So what's the alternative?
As a product of the activist campuses of the late 1960s, I say that higher education can take action and answer the call for increased productivity!
This isn't a cry for professors to teach more courses or to blindly exploit technology.
There are other routes to increasing productivity. But we need to get out of our centuries-old mental models of education.
Here are some possibilities – off-ramps from the death spiral.
The first opportunity: Change from a sole focus on access, to embrace completion.
The basic economics of higher education is that costs of higher education vary with enrollment, but payoffs from higher education vary not with credit hours earned, but with completion of academic objectives – typically degrees or certificates.
So colleges and universities can change by embracing the importance of completion, instead of merely access.
A new objective should be to help ensure that the students our campuses admit complete their educational objectives. Let's get out of the old role of being gatekeepers – ensuring "only the very best make it through," and recognize that everyone on campus has an opportunity and responsibility to help students get out, not just in.
The challenge, though, is not becoming K-12-like, cheapening standards or cut scores in order to increase completion rates, for that will do nothing to help the economy.
A second opportunity: Change from an academic model based on Carnegie units, to the holistic development and mastery of needed knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
Tackle the question: "What education is required for our graduates to participate successfully in the 21st century economy and contribute to a free and democratic society?"
We need to change from teaching only the things I'm good at as an educator or institution, to the effective education of the whole person; from a focus on the teaching process, to a commitment to the learning outcome.
The productivity of the participants in and graduates of America's colleges and universities is measured by their contributions to the economy and society – and these contributions are a product of their competencies.
How effectively are our campuses adding value to our students: identifying and helping develop not only what their graduates know and can do, but also what they actually will do.
A third opportunity: Shifting from once-in-a-lifetime education to continuous education – what Jim Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan has called moving from "just-in-case" education (where we open up students' heads and pour all we can into them by the time they're 20-something, "just in case" they need it sometime in the future), to just-in-time, and just-for-you education.
Help define and then provide what it takes to be an effectively educated person so graduates can begin working and then come back for additional education, as they need it.
With the continuingly rapid increase in knowledge, our graduates will need to continue to learn more throughout their lives, not only to get a new job, but indeed, even to keep their current jobs. We will need to invent new ways they can get this general and specialized education where and when they need it.
To achieve some of these opportunities, there will be a fundamental need: To define new concepts of compensation.
Our 900-year-old model of higher education is one in which we measure learning by credit hours accumulated at the foot of the master.
To tackle the question of developing and certifying competencies, we must change old mental and business models of seat time paid for to provide remuneration of educators.
We need to address the challenge set down over a decade ago by the then-president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase, who called for a new unionism in education – to move away from his union's singular focus on job protection and salary increases – a focus shared by their brothers and sisters in the United Autoworkers Union that had nearly killed the U.S. auto industry.