Student loans in the present and future: a Bloomberg analysis

What’s the state of student loans for American higher ed, and how is that situation likely to develop in the future?  A new Bloomberg investigation yields some important and disturbing insights.

I’ll put out some key details here.

…and just to deflate any narrative tension you might be experiencing, dear reader, there aren’t many surprises.  If you’ve been paying attention to student loans, that is.

The total amount of students loans is now $1.5 trillion, by Bloomberg’s count. (When will we hit $2 trillion, 2025?) Interest rates are rising, too.

Recent growth in student loans (2007 on) has outpaced all other kinds of consumer debt, by far:

student loans 2007-2018 Bloomberg

Bloomberg also joins the rest of us in finding student loans exerting a downward pressure on the larger economy:

As young adults struggle to pay back their loans, they’re forced to make financial concessions that create a drag on the economy. Student debt has delayed household formation and led to a decline in homeownership. Sixteen percent of young workers aged 25 to 35 lived with their parents in 2017, up 4 percent from 10 years prior…

It’s a question of depressed demand, since loan-holders are devoting more dollars to paying down debt than did previous generations:

“You have a whole generation of people that have a significant amount of student loans and its crimping demand for other goods and services,” said Ira Jersey, the chief U.S. interest rate strategist for Bloomberg Intelligence. “As people live with their parents, or cohabit with a non-partner, millions of houses and apartments aren’t being purchased. Neither is Wi-Fi or that extra sofa. We think this is having a significant impact on the economy.”

Meanwhile, student loans are also more likely to be behind in getting paid back:

Student loan debt currently has the highest 90+ day delinquency rate of all household debt. More than 1 in 10 borrowers is at least 90 days delinquent, while mortgages and auto loans have a 1.1 percent and 4 percent delinquency rate, respectively…

What does this mean for the future?

First, people are holding this debt now.  There isn’t any real conversation about debt forgiveness.  So that debt bolus is just stuck in our society until it gets paid off, or until the owners die (and maybe the burden isn’t passed onto survivors; maybe not).  In other words, the giant American total student loan debt is already baked into the economic pie, no matter what we do for the next student cadres.  All of its results – the constraints on human lives, the macroeconomic pressure – are going to keep hitting us for quite some time, even if new tuition bills aren’t rising as quickly as they used to.

Second, this loan specter will continue to pressure college curricula.  Listen carefully to the Bloomberg discussion:

“There’s a systemic problem in the student loan market that doesn’t exist in the other asset classes,” [John Hupalo, founder and chief executive officer of Invite Education, an education financial planner] said. “Students need to get a job that allows them to pay off their debt. The delinquency rate will rise as long as students aren’t graduating with degrees that pay back that cost.”

“as students aren’t graduating with degrees that pay back that cost.”  Did you catch that?  It’s not college per se, and not the type or reputation of (non-profit) university, but the course of study.

For students, we already know that debt dread is shaping the classes and majors they take.  For institutions, what does this intelligence tell a curriculum committee considering a new major in, say, a humanities field?  How does it inform development officers and presidents asking donors to fund a chair in, say, petroleum engineering?  If a campus undertakes an academic program prioritization exercise, what role will perceptions of future earning versus debt play in determining which programs to fold, and which to expand?

Third, the Bloomberg analysis foretells continued challenges for the for-profit education sector.

Delinquencies escalated in the wake of the Great Recession as for-profit colleges pitched themselves as an end run around low-paying jobs, explained Judith Scott-Clayton, a Columbia University associate professor of economics and education. But many of those degrees ultimately proved useless, leaving graduates with debt they couldn’t pay back.  [hyperlink in original]

I’m not sure how that sense will play against the Trump administration’s pro-business thinking.

Posted in economics, future of education | Leave a comment

Is college price inflation slowing down?

What is happening to rising higher education prices?  They might not be rising as quickly as they were of late, according to a new College Board report.  They may have hit a plateau, in fact.

This is very important for American colleges and universities, and, of course, for those of us paying for it.  But it’s also dry stuff, so I’ll break down what I see as some of the key points.

