What American Higher Education Can Learn from Africa

November 10, 2020

By Brian Rosenberg

The majority of American colleges and universities are caught between two powerful and opposing forces: the compelling need to change and the structural resistance to change. This is not a unique situation - we see a similar dynamic playing out in our healthcare system - but the forces are particularly strong and the tension between them especially evident in higher education.

Anyone who doubts the need for dramatic change should consider the following realities: in a recent survey of chief business officers at colleges and universities, only about half expressed confidence in the financial stability of their institutions over the next ten years (a result consistent with pre-pandemic findings); by the end of the next decade, and at the current rate of increase, the sticker price for tuition, room, and board at a highly selective private institution will approach or exceed $100,000 per year; in 2019 (again, pre-pandemic), 52 percent of colleges and universities did not meet their admissions goals by July 1; between 2026 and 2030, the population of 18-year-olds in the United States is expected to decline by about 15 percent, a dramatic drop-off that has been called a “demographic cliff”; and more than 40 percent of students who enroll in a college or university in the United States will not graduate within six years.

In short, higher education as a sector is too expensive, has more supply than demand, and has disappointing outcomes. For every Harvard or Stanford, with acceptance rates of 5 percent and multi-billion dollar endowments, there are hundreds of colleges whose current trajectory is unsustainable.

Yet even these struggling institutions find it agonizingly difficult to change in ways that might alter that trajectory. The problem is not complacency - try to find a president of a liberal arts college or state university who is not worried about her institution’s future - but history, structure, and culture. For a number of reasons, organizations whose mission statements seem almost always to include the word “transformative” simply cannot transform themselves.

The reasons are not hard to find.

One might begin by considering the traditional college or university campus, whose office buildings, lecture halls, dormitories, and athletic centers might be seen as higher education’s version of the shopping mall: a series of expensive, inflexible structures built for a different time and difficult to adapt to fit current trends. These physical plants are almost always aging and extremely expensive to maintain; on many campuses, due to the inefficient and outmoded academic calendar, they sit unused, or relegated to hosting camps and conferences, for a large portion of the year.

The organizational structure at most colleges and universities has evolved to become nearly as inflexible as those physical plants. At even a small college, there will be dozens of academic and administrative departments, many staffed by as few as two or three people. Employees in the academy are typically trained to do a highly specialized set of tasks and cannot easily be moved around: that professor of German whose courses are under-enrolled cannot be moved to the computer science department, and that volleyball coach cannot quickly become an admissions officer. Tenure makes it especially difficult to realign faculty resources in response to shifts in demand or the emergence of new fields of study.

At Macalester College, where I was president for seventeen years, personnel costs accounted for over sixty percent of expenditures and the various costs associated with the physical plant - maintenance, construction, and debt service - accounted for another twenty percent, so the inability to reduce spending in these areas was the major driver of increases in price.

Add to these challenges the academic model of “shared governance,” defined by the Association of Governing Boards as “the process by which various constituents (traditionally governing boards, senior administration, and faculty; possibly also staff, students, or others) contribute to decision making related to college or university policy and procedure.” When done well, this model “strengthens the quality of leadership and decision making at an institution, enhances its ability to achieve its vision and to meet strategic goals, and increases the odds that the very best thinking by all parties to shared governance is brought to bear on institutional challenges.” But this is a challenging governance system to “do well,” given the complexities and competing interests of the various constituencies, and too often it leads to stasis and conflict. The strategic plans of most institutions are designed not to be bold, but to be objectionable to the smallest number of people.

Finally, there is at most colleges and universities the overwhelming weight of tradition. Tradition is an anchor, meaning both that it can keep an institution tied in positive ways to its core values and that it can bind an institution to the past to the detriment of the present and future. The same force that drives fundraising and school spirit makes it very difficult to eliminate or radically change anything about which some set of alumni cares.

While it would be interesting to imagine how at least some segment of American higher education might evolve if set free from the restrictions created by campuses and governance and alumni, it might be more useful to examine an actual institution created in the absence of those restrictions.

