Thoughts on the latest college admission and athletics scandal

This week the FBI arrested a bunch of wealthy people and their helpers for corrupting the admissions process of several elite colleges and universities.  As the Washington Post put it, the alleged perps were “part of a long-running scheme to bribe and cheat to get their kids into big-name colleges and universities.”  The investigation was code named Varsity Blues.

I’d like to share some thoughts about the story.  You’ve probably seen multiple stories and think pieces already, so I’ll try not to repeat what’s already been said.  Moreover, I’m not a lawyer, nor am I privy to the case’s details (although this will become a fine book someday), so I’ll refrain from amateur legal commentary.  Instead this post will offer comments screened through my future of education lenses, based on what open source information has revealed so far.

(I do recommend reading into the affidavit, if you have time.  It’s mostly account of each fraud case, which feels like a short story anthology.  It’s fascinating to see the parents talk themselves into commitment, and to hear the point scammer’s enthusiasm and confidence.)

I don’t have a thesis today.  All I see are multiple strands moving and connecting, sketching out potential futures:

Varsity_Blues_(1999_film)_posterCollege athletics Add this story to the ongoing string of American higher ed sports scandals.  Already some coaches have been fired; more could well follow, along with their associates.

Yet college sports have proven massively resilient in the face of all kinds of scandal.  As I’ve noted previously, American higher ed is willing to go a long way to supporting athletics, even in the face of scandals, crime, and money-draining finances.  As an early, faint indicator of this possibility, while I refer to the story as being about admissions and athletics, consult other responses.  They tend to drop the sports aspect.  We could well see Varsity Blues leave varsity sports in the pink.

Inequality and education, 1 The parents allegedly involved in this scheme are all very wealthy: CEOs, other executives, business owners, owners of extensive properties, stars, lawyers.  They were not able to leverage their already exalted positions to see their progeny into elite universities, or thought they didn’t have good odds thereof, so they used some of their wealth to fix the game.  Those fixes didn’t come cheap.  One story reports two parents paying nearly a half million to get their daughter into one university.

Many people have commented that this story is linked to other systems whereby wealth yields academic success, from the sociology of escalating inequality to the way the rich can try to influence decisions with well aimed gifts. Jason England argues that “The U.S. Department of Justice filings confirm what we already knew — or should have known: Elite-college admissions exists chiefly to replicate class privilege.”


In a way this is just another iteration on those stories, one that’s clearly criminal.  Perhaps this story just offers an accessible version of the normal state of affairs for a general audience, in which case Greene is incorrect, as the story illuminates the broader issue rather than distracts from it.

On the other hand, maybe Jamal Greene will be right…

The Madoff scenario In 2008 the United States financial sector collapsed.  Amidst that titanic story one thread stood out in much of the early coverage: a Ponzi scheme, run by one Bernie Madoff (such a name!).  His scam, nearly infinitesimal in comparison to the main event, nevertheless garnered attention partly because it was far simpler to understand.  But it also featured celebrities, whose financial suffering became grist for our celebrity-addled media.

Madoff went to jail, yet the Obama administration declined to prosecute any bankers, nor even to set up a 21st century equivalent of the Great Depression’s Pecora Commission.  Congress passed a reform law which, while adding irritating impositions upon Wall Street, left that sector not only intact, but allowed it to recover and grow even further.  The financialization of the American economy proceeded.

Taking that history as a metaphor, it seems quite possible that while this week’s scandal throws a baleful light across all of higher education, the system could well persist unchanged even while the Varsity Blues crew is successfully prosecuted in full media cynosure.

Inequality and education, 2 I never tire of noticing how so many conversations about American higher ed conflate segments of that sector with the whole.  While this scandal involves a vanishingly small percentage of this nation’s universities (of which there are more than 4,000), some commentators see it as indicting the whole system.

Let Matt Reed offer a corrective.  He notes that the majority of American academic institutions are not uber-selective.  Many are, in fact, open enrollment.  This is a terrific success story for a democracy, and not at all the same as the existence of very selective universities whose identity is therefore based in part on how many would-be students they exclude.

Arizona State offered a cheerful comment on Twitter along these lines:

In one sense, seen in the full context of American higher education, the FBI arrests remind us of the sector’s sheer institutional diversity.  We offer open access institutions and some of the planet’s most exclusive campuses.

In other sense, the scandal points to the fact of American academic inequality, both in terms of institutional reality and public perception.  The responses to it drive the theme home.

Celebrity culture This is, I admit, a huge blind spot for me.  I don’t follow celebrities.  I don’t get the whole ecosystem.  So I have to take it as read that some media outlets are spinning this story as focused on two actresses (whose shows I never saw, but which serve as punch lines for jokes now).  Incomprehensible TMZ, for example, apparently relishes this narrative.