We’re all familiar with how the price of higher ed has soared over the past generation.  That soaring seems to be coming back to earth, or is at least now skimming along less ambitiously.  “Between 2008-09 and 2018-19, published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased at an average rate of 3.1% per year beyond inflation.”  What was the comparable rate before that? “4.1% and 4.2% over the two prior decades.”

Last year?  “Published tuition and fee prices of colleges and universities were about the same in 2018-19 as in 2017-18, after adjusting for inflation.”

Wow!  As Doug Belkin put it, “After increasing for decades, the real cost of attending both public and private college is flat and in some cases even declined this year…”

We can watch the inflation numbers drop over time:

Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, as higher education struggled along with the rest of the economy, published tuition and fees rose by 14% after adjusting for inflation at private nonprofit four-year institutions and by almost 30% in the public two-year and four-year sectors. Over the five years ending in 2018-19, the largest increase was 10% from $32,500 (in 2018 dollars) in 2013-14 to $35,830 in the private nonprofit sector. Between 2013-14 and 2018-19, average tuition and fees rose by 7%, from $9,590 to $10,230 at public four-year colleges and universities, and by 5%, from $3,500 to $3,660, at public two-year colleges. [emphases added]

That’s published tuition, which most students do not pay.  This is a vital point, since most media and popular discussion sticks on this number.  What most students actually pay (“three-quarters of full-time undergraduate students”, according to the report) is less than that.  That’s why the net tuition number is so much more important.

Watch the curves here, rising and rising for years, then flattening out lately:

college prices 1998-2019

Now, at private institutions, prices are a bit higher:

After declining from $15,500 (in 2018 dollars) in 2007-08 to $13,200 in 2011-12, the average net tuition and fees paid by full-time students at private nonprofit four-year institutions rose to an estimated $14,600 in 2018-19…

While campuses took some weight off of the tuition and fees accelerator, they also spent more money on instruction.

Between 2005-06 and 2015-16, educational expenditures per FTE student at public doctoral universities increased by 17% in inflation-adjusted dollars. The increase over the decade was 18% at public master’s universities, 12% at public bachelor’s colleges, and 11% in the public two-year sector…

Did this mean more money for instructors?  Not exactly:

ƒBetween 2001-02 and 2016-17, average faculty salaries increased by less than 1% (after adjusting for inflation) at public doctoral universities, by 5% at private nonprofit bachelor’s colleges, and by 29% at for-profit institutions. Average faculty salaries did not keep up with inflation in other sectors.

A good chunk of that money went elsewhere.

Back to the main point, that price inflation decline, and two questions.  First, how much longer can this go on, or will it change – rising again, or maybe an actual price reduction?  Second, how can colleges and universities sustain this new strategy?

(thanks to Michael Berman for the nudge, and Doug Belkin for the reporting)

PS: ƒOne fun fact.  Remember how I keep telling people to pay attention to community colleges?

Overall, two-year colleges accounted for 43% of the public FTE undergraduate enrollment in 2016. In seven states, this share was 50% or more; in another seven states, it was less than 25%.

43%.  CCs are still the largest sector of American education.

Posted in economics | 1 Comment

An update on state funding for public higher ed

How are American states funding public colleges and universities, ten years after the great financial crisis?  The progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) just published a report with new data that addresses this head on (pdf).

tl;dr version – the Great Recession was brutal.  State funding is still below pre-recession levels.  A few states have recovered; most have not; some are seriously worse.

Here I’ll pull out some of the findings that really struck me.

How far below 2008 are we?  “State spending on higher education at two- and four-year public colleges nationwide fell $1,409 per student, or 16 percent, after adjusting for inflation.”  In other words. the 2008 financial disaster and the slow, weak recovery that followed truly hit American higher ed hard, and we’re still not back to where we were beforehand.

Here’s how that support shortfall breaks down by state:

There are some clear variations by individual states.  An interesting quartet is now ahead of 2008: California, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Wyoming. (The latter two must be buoyed by oil tax revenues, even now) In contrast,

Per-student funding in nine states — Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina — fell by more than 30 percent over this period.

Some red states are truly in the red zone (sorry) here.