The African Leadership University (ALU) is one real-world answer to the following hypothetical question: what would you create if you could build a college from scratch? In this instance, absence and scarcity - of buildings, of programs, even of endowed funding sources - also bring freedom and flexibility.

ALU was founded by Fred Swaniker, a graduate of two quintessentially American institutions of higher education: a small, residential liberal arts college (Macalester) and a large, multi-faceted research university (Stanford). His first creation, in 2004, was the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African residential high school located in Johannesburg. His second was ALU, established in 2013 and based now on campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda. Total cost of tuition and housing at the Mauritius campus, for African students, is just over $10,000 per year; at the Rwanda campus, which is entirely non-residential, annual tuition for African students is $4,200. Both campuses offer need-based financial aid, so the net cost of attendance for many students will be even lower.

By comparison, the average posted tuition at a private American college or university in 2020-2021 was over $41,000, prior to financial aid.

By any measure, ALU is a work in progress, with roughly 1,300 students and a limited number of degree programs. And much of its model is not readily applicable to American colleges, which cannot easily shrink their physical footprints or dramatically reduce the cost of labor. But some of the most interesting and innovative aspects of ALU do suggest ways in which at least some American institutions, particularly those that are in danger of extinction, might reinvent themselves.

* * *

1. Clarify the mission

There is too much redundancy and too little specialization within the system of American higher education: too many examples of struggling liberal arts colleges or underfunded state colleges twenty miles apart trying to do exactly the same thing. This attempt to do and be everything is driving up costs and intensifying competition. More institutions need to clarify and narrow their mission - “provide a great education” is neither a clear nor narrow enough mission - and try to do fewer things exceptionally well. Budgets should be built and programs prioritized to carry out that clearly defined mission. Breadth and variety within the system does not necessarily mean breadth and variety within every individual part of the system.

ALU, as its name suggests, is very clear about its central goal: to educate the next generation of leaders for Africa. Everything from admissions criteria to the curriculum to internships is designed to advance that mission; anything that does not obviously advance that mission is deemed extraneous. The early results of this rigorous focus are promising: already ALU graduates have been admitted into graduate programs at Cambridge University, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh and have been hired by companies including Bain, Facebook and Goldman Sachs. Consistent with the university’s mission, 95 percent of job placements have been within Africa.

It is interesting to consider what an “American Leadership University,” designed to produce a much-needed generation of American leaders, might look like.

2. Reimagine the first year

Perhaps the most important step that can be taken to improve current graduation rates is to improve first-year retention rates: at present, almost a third of American college students will drop out or transfer by the end of their first year.

Very few American colleges and universities have truly compelling first-year programs. Most often, a student will enroll in some sort of first-year seminar, many of which are merely slightly tweaked versions of regular departmental offerings, along with a hodge-podge of introductory courses.

ALU dispenses with that model and instead devotes the first year to what it calls its “leadership core”: the development of skills essential for leadership, engagement, and practical success in the world. These skills are broadly and ambitiously defined and include not only what are traditionally imagined as the end-products of college - quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, communicative fluency - but personal traits like empathy and self-regulation and abilities that would be attractive to almost any employer, like the ability to manage complex projects or to engage in entrepreneurial thinking. These skills are developed through a combination of in-person and online courses, individual and group projects, and, for every student, an internship.

3. Reconceive the traditional major

The overwhelming majority of American colleges and universities require students to declare a major in a department or discipline. It is done this way because it has long been done this way. In reality, there is no compelling reason for a student to “major” in English unless the student plans to pursue a graduate degree in English - these days, neither a common or a wise choice.

ALU asks students to choose not a major but a “mission” and offers a B.A. in “Global Challenges.” Rather than choose a disciplinary major, students design an academic program with the goal of preparing them to address a complex and important problem facing the continent and the world: food insecurity, climate change, global health, and so on. In effect these are self-designed multidisciplinary courses of study that both tap into a students’ passions and prepare them for the work they will actually do after graduation. Many colleges in the United States have begun to move in this direction through the creation of multidisciplinary minors or concentrations; the ALU model suggests that this movement can be taken much further.