Can we use celebrity culture as a tool to advance social change, as Doug Henwood and Elayne Tobin suggest?  Might the celebrity hook drive this story into sufficient status to motivate universities, legislatures, and other actors to take steps?

Backlash against the rich While America has been getting richer and more unequal pretty steadily since around 1980, we generally have not expressed much dissatisfaction about that state of affairs.  Indeed, we frequently admire the lives of the rich and famous, at times expecting to inhabit such domains ourselves.  Lately there have been some peeps of resentment: the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders candidacy/movement, Trump’s ability to pose as a populist, the recent drop of left Democrats (Ocasio-Cortez and more).

This college admissions and athletics scandal has elicited a range of reactions, including outrage and laughter.  Consider, for example, a 2016 tweet from one of the corruptly elevated students and how people react to it now:

There are already many comic responses to sample.  But perhaps this will go further.  A Slate column claims that American “culture… increasingly likes to sneer at both rich people and influencers…”  Think of popular dismay directed at nearly cartoonish wealthy folks like Martin Shkreli.  We might add Varsity Blues as a datapoint to the rising curve of American economic anxiety and politics.

On a related note, the FBI charged these alleged perps with fraud and bribery.  Perhaps this will add to a growing sense that the American economy is fixed for the rich, as one high school teacher argues.

Backlash against disability Some of the corruption involved fake claims of learning disability. For example, from the affidavit:

CW-1 [seems to be the scam’s leader, or at least point person] instructed clients of The Key to seek extended time for their children on college entrance exams if they had not done so already, including by having the children purport to have learning disabilities in order to obtain the medical documentation that ACT, Inc. and the College Board typically require before granting students extended time.

A key (ahem) part of this involved the scammers “controlling” their own test centers, through bribing officials there.

It’s possible that students with actual disabilities will have a harder time seeking and receiving support, as schools – both K-12 and post-secondary – become more skeptical of them.

More scrutiny all over the place The FBI’s case identifies many points of failure within the higher education ecosystem.  College and university sports teams and admissions offices were bribed; presumably some adjacent staff were involved to a degree, even as slight as choosing to look the other way.  A purportedly charitable foundation was the primary vehicle for channeling funds.  The ACT and SAT testing systems were compromised, with test centers being “owned” by the scammers.  High schools were taken advantage of.

It seems likely that we’ll see some if not all of these entities take steps to more carefully scrutinize students and their families.  This could take the form of informal attention, new policies, or even governmental action.

The value of higher education What does this scandal tell us about how Americans view post-secondary education?

One of my students observed that we could obtain a good sense of market value for these elite universities by adding up the costs of bribery in addition to tuition (assuming full pay), fees, room, and board.  Perhaps such education is worth even more than published prices indicate, at least to those who can afford them.

On the other hand, Bryan Caplan (a splendid Future Trends Forum guest) acidly argues that none of the parents involved in Varsity Blues was interested in learning.

Consider why these parents would even desire to fake their kids’ SAT scores. We can imagine them thinking, I desperately want my child to master mathematics, writing and history — and no one teaches math, writing and history like Yale does! But we all know this is fanciful. People don’t cheat because they want to learn more. They cheat to get a diploma from Yale or Stanford — modernity’s preferred passport to great careers and high society.

So did Varsity Blues adjust our sense of higher education’s value, emphasizing its signaling power and reducing its instructional role?  Could this mark a watershed moment in how we generally acculturate the academy?

Or perhaps another values shift is under way, as some students sue Stanford over the scandal.  Higher education’s reputation may have just taken a serious hit, with either its price or value seen as overinflated due to corruption.

The side door This sounds like a new entry to American slang and culture.  Listen to a passage from the deposition, where one of the scheme’s leaders explains himself quite openly:

Okay, so, who we are– what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school …. Every year there are– is a group of families, especially where I am right now in the Bay Area, Palo Alto, I just flew in. That they want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools. So I did… what I would call, “side doors.” There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.


Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done. So that, by the time, the summer of her senior year, before her senior year, hopefully we can have this thing done, so that in the fall, before December 15th, you already knows she’s in. Done. And you make a financial commitment. It depends on what school you want, may determine how much that actually is. But that’s kind of how the the side and back door work.

So there’s the front door of legit, open access.  There’s the back door of legit influence-purchasing.  And now there’s a side door of straight-up fraud and bribery.  Let’s see if “side door” starts appearing in American language.

…overall, I can see this scandal fading quickly in the rear view mirror.  We have many other distractions, of course.  Many of the institutions we’ve discussed have already demonstrated resilience in the face of bad stories.