To account for these drops in funding, many universities and colleges have raised tuition.  “[A]verage annual published tuition has risen by $2,651 nationally, or 36 percent” since 2008.  CBPP also broke down those increases by state:

Notice this underappreciated fact.  After every modern recession students’ share of paying for public tuition has gone up – and usually stayed up, until the next recession:

So perhaps we’re not looking at a long-term crisis response, but at a new normal made possible by 2008.

This is why I spent so much time and space writing about the crash and the decade that followed last month.

I probably don’t need to tell you why and how this is bad for students.  (You can read the report for a breakdown.) The report urges states to rebuild support; I think this is going to be very hard to do.

Go on and read the report.  Very useful stuff.


Posted in economics | 1 Comment

Simpson College commits to a queen sacrifice

In the most recent example of a college or university cutting faculty, Simpson College of Iowa announced it will lay off thirteen people, including twelve professors.  Its art department (where George Washington Carver once majored) will be shut down, as will French and German majors.

With the latest round of layoffs, Simpson has eliminated nearly 20 percent of its faculty positions this year. The college has 104 faculty jobs and 134 overall staff positions after the downsizing.

I just want to repeat that: the campus “has eliminated nearly 20 percent of its faculty positions this year.”

I am unable to determine much about those professors.  A local article mentions two, “a full-time, non-tenured faculty member, and… a tenured faculty member” in history.  This Facebook thread mentions faculty in the arts.  Another local article named a tenured art professor who is being cut.

Why is this happening?  My readers know the answers.  First, “Simpson’s enrollment has dropped 9 percent in the past three years,” despite a larger first-year class. Second, a process of weighing departments and majors has been under way: “Simpson recently completed a nearly yearlong effort to prioritize the academic and administrative departments.”  As the Simpsonian reported,

Academic Dean Kent Eaton answered by saying the college has to eliminate departments that are least profitable.

“Quite frankly, if we were to use the data from the prioritization process, what we would have right now is a college without the arts,” Eaton said.

This isn’t the first Simpson cut of late, as “[o]verall employment at the college is down 17 percent over the past two years.”  Dean Eaton remarked that “there hasn’t been an academic department that hasn’t been untouched by faculty reductions, even the top ranked departments.”

Here’s a Facebook post purporting to contain the president’s announcement.  Looks legit.

A few quick observations:

  1. Note, again, the presence of the humanities in cuts.  Languages other than Spanish are suffering in 21st century America.
  2. Simpson did not declare financial exigency.  Once again, a campus can cut tenure-track faculty (and anyone else) without taking that step.
  3. As far as I can tell the college went through a prioritization process, which emphasizes student interest through enrollment, minors, and majors.  Expect to see more of this.
  4. I’m not seeing much coverage of this story so far.  It’s possible that it’s because it takes place in the midwest, and people only want to touch Iowa when it’s the start of presidential primary season.

To explain the blog post title: for years I have referred to campuses cutting tenure-track faculty as “queen sacrifices.”  The term comes from chess, when one player will willingly give up their most powerful piece – the queen – in a gamble to win the game.  In the analogy, tenure-track faculty are a college or university’s queens, having some governance role, a long term role in teaching and service, and (potentially) more job security than anyone else.  They are, at least in theory, the most powerful “pieces” on higher education’s chessboard.  In 2018 we are now accustomed to their sacrifice.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

Posted in research topics | Tagged | 8 Comments

Our next book club reading is Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest

Our next book club reading has been decided!  After a furious polling, the winner is…

Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.  This 2017 book is a thoughtful account of how we now use technologies to politically protest and organize, and is therefore quite germane to the future of education.

There are several ways to get a copy.  You can buy one directly from the publisher.  You could support my work by buying it through my bookstore.  You could seek a library copy through WorldCat.There is also an official, free, Creative-Commons-licensed pdf (more about there here).

How our reading will proceed: in a few days I’ll blog up a reading schedule, assigning certain chapters to a weekly timeline.  Then, once enough time has passed for everyone to get an analog or digital copy, we’ll dig in.  All posts will be tagged, and so will be available in that one spot for any reader now and in the future.

