Book Review: "The Great Upheaval: Higher Education's Past, Present, and Uncertain Future"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

Reviewed by Jaime Lang, Financial Aid Compliance Specialist, Westcliff University 

In "The Great Upheaval: Higher Education's Past, Present, and Uncertain Future," authors Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt take a hard, realistic look at how the mounting pressure placed on the postsecondary education system by multiple stakeholders is likely to lead to internal restructuring that will redirect and profoundly reshape U.S. higher education. The book largely concentrates on abstract themes, such as the process of change, establishing new industry models, and the locus of power within a consumer-provider system. However, the authors support these themes with comprehensive research, share the reasoning behind their views, make cohesive arguments for their predictions, and map out how transformations are likely to unfold. They also examine how institutional and individual involvement may shape the new kind of educational system likely to arise.

"The Great Upheaval" opens with a discussion of the pressures many postsecondary administrators face resulting from changes in enrollment patterns, emerging technological advances, new regulations, and conflicting views on the purpose of higher education in society and how well it is achieving that purpose. Using a three-part framework — backward facing, forward facing, and sideways facing — the authors identify recent and projected changes in the larger social structure, examine the mechanisms driving these changes, explore the effects of these changes on different types of postsecondary institutions, and predict their responses and what the outcomes may be.

  • The backward-facing perspective compares increasing present-day criticisms of higher education by lawmakers and the public (e.g., suggesting it is no longer worth its high cost and/or is anachronistic or irrelevant to industry needs) to similar criticisms preceding a major revision in the higher education system during and after the Industrial Revolution.
  • The forward-facing perspective digs into large-scale trends expected to significantly affect American life in the coming decades and applies these projections to higher education.
  • The sideways perspective analyzes three private-sector industries that have already been restructured by similar trends after undergoing a corresponding period of criticism and pressure.

Applying these three perspectives and the authors' model demonstrating how innovation moves through industries, Levine and Van Pelt predict the next several decades will see a time of experimentation, innovation, and eventual adaptation of educational models that will impact different types of schools at different rates and eventually lead to entirely new approaches to higher education.

The authors present their viewpoints clearly, but they leave  details of how to apply their framework and the specification of the exact type of transformation that may unfold largely to the imagination of the reader. In terms of direct application, this book would be of greatest service to university presidents, department heads, academicians, and campus business leaders working within the postsecondary education system, as these are the roles with the most power to innovate and adapt practices to address ongoing change. This orientation of "The Great Upheaval" makes it insightful but not particularly practicable when it comes to daily tasks within the financial aid office.

However, this doesn't mean that as financial aid administrators we have no power of influence or that the book's insights are wasted on anyone outside of upper-level leadership roles in the institution. The framework of change described in "The Great Upheaval" can help make sense of the current period — which may seem chaotic, hopeless, and messy — making it useful for financial aid administrators, who must constantly adapt to new laws and regulations. As the educational system itself evolves, funding and accountability measures must follow. Changes in requirements, shifting definitions, and an expansion of different types of learning programs are part of the adaptation process that will directly influence how institutions operate and financial aid departments carry out their responsibilities. Understanding why these changes are occurring and the directions they will probably take can help financial aid professionals prioritize knowledge and explore opportunities for growth.

For example, Levine and Van Pelt predict an educational system that is more consumer- and knowledge-driven rather than credit-hour and campus based, making it more reliant on short-term, easily accessible measurements of knowledge. This type of system would require financial aid administrators to increase their understanding of funding for short-term, self-paced subscription or clock-hour programs that may become more prevalent in the future.

Additionally, the fluidity created during times of transition provides greater opportunity for individuals at all levels to contribute to new ideas and policies as solutions are being worked out. Insight from books like "The Great Upheaval," showing overarching patterns and identifying potential pitfalls and solutions, can assist financial aid professionals who want to be involved in shaping policy, whether institutionally by presenting proposals to other departments and leaders or legislatively by becoming more involved in processes like negotiated rulemaking, lobbying, or commenting on proposals.

Overall, "The Great Upheaval" offers a solid framework for understanding the growing pressures currently placed on colleges and universities by their numerous stakeholders, creating valuable context around what can feel like a highly chaotic time. The book's engaging language and thorough research make it a great resource for understanding the transitions occurring in higher education and especially useful for those who wish to play a part in directing that transition. In the end, the authors give context to the pressure, but it is up to us to decide what role we will play in adapting to the current period and innovating the framework of higher education as it develops in the future. 

Jaime Lang is the financial aid compliance specialist at Westcliff University. She has a master's degree in creative writing and a bachelor's degree in social work and is intensely interested in policy and systems-based social theories.


Publication Date: 5/23/2023

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