The Shrinking Middle–A Review of From Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

The “crisis in Higher Education” has had so many studies written on it that its books alone could easily fill an entire library. Adding to this number is Richard DeMillo, a former Dean of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Chief Technology Officer for Hewlett Packard. In his 2011 book From Abelard to Apple, he makes a case that due to changes in both technology and educational cost those colleges and universities who reside “in the middle” of the Higher Education rankings should hasten to assess their current mission if they plan to survive.

Most of the schools in the middle addressed by DeMillo are state colleges and universities that flourished under the land grant act and the expansion of the pool of undergraduate students made possible by the G.I. Bill. Caught between the high prestige schools such as Harvard and M.I.T. and the for profit schools that have emerged in the latter half of the 20th century such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix, these schools in the middle are torn between “prestige envy” and a desire to be relevant to their prospective students.

DeMillo (as Jennifer Washburn before him in her book University Inc.) clearly illustrates that this push-pull between wanting to live up to the Germanic ideal of a University, a place where knowledge is studied and created for its own sake, and a desire to train students for specific careers has long dominated discussions of Higher Education. If nothing else, DeMillo’s book is useful for reminding us that the “end times” we feel that we face in 21st century Higher Ed are part of a much larger trajectory that is as much circular as it is a straight line. We are reliving many of the debates (DeMillo shows) that once dominated American discussions on the role of a college education in the early 20th century.

His book is non-linear in nature and provides a series of loosely interlocking vignettes that each provide a different piece of the puzzle necessary to prove his argument. It is not until the last chapter that DeMillo offers something of a blueprint for those leaders of colleges and universities in the middle who want to survive the coming extinction of the land grant institution.

The most pertinent suggestions he offers are to: Focus on what differentiates you from other institutions and establish your own brand. Then create a new balance between faculty interests and student interests using technology as well as locally created assessment tools to maintain it.

Although there isn’t much to argue with in DeMillo’s assessment of the problem, his solutions are problematic. Their heavy reliance upon the language of business enterprise makes me wonder if he believes there is any hope for the 19th model of the college and university imagined by Thomas Jefferson, Justin Morrill, and John Dewey. The ending of his book leaves one thinking that a “market correction” awaits in Higher Ed and that when the dust settles only the prestige institutions will be left with for profit online schools picking up most of the students once taught by the land grant school and community college.

From Abelard to Apple offers one more facet to our understanding of the problems in Higher Education that face the United States in the 21st century but it remains unable (as most of the books that preceded it) to offer a roadmap out of our current difficulties. This is not DeMillo’s fault but reflects a larger tendency in Higher Ed to overcomplicate the problem to hide its source. If everyone is to blame, than no one is to blame. We are all at fault and can therefore sit on our hands and feel bad for ourselves while sipping an over-priced latte.

Read DeMillo if you want to see another side of the problem but don’t bother if you want to find a way out.

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