From the author’s bio (and it’s pronounced /too-FEK-chee/):

Zeynep’s work explores the interactions between technology and society. She started her career as a programmer, and switched to social science after getting interested in social impacts of technology. Zeynep, who grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, and came to the United States for graduate school, is now an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times. She’s currently also a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Previously, she was an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, a fellow at Princeton University Center for Information Technology, and an assistant professor of sociology at UMBC.

Appropriately, she is active on Twitter.

How I decided this one: actually, we had a three-way tie for favorite book, between Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology, Hans Rosling, Factfulness, and Twitter and Teargas.  I picked the latter because it seemed well timed to the moment (political unrest, questions around social media and mobile devices), and also because I want to keep supporting the work of women.

There is a good amount of information about the book online.  It has its own Wikipedia page.  You can also find it on Goodreads and its official site.

Stay tuned for the next post!

And a big shoutout to Kyle Johnson for nominating the book.

Posted in book club | Tagged | Leave a comment

When public universities have to raise funds like private institutions

Last month Harvard University raised nearly $10 billion in a development campaign.  It was a tremendous sum of money, yet also within the realm of fund-raising we have come to expect from elite American private universities.

Elite public universities are not far behind.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the University of Michigan (my alma mater) just raised $5 billion.  Meanwhile,

the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is trying to raise $4.25 billion, the University of Florida is aiming to raise $3 billion and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is targeting $2.25 billion…

A Michigan State University campaign that started in 2014 and is set to end at the end of this year has so far raised $1.74 billion…*

What does it take for a campus to attain such sums?  Serious institutional investments are required: staff and funding, what some include within the term “administrative bloat.” For Michigan, “its development office… now employs 550 people and coordinates 1,600 volunteers, and the school spent half a million dollars throwing parties to bring alumni together.”

What does it take for a society to support this kind of fundraising?  Simply put, the serious accumulation of wealth among the elite:

In 2015, the top 1% of donors gave 79% of total campaign funds raised, up from 64% in 2006, according to [the Council for Advancement and Support of Education]. Over that same span, the amount the top 10% of donors gave increased to 92% from 87%. At Michigan, the percentage of gifts over $5 million has climbed to 54% of the campaign from 34% of the campaign that raised $1.5 billion in 1997…

In the University of Michigan’s case, their campaign “includes at least four gifts of $100 million or more…”

So the economic elite tend to give to the academic elite, both in private and public post-secondary education.  The increasing stratification of American society is therefore echoed by the increasing distance of public universities from one another:

“You have public research universities launching multibillion-dollar campaigns and in the same state you’ll have small schools that are running bare-bones fundraising operations,” [Kevin McClure, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington] said. “This is one of the mechanisms by which we’re seeing the financial stratification and separation of institutions in public higher education.”

The author of this Wall Street Journal article, Doug Belkin, reminds us of a key part of academic history that makes this new system work: states defunding public higher ed.

[U]ntil around 1980 it was generally accepted that the costs of public institutions would be covered mostly by taxpayers—with the rest picked up by tuition and research dollars.

But a cycle of funding cuts eroded that model. Recessions prompted cut backs by lawmakers who asked schools to make up the difference by raising tuition. When the economy sprang back, the state generally didn’t return as much to schools. As tuition grew, so did budgets.

At a very macro level I can’t shake the impression that we experienced a massive turning point in history around 1980.  That’s when income inequality began to grow for the first time since World War I.  This is when privatization became a new practice, first under Reagan, then his successors.  It may have been the birth time of neoliberalism.

Forty years later we now work with the results: privatized public higher education, escalating income and wealth inequality, increasing separation of post-secondary institutions.  These massive fundraising drives are the sign of those developments well under way.  How much further will we continue along this path?

Doug Belkin was also a fine Future Trends Forum guest this past May.

(This blog post is another installment of my reading paywalled content for you, dear reader.)

*On that MSU fundraising: “A spokesperson for the school said the money would not be used to pay the $500-million settlement reached earlier this year with the sexual assault victims of a school doctor.”

(thanks to Todd Bryant)

Posted in economics | Leave a comment

What nonfiction book should our online book club read next?

What should our online book club read next?

Hunter reading

It’s good to read with friends.

After reading two science fiction novels (Walkaway, New York 2140), we now turn to nonfiction about the future of education.

