"The Oregon Trail" Albert Bierstadt. 1869.

Read the Reflection, written 16 August 2021, below the following original Transmission.

Can we talk about the kids? Well, college students, really. The COVID-19 pandemic is inadvertently prompting an experiment in higher education. More precisely, it’s challenging the value of traditional educational models. The unwitting participants in this experiment are, first and foremost, the kids. 

COVID-19 will leave a mark on higher education. At a minimum, students can expect more online content and the use of class time for deeper discussion and collaborative work, a shift that has already been occurring over the past decades. But why not more? The pandemic highlights a globally interconnected world and a changing economy. It’s time to prepare students.

Coincidentally, the last transformation of education in the United States occurred around the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the most deadly pandemic the country has experienced. The pandemic did not cause educational reform; the economy did. Yet, in the decades before the pandemic, the majority of Americans completed no more than eight grades; only about 10 percent went on to graduate from high school.1 By the mid-1920s, the primary school to high school to college path had become the goal for many. 

The supply and demand for higher education was driven by America’s westward expansion. Taxation revenue generated by prosperous agriculture provided the funds. As mechanization expanded and immigrant laborers increasingly performed the heavy, dirty work of agriculture and manufacturing, more of the population was eager to use high school and college to prepare for the demands of a newly possible professional life.2 Thus, the current version of American education was born. Shortly thereafter, it began to stagnate.

It’s hard to imagine that many students (or faculty) today are satisfied with the constraints of the American higher education system, with university bureaucracies, prohibitive tuitions, siloed departments, and historic methods of learning and evaluation imposed upon them. The challenges of the world require input from diverse participants, unconstrained by how much money or privilege they might have. Real-world problems — and the jobs that exist to solve them — demand more than a knowledge of political science or physics or art history. They require a new style of thought that emphasizes connection and commonalities — mutualism across disciplines. How otherwise to reconcile the enormity of social, behavioral, biological, and physical factors that contribute to multi-scale recovery after a pandemic? Or a recession? Or ecological collapse? The world is not getting simpler.

American high school education mandates a Common Core curriculum and standardized testing, preparing students to be quite skilled at passing tests but not necessarily adept at dealing with the ambiguities and intersectionality of real-world problems. Then we hope they will figure it out in college. Sure, this is a generalization, but couldn’t education better prepare students for the complexity of the world? Why shouldn’t students define what their education looks like, what they want to learn, and how they will know when they’ve gotten there? The availability of no-cost online learning resources now makes individualized, self-directed curricula accessible to everyone. The two largest platforms, Coursera and edX, offer more than 2,750 classes. On Friday, March 13, 2020, as COVID-19’s grip on the US became clear, both platforms saw a surge in Google searches.3 However, that search volume paled in comparison to another trend on the same day: Minecraft.

Minecraft is monumental. It’s the highest-selling video game of all time, played by more than 100 million people each month. Players build sewers and cities, explore worlds, engage in an economy, embark on strategic partnerships, resolve disagreements, and, yes, prevent pandemics. The game is hosted in a distributed manner, meaning that there are hundreds of parallel worlds evolving simultaneously, which provides an opportunity for us to see how small changes in social structure — for instance, more trading than fighting — impact health and prosperity. Minecraft is experiential and versatile learning. Why isn’t it valued as such?

If the online experience prompted by the pandemic shows that we can educate students in a fully virtual setting, how does that change the role of costly and exclusive academic institutions? Beyond facilitating science labs, arts, and sports, what exactly is the unique value of in-person education? There has been a tendency to equate in-person education with higher merit.4 Online higher education has struggled with image because of the dominance of for-profit colleges in that space, but that’s about to change as traditional non-profit institutions adapt post-pandemic.

Today, as in 1918, pandemics don’t change education. But such a crisis does inspire reflection about what the future will look like, what problems society will have to solve, and whether our education system is fostering the curiosity, ambition, and intellectual adventurousness that will be required. If anything, we know that our post-pandemic world is going to be different. For the kids’ sakes, education should be different, too.