4. Maximize experiential opportunities

American colleges are predominantly concerned with learning, overseen by faculty, that takes place in formal academic settings: classrooms, laboratories, and studios.

The academic program at ALU draws upon research done by the Center for Creative Leadership that has led to what is widely known as the 70-20-10 rule: 70 percent of learning comes from challenging experiences and assignments, 20 percent comes from developmental relationships, and 10 percent comes from coursework and formal training. The learning model at ALU is more active and experiential and less classroom-based than at American colleges, which have increasingly embraced experiential learning but remain mostly classroom-based and faculty-centric.

Aside from any cognitive advantages, the ALU approach has another important benefit: it has the potential to be much less expensive that the traditional reliance on a large staff and a costly physical plant. Put simply, experiential learning opportunities tend to cost less than assembling students and faculty in buildings, and at a time when cost is the overriding challenge for most colleges, this is no small consideration. Whether these benefits are sufficient to shift the perspective of American colleges and universities is an open question, though the pressure among all but the most wealthy institutions to reduce costs will be a powerful incentive.

5. Acknowledge that hybrid and online instruction is not going away

Even before the forced, real-time experimentation in online instruction created by the coronavirus pandemic, there was considerable evidence to suggest that, at least in some disciplines, online instruction was at least as effective as in-person instruction, at a much lower cost.

ALU relies much more heavily on asynchronous online learning than did most traditional American colleges and universities prior to the pandemic. This is a critical factor in keeping the cost within reach of a population in Africa that has many fewer financial resources on average than the population in the United States. Given the budgetary stress facing the majority of colleges and universities a year ago and the dramatically increased stress created by the current health and economic crisis, it seems not just wise but necessary to take what is known and what is now being learned about effective online and hybrid instruction and incorporate those models much more fully into the operations of all but the most wealthy institutions.

6. Blur the lines between the curricular and the co-curricular and between faculty and staff

This final lesson comes not from ALU, but from the African Leadership Academy (ALA), though I think it applies with particular force to higher education. ALA refers on their website to both staff and faculty as “staffulty”: a silly-sounding word, perhaps, but a powerful concept.

On almost all American college campuses there exists a different version of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”: faculty and staff. These two are clearly divided and hierarchically ordered (faculty on top), a situation that is far from beneficial to the student experience. Virtually anyone who works on one of these campuses can identify inefficiencies and breakdowns in communication that arise because faculty and staff fail to work effectively together, even though both groups are essential to student learning. Given how much time students spend outside the classroom, how important experiential learning has become, and how likely it is that online instruction will grow, it seems enormously important to shape the two cultures into one whose central goal is educating and supporting students. The next college that gets this right will probably be the first.

* * *

Clearly colleges founded in the United States in 1946 or 1857 or 1793 do not have the same freedom to invent and experiment as does a college founded in Africa in 2013. But legacy industries can - and, if they are wise, do - learn from smaller start-ups, which is where much of the most promising innovation often takes place. Despite the differences in geography and history, there is much that many American colleges and universities could adopt or adapt from ALU. Institutions that need to change might draw instruction and inspiration from one that changed, in a very short time, from nothing into something.


About the Author:


Brian C. Rosenberg is President Emeritus of Macalester College. Rosenberg served as Macalester’s sixteenth president from 2003-2020. He is currently President in Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Rosenberg champions the liberal arts college in the United States: “The liberal arts model rests on a belief in the transformative power of ideas, the necessity of collaborative action for the common good, and the importance of individual self-determination.” Prior to becoming President at Macalester, Rosenberg was dean of the faculty and an English professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin and English professor and chair of the English department at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

A Charles Dickens scholar, he has written numerous articles on the Victorian author and other subjects as well as two books: Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom and Little Dorrit’s Shadows: Character and Contradiction in Dickens. Rosenberg served as a trustee of the Dickens Society from 2000 to 2004.


brosenberg_what-american-higher-education-can-learn-from-africa.pdf334 KB
See also: Education