(If you’re new to the book club, know that since 2014 we’ve been reading titles that cover different ways of approaching education, technology, and the future.  Books have included media historynear-future science fiction, education economics, anti-authoritarian schoolingchanges in higher educationsociology of classthe emerging world of automation, and the 21st century’s most important work of economics so far.

Some authors have kindly interacted with us as we read their works.  Several have engaged with us via Twitter, like Tressie Cottom and Malka Older. As our book club progressed, some of the authors have been guests on the Future Trends Forum, like science fiction writer and cyberactivist Cory Doctorow.)

Today’s poll is based on the latest one for nonfiction, back in fall 2017. I have cut several titles from previous lists that fail to win any votes, cut one title that we already picked and read, deleted one I read and really disliked, then also added a couple of new ones that look exciting.  My Patreon supporters added a few more. You can see that there’s a mix of subjects, from pedagogy to technology, economics to online life, scholarly publishing and public policy.  Most are pretty recent.  Some will seem especially relevant to some of you based on current events.

Here’s the poll, if you’d like to jump right in.  You get up to three (3) votes.  If you want more information about the titles, just scroll down to the full list just below.  (Note the holiday themed background)

NEW FEATURE: if you’d like to nominate a nonfiction book that isn’t on this list, and you want everyone to see your nominee, please use the comment box below.  If you’re like to vote for someone else’s comment-nominated book, either say so in a reply, or email me if you’d like.


Below is the full list as a kind of annotated bibliography. I’ve linked to pages for each one, including those from publishers, Amazon, and the authors themselves, plus some relevant further readings (interviews, articles, etc.) and acknowledgements to the good folks who nominated several titles.

You can vote in this poll, and also add thoughts in comments below.  Remember, you can support up to three titles.

I’m looking forward to your choices!

Posted in book club | 2 Comments

American graduate school enrollment: a new decline, driven by international students

In 2017 the number of graduate students enrolled in American universities declined, as compared with 2016 numbers.  That’s the finding of a new Council of Graduate Schools study by Hironao Okahana and Enyu Zhou, which I’d like to break down in this post.

tl;dr version – international student numbers declined, especially in engineering, bringing down overall applications and enrollments.

Overall, graduate school applications ticked down.  “Applications for admission to graduate school in Fall 2017 decreased (-1.8%) overall.”  There was a strong difference on that score based on private versus public university: “Public institution application counts decreased 3.7%, while private, not-for-profit applications increased 1.4%.”

Total enrollment numbers also ticked down, while slightly:

Total graduate enrollment also flattened (-0.5%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017… First-time graduate enrollment flattened (-0.1%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017 at the institutions that responded to both the 2016 and 2017 CGS/GRE Surveys of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees. This marks the first decline in first-time graduate enrollment growth rates since academic year 2011 to 2012.

International students Enrollment from outside the US played a key role in this decline.

First-time graduate enrollment of international students decreased (-3.7%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017…

They accounted for 20.3% of [all] first-time graduate students in Fall 2017, compared to 21.1% in Fall 2016, and 22.0% in Fall 2015.

In contrast, “first-time and total enrollment increases are driven by U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students (1.1% and 1.2%, respectively)…”  One key point: engineering numbers fell, and the report thinks that “[t]his may be driven by changes in international applications.”  The reasons seem clear: fear of Trump’s policies and possibly violence in American schools.

Race 2017 saw some progress in grad school enrollment by underrepresented minorities:

US grad students by race

Among first-time U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students in the Fall of 2017, about 23.9% were underrepresented minorities, including American Indian/Alaska Native (0.5%), Black/African American (11.9%), Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (0.2%), and Hispanic/Latino (11.3%)…

Interesting curricular point: “Public administration has the largest share of underrepresented minorities.”  However, “[m]inority students remain substantially underrepresented, particularly in STEM fields, with an alarming trend for American Indian/Alaska Native [populations].”

Gender More women than men attend and win degrees from American graduate programs.

In Fall 2017, the majority of first-time graduate students at all degree levels were women – 59.2% at the master’s degree level and 53.5% at the doctoral level. Women also earned the majority of graduate certificates (64.0%), master’s degrees (57.3%), and doctoral degrees (53.0%) awarded by U.S. institutions in 2016-17…

Women are still underrepresented in many technology and science fields, however.