Carrie Cowan
Santa Fe Institute


  1. Snyder, Thomas D. “120 years of American education: A statistical portrait.” US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf
  2. Goldin, Claudia. “How America graduated from high school: 1910 to 1960.” No. w4762. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1994. https://www.nber.org/papers/w4762
  3. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2020-01-01%202020-03-31&q=Coursera,edX,Minecraft
  4. Protopsaltis, Spiros, and Sandy Baum. “Does online education live up to its promise? A look at the evidence and implications for federal policy.” Center for Educational Policy Evaluation, 2019. https://mason.gmu.edu/~sprotops/OnlineEd.pdf


T-016 (Cowan) PDF

Read more posts in the Transmission series, dedicated to sharing SFI insights on the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to SFI President David Krakauer discuss this Transmission in episode 30 of our Complexity Podcast.


August 16, 2021

Has Higher Ed Become Self-Serving?

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on higher education appeared immediately. Colleges and universities rushed to adopt online teaching and learning while simultaneously emphasizing the necessity of in-person, on-campus experiences. Conversely, the effects of higher education on the pandemic emerged more subtly throughout the year.

The US population split on key issues stemming from the pandemic. That division fell along lines of educational attainment. In summer 2020, US adults without a college degree were four times more likely to report never wearing a mask compared to college graduates.1 As of February 2021, US adults with college degrees were almost a third more likely to have been, or intend to be, vaccinated against COVID-19 than adults with no college education.2 US adults who graduated from college were nearly a third more likely to report “a great deal of confidence” in medical scientists compared to adults without college education.3 These responses aren’t likely to reflect the college curriculum per se; the details of N95 technology and aerosol physics are not emphasized in a typical university course load, nor are diagnostic qPCR, mRNA-based vaccines, or the role of helper T cells. Only a specialized few will learn these things as part of their undergraduate education or career preparation.

As the pandemic progressed and new and varied crises confronted US society, division along the same axis persisted. Educational attainment was used to describe different views of racial inequity,4 trust in police,5 support for #BlackLivesMatter,6 the legitimacy of the presidential election,7 and views of the January 2021 Capitol riot.8 Among Trump voters, 60% more college graduates viewed his conduct post-election unfavorably than those without college degrees.9

The higher education system apparently underlying these social and ideological divisions continued to face criticism from Republicans for its perceived liberal political tendencies, suppression of free speech, and cancel culture.10 The US education system as a whole was the target of a Trump administration re-education proposal11—a revisionist history of the US and its role in the world to revive nationalist sentiment.

So what is the other learning that goes on in our higher education system that seems to shape how individuals respond to Dr. Fauci’s recommendations or to political fanaticism? Over decades, through an emphasis on standardized testing and associated eschewal of creativity, the US higher education system evolved to reward compliance.12 Higher education holds the power to propagate existing structures, and can thus be a powerful tool to promote and sustain society’s values and ideals—or to propagate oppression.13

Higher education is a system like any other, acting for its own perpetuation and growth. It perpetuates itself limitlessly, not because that was the initial goal of the education system, but because, like a successful virus, that has become the feature that matters.

According to the sociologist Randall Collins,14 the higher education system now exists to produce credentials—degrees. Credentials, in turn, provide access to jobs. US higher education is subject to inflation: as more people acquire a college degree, the worth of a degree diminishes in the job market, demanding more, or more advanced, degrees to compete. Yet, according to Collins, the higher education system is founded on false pretenses: more education has not led to more equal opportunity, nor to better economic performance, nor to better jobs. Has the higher education system ceased to serve its students and instead only serves itself?

As colleges and universities fought to justify onsite learning while temporarily moving to remote instruction early in the pandemic, things remained opaque as to precisely why in-person classes are better for achieving the oft-cited roles of post-secondary education: building knowledge and preparing for work. What about these activities requires a shared physical location? Enrollment declined at US colleges and universities in fall 2020,15 reflecting many students’ views that in-person classes and campus life are essential to their higher ed experience.

