeneous student body that includes a significant proportion of students from socioeconomically diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, including a preponderant share of first-generation college applicants.

ASU thus implemented admissions policies similar to those of the University of California in the 1950s and 1960s. ASU’s attempt to realize an academic platform that combines world-class teaching and research with broad accessibility may be likened to coupling the research-intensive milieu of the University of California system with the accessibility offered by the Cal State system.

Arizona’s results

How is the experiment doing? Soaring enrollment growth has been accompanied by unprecedented increases in degree production, freshman persistence, minority enrollment, growth in research infrastructure and sponsored expenditures, academic accomplishment both for scholars and students, and the transdisciplinary reconfiguration of academic organizations around broad societal challenges rather than historically entrenched disciplines. Enrollment has risen from 55,491 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in the fall of 2002 to 83,301 in the fall of 2014 — roughly a 50 percent increase. Degree production has increased even more sharply — more than 67 percent. ASU awarded 19,761 degrees in the academic year 2013–2014, including 5,380 graduate and professional degrees, up from 11,803 during 2002–2003. The university has conferred more than 100,000 degrees during the past six academic years. Minority enrollment from the fall of 2002 through the fall of 2014 increased 146 percent, currently constituting 34 percent of the total student population.

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Leading scholars are increasingly attracted to and inspired by our academic community. Our faculty roster includes recipients of prestigious national and international honors, including three Nobel laureates and more memberships in the National Academies than during the entire history of the institution. And as a consequence of an ambitious expansion of the research enterprise, research-related expenditures over the period fiscal year (FY) 2002 to FY 2014 have grown by a factor of 3.5—without significant growth in the size of the faculty — reaching a record $425 million in FY 2014, up from $123 million in FY 2002. This, without a medical school, and during a period of declining federal research and development (R&D) investment, no less.

Among U.S. universities with research portfolios exceeding $100 million in expenditures, ASU has hosted one of the fastest-growing research enterprises over the period FY 2007 to FY 2012, according to data from the National Science Foundation. ASU has outperformed peer institutions in this context, with total research expenditures growing 62 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2012, more than 2.5 times the average growth rate of its peer institutions.

Related: How an oversupply of PHDs could threaten American science

We want to emphasize the significant simultaneous progress made by ASU on measures that are supposed to be contradictory. Increases in degree production, socioeconomic diversity, minority enrollment, and freshman persistence; improvements in academic achievement and faculty accomplishment and diversity; and the expansion of the research enterprise have been realized in a university committed to offering admission to all academically qualified Arizona residents regardless of financial need, and to maintaining a student body representative of the socioeconomic diversity of America.

Improvement of graduation rates or freshman persistence could readily be achieved by limiting admissions to ever-more handpicked selections of graduating high school seniors. ASU has done it by offering admission to a widening range of academically qualified students of varied and diverse backgrounds to whom admission to a world-class research university would otherwise be denied. And it has done so in a period of both robust enrollment growth and historic disinvestment in public higher education. The New American University model defies the conventional wisdom that correlates excellence with exclusivity, which generally means the exclusion of the majority of qualified applicants.

Unable or unwilling to accommodate our nation’s need to deliver superior higher education to millions of new students, most major research universities, both public and private, appear content to maintain the status quo and seek prestige through ever-in-creasing exclusivity. But success in maintaining excellence in a small number of elite institutions does little to advance our society or ensure continued national competitiveness. The issue of broad accessibility to research-grade academic platforms is far more urgent than policymakers realize, even those on the national stage charged with advancing higher education policy. Our national discussion on higher education must not simply focus on the production of more college graduates. Mere access for greater numbers to rudimentary forms of instruction will not deliver desired societal outcomes. The imperative is to ensure that far more students —an order of magnitude more — have access to research-grade academic platforms that deliver advanced skills commensurate with the demands of the knowledge economy.

Related: A promising way to help low-income students to and through college

Our nation must begin in earnest to build a higher education infrastructure proportional to the task of educating to competitive levels of achievement not only the conventionally measured top 5 percent but the most capable 25 percent of academically qualified students representative of the socioeconomic and intellectual diversity of our society.

The demand for advanced teaching and research, and for the production of new ideas, products, and processes that are its outputs, is at a fever pitch that far exceeds the current supply. Appropriate historical models from which to derive a course of action do not exist. Entrenched assumptions and rigid social constructs hinder adaptability, even though inherent design limitations hamper rapid change in response to real-time demand. Risk-taking in the academic sector is thus essential if our society is to thrive.

As de facto national policy, excluding the majority of academically qualified students from the excellence of a research-grade university education is counterproductive and ethically unacceptable. To accelerate the evolution of our research universities, we must develop new models that insist upon and leverage the complementarities and synergies between discovery and accessibility.

Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University. William B. Dabars  is senior research fellow in the Office of the President and associate research professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. This article was adapted from their book, Designing the New American University. More excerpts available at  issues.org

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