Academic fields Broken down by curriculum, 2017’s graduate numbers are quite varied.

2017 grad program majors and national status

Note the differences by international students.

The major declines occurred in a mix of surprising and expected areas: “Some fields saw large decreases over the past year, with an average annual decrease of 5.7% in arts and humanities, 2.3% in physical and earth sciences, and 1.8% in business…”  (Note that business bit; again with the MBA crisis.) In contrast, the leader:

Mathematics and computer sciences have the largest increases in first-time enrollment both for part-time students (21.0%) and for U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students (17.2%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017…

See also point about public administration and underrepresented minorities up above.


[b]y broad field of study, the largest number of total applications for Fall 2017 were in engineering (303,209), business (289,183), and health sciences (280,844). Engineering, business, and health sciences alone accounted for 40% of all graduate applications for which the intended field of study was known.

Which echoes undergraduate enrollment in many ways.

One key point to remember is that master’s programs are by far the largest graduate programs in American higher ed: “the large majority (83.4%) of degrees awarded in 2016-17 were master’s degrees, while the share of doctoral degrees was 11.1%, and that of graduate certificates was 5.5%…”

There’s much more in the study, like differences between types of research universities, details of academic program enrollment, and still more.

Key takeaways: reduced international interest in American higher ed is continuing to play out, with powerful implications for many students.  Many underrepresented minorities and women in particular have made progress.  Many sciences remain in demand, while the humanities continue to drop.  The picture nationwide is institutionally diverse, with many local variations.

There are actually many commonalities with the Council’s 2015 study.  American enrollment growth remains “puny”, as I called it then.  The big difference is the drop in international students.

Where will American graduate programs go from here?  Will they expand online offerings to attract students who don’t want to travel to our risky campuses? Will they follow undergraduate practice and shift resources from underenrolling programs to those with growing numbers? (a politically tricky task, but still feasible) Might things change after a likely November Democratic Congressional win, or will Trump continue to inspire dread worldwide through 2021?

(via Inside Higher Ed)

Posted in enrollment | Leave a comment

Notes on China: possible threats to American higher education

How will developments in US-China relations impact those nations’ higher education systems?

My readers and listeners know that China has played a key part in American academia’s expansion into international markets.  I’ve drawn attention to the recent growth in the number of China students enrolled in American colleges and universities, Chinese investors seeking to buy one New Jersey college, and the even more recent decline in United States visas granted, including to Chinese nationals.

Today’s let’s look into several more details about the US-China academic nexus, ones that point towards the future.  These are potentially very challenging for American colleges and universities.

First, Chinese students are changing their post-graduation professional paths.  While a majority used to stay in America after receiving degrees here, it seems that a majority are now returning to China.  A recent South China Morning Post story sharply observes this change, noting that

[i]n past years, more than 95 per cent of Chinese students obtaining an advanced degree in a developed country chose to stay there after graduation. By the end of last year, however, more than 83 per cent had returned to China, most within the five years starting in 2012.

Why the historic change?  Partly it’s due to Trump, especially the trade war.  Partly it’s due to rising Chinese compensation packages, which now compete with American ones (“Chinese scientists’ income has increased rapidly in recent years, reaching more or less the same pay scale as their counterparts in the US and sometimes considerably more,” according to one such scientist). A Bloomberg story from earlier in 2018 backs this up.

This isn’t just about better salaries, although China’s ability to offer those now is a useful datapoint in the immensely important story of that nation’s economic and international rise.  Some of those scientists will return to work in industry or government, while others will become faculty members.  Remember that China has rebuilt and expanded its university system since the ravages of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

We can see signs of that immense progress in scholarly publication.  China researchers have recently become the world’s second most productive, after the United States.  According to the SCImago Journal & Country Rank China has displaced all other international competitors (although the citation rank is lower, most likely due to a combination of language and perceived quality issues):

National scholarship rankings SCImago

After enough of this development Chinese university capacity will be such that they need send fewer students abroad.  This is one change American academic planners will have to anticipate, given our dependence on Chinese students.