While online learning went better than expected,16 the pandemic did not precipitate a massive collapse of our higher education system or a full transition to low-cost online learning for everyone, nor did it diminish the demand for on-campus life. Most colleges will survive;17 fall 2021 enrollments are forecast to recover to prepandemic levels.18

The pandemic should, however, prompt a sustained discussion about the role of education in fostering a society that can robustly navigate a massive public health crisis—and racial injustice and insurrection—and that values facts, logic, and creativity to guide an equitable and fulfilling way forward.

Read more thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic from complex-systems researchers in The Complex Alternative, published by SFI Press.

Reflection Footnotes

1 M. Brenan, “Americans’ Face Mask Usage Varies Greatly by Demographics,” Gallup, July 13, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/315590/americans-face-mask-usage-varies-greatly-demographics.aspx

2 Pew Research Center,“Majority of Black Adults Now Say They Plan to Get—or Have Already Received—a COVID-19 Vaccine,” March 3, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2021/03/05/growing-share-of-americans-say-they-plan-to-get-a-covid-19-vaccine-or-already-have/ps_2021-03-05_covid-19-vaccines_00-019/

3 Pew Research Center, “Americans with More Education Have Greater Confidence in Medical Scientists to Act in the Public Interest, as Do Democrats,” May 19, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/05/21/trust-in-medical-scientists-has-grown-in-u-s-but-mainly-among-democrats/ps_2020-05-21_trust-in-scientists_00-14/

4 H. Lee, M. Esposito, et al., “The Demographics of Racial Inequality in the United States,” Brookings, July 27, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/07/27/the-demographics-of-racial-inequality-in-the-united-states/

5 J. Williams, “BLM and Policing Survey Identifies Broad Support for Common-Sense Reform,” Civis, July 22, 2020. https://www.civisanalytics.com/blog/blm-policing-pulse-survey-analysis/

3 Trend poll, “Do You Support or Oppose the Black Lives Matter Movement?” Civiqs, https://civiqs.com/results/black_lives_matter?annotations=true&uncertainty=true&zoomIn=true

7 Muhlenberg College, “Pennsylvania 2020 Post-Election Poll: January 2021,” https://www.muhlenberg.edu/aboutus/polling/surveys/election/pa2020post-electionpoll/

8 P. Bump, “The Demographic Divergence that Helps Explain Perception of the Capitol Rioters,” The Washington Post, January 14, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/14/demographic-divergence-that-helps-explain-perceptions-capitol-rioters/

9 Pew Research Center, “Trump Voters are Divided in Views of His Conduct since the Presidential Election,” January 14, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/01/15/views-of-biden-and-trump-during-the-transition/pp_2021-01-14_biden-trump-views_02-02/

10 K. Parker, “The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education,” Pew Research Center, January 30, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/08/19/the-growing-partisan-divide-in-views-of-higher-education-2/

11 M. Balingit and L. Meckler, “Trump Alleges ‘Left-Wing Indoctrination’ in Schools, Says He Will Create National Commission to Push More ‘Pro-American’ History,” The Washington Post, September 17, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/trump-history-education/2020/09/17/f40535ec-ee2c-11ea-ab4e-581edb849379_story.html

12 For example: S. Bowles and H. Gintis, 2011, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

13 For example: P. Freire, 2013, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Routledge.

14 R. Collins, 2019, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, http://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-credential-society/9780231192354

15 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Current Term Enrollment Estimates,” https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/

16 Tyton Partners in Partnership with Every Learner Everywhere, “Time for Class: COVID-19 Edition,” January 2021. https://www.everylearnereverywhere.org/resources/time-for-class-covid-19-edition/#:~:text=This%20spring%2C%20higher%20education%20institutions,digital%20learning%20tools%20and%20techniques

17 M. Schifrin and H. Tucker, “College Financial Grades 2021: Will Your Alma Mater Survive COVID?” Forbes, February 22, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/schifrin/2021/02/22/college-financial-grades-2021-will-your-alma-mater-survive-covid/?sh=467397454916

18 R. Garrett, “Higher Education Predictions for 2021, Part 1,” Encoura, January 5, 2021, https://encoura.org/higher-education-predictions-for-2021-part-1/