China’s successful rise as an international academic powerhouse could also inspire a kind of educational arms race with the United States, which brings me to my second point today.  As I never tire of saying, modern globalization has meant American colleges and universities are increasingly competing in a global higher education market.  These institutions are competing for students (undergrad and graduate), grants, attention, prizes, and discoveries.  This isn’t necessarily a zero sum game, although some participants will act like it is, especially when faced with economic pressures.

Beyond intra-academy competition is the additional factor of geopolitical competition.  Universities aren’t immune to global maneuvering for advantage.  We’ve already seen some signs of this, as when two American Representatives (one Republican, one a Democrat) urged Texas A&M to cut ties with a Chinese Confucius Institute or when president Trump proclaimed most Chinese students to be spies for that nation’s government.  As far back as 2014 “the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on whether academic freedom is threatened by China’s influence on U.S. universities.”  Domestic political pressure could well impact American college and university planning.

Such arguments against Chinese-American academic connections will not only come from politicians and officials.  A significant number of American academics have expressed concern over Beijing’s alleged influence over both Chinese and American intellectual freedom.  Other have criticized Chinese students for being underprepared for American post-secondary educational standards.

In short, we could see American higher ed recast itself in more competitive terms with regards to China’s.  In some foreign policy circles the idea of a Thucydides trap is being discussed.  This term describes the dangerous situation when a rising power (in the historical model, Athens) threatens an established power (i.e., Sparta), and that competition frequently leads to war.  How many American academic leaders and commentators will come to view the Chinese academy in these terms?  How much pressure will American politics place on this nations’ colleges and universities to play a role in either forestalling or winning such a conflict?

Setting aside national politics for a moment, the academic politics could become quite fraught.  Some will want to preserve intellectual work (teaching, scholarship) apart from politics, while others will eagerly participate in the connection of classes and geopolitics, especially to the extent that criticism of or opposition to China is bipartisan in nature.  Consider the tension between faculty who view Chinese students as underprepared or ill suited to American classes (too focused on tests, possibly cheating, unused to seminars, economically privileged) versus those who relish the chance to diversify their classes.  Popular anti-Trump sentiment in academia might lead some to seek closer ties with China.  This could play out in many micropolitical ways.  For example, look back at that SCImago chart above.  Imagine a scholar at an American university considering a collaboration with a Chinese academic.  How will their department chair view such a connection?  How will the academic deans?  How will trustees, state governments, and the public at large?  This could become quite complex and contentious.

Third, one aspect of US-China tensions is, of course, economic competition.  President Trump’s declaration of a trade war has caused most economics I’ve spoken with and read to forecast a likely recession in the short and medium term future.  Alex Usher recommends Canadian universities start planning for this right now.  How many American colleges and universities are thinking hard about how they can cope with another recession?  Consider what might occur if state governments experience a new revenue decline; how likely are they to protect their investments in public higher education?  What will happen to family finances if the economy takes a hit?

Recession, conflict, competition: these are challenges and threats for American academia.  I also see many positive opportunities for connections with Chinese higher education, but will return to them in another post.

(thanks to Glenn Hampson for the SCImago link)

Posted in future of education, higher education | 1 Comment

My next future of education workshop is November 13th, near Boston

In November I’m conducting a one-day, in-person workshop on future trends for education and technology in the Boston area.  Consider it a sneak peak at my forthcoming book.

nercomp- ogoHere’s the official description:

This interactive session takes participants through the leading forces reshaping higher education and the digital world.  Some of those powerful and intersecting trends stem directly from educational technology, such as the New Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) and the impact of developing and emerging technologies, like automation, blockchain, and mixed reality.  Other change drivers are found in education’s vital contexts, including maroeeconomics, demographics, culture, and policy.  All of these trends are documented.

It will take place on November 13th, from 9 am through 4 pm.  The location is the Four Points Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Norwood, Massachusetts.  NERCOMP will provide a continental breakfast and a nice lunch.

The NERCOMP microsite has more information, including a full agendahotel information, and carpool info for locals. You can register on this page.  Prices depend on if your institution is a NERCOMP member.  I hope you can make it there.

Posted in presentations and talks | Tagged | Leave a comment