But perhaps Varsity Blues will combine with other trends to yield something bigger.  Our anxieties about inequality, about the value of and access to college, even a rising unease about certain sports: each could grow with this story.

(thanks to multiple friends and a MetaFilter thread for conversation)

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Which nonfiction book should our book club read next?

What should our online book club read next?

Yes, it’s voting time!

Melbourne_Wall of BooksOur topic for this reading: nonfiction that informs us about the futures of education and technology.  There are sixteen (16) titles on deck.

(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 schooling, for-profit colleges and universitieschanges 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 last few such; the first one appeared back in fall 2017. I have cut several titles from previous lists that fail to win any votes. 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:

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.  Note that Amazon links go through our book store, so every book you purchase that way helps keep my work going (and thank you very much!).

  • Sarah Rose Cavanaugh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (2016) (Amazon).  A practical account on how to apply neuroscience and psychology to improve student engagement and learning.
  • Caroline Criado-PerezInvisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019) (Goodreads; Amazon).  Examines the dangers caused by design that ignores women, then advocates for new, inclusive design.
  • Four_futuresPeter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (publisherAmazon) (2016).  A bold quartet of futures, each a world powerfully reshaped by technology in different ways.  Based on this 2011 article.
  • Scott Hartley, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (official page; Amazon) (2017).  From the book’s description: “as we prioritize… STEM subjects, we must also consider the overlooked but valuable role that the Liberal Arts play in our technological world. Fuzzies help us apply our new tools with context, consideration, and relevance to the greatest human problems.”
  • Joe Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (publisher, Amazon) (2017).  A wide-ranging view of humanity, which finds at our very center nothing less than… teaching. (thanks to Howard Rheingold)
  • Kai-Fu Lee_AI Super-powersRajiv Jhangiani, Robert Biswas-Diener, Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science (2017) (Amazon) (publisher).  Explores open educational resources, open notebook science, and open access scholarship.  Note that this book is available as a free download.
  • Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (2018) (official site) (Goodreads) (Amazon).  An overview of AI in geopolitical competition, in business, and in academia. Reviews: Washington Post, Forbes.
  • Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies (publisherAmazon) (2017).  A history and analysis of the lunatic fringe of online culture, from 4Chan on.
  • Chris Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. (publisherAmazon). (2016)  Focuses on the defunding of American public higher education.  Professor Newfield was also a guest on the Future Trends Forum.

  • Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Amazon; Goodreads; Wikipedia) (2018).  A look at positive trends in the world from a very popular speaker.
  • StaleyBruce Schneier, Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World (publisher; Amazon) (2018). An overview of today’s cybersecurity challenges written by one of the world’s leading security experts.
  • David J. Staley, Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education (2019) (Amazon) (publisher).  (Inside Higher Ed interview with author)
  • Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions  How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (2016) (publisher) (Amazon).  (thanks to Joe Murphy for the suggestion)
  • Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us (2017) (Amazon)  (thanks to Harry Baya)
  • Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power(2018) (publisher) (Amazon).  A critical examination of the uses of AI and big data. (One review)

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!

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When a government takes the future a bit more seriously

What does it look like when a government takes the future seriously?  Can states create formal foresight positions?

Commissioner Sophie HoweOne example might be found in Wales, which just appointed a Future Generations Commissioner.  Sophie Howe’s job is:

to be the guardian of future generations. This means helping public bodies and those who make policy in Wales to think about the long-term impact their decisions have.

That position was authorized by a 2015 Welsh law with an unusually futures-oriented remit:

The Well-being of Future Generations Act requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

So what is commissioner Howe working on now?  Topics include decarbonization and improving stewardship of resources, along with leading a prioritization process aimed at identifying one of these areas to address: skills, social prescribing, adverse childhood experiences, planning, housing, and transport.  There’s also an awful lot of consultation and conversation.

The commissioner doesn’t have much power.  Her job is largely advisory at this point, although the Guardian points out that she can intervene in and  influence key decisions.

Are there other examples of governments building in futuring functions?  The same Guardian article (by Oliver Balch) points to several other recent and current examples.  Israel’s Knesset maintained a Commission for Future Generations from 2001-2006.  Hungary also launched a Commissioner for Future Generations in 2008. I can’t tell if the position still exists. describes it in the past tense.  I could imagine Viktor Orbán axing it.

Julie GelfandMeanwhile, Canada’s federal government has a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which offers a somewhat narrower focus:

the Commissioner provides parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.

The current office holder, Julie Gelfand, has a term expiring in 2021.

Is there an American equivalent?  There was, in a very narrow sense. in the form of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995)  And now, in our neoliberal age, we have a private entity, the excellent Long Now Foundation.

Let’s take a step back and look at these efforts as a group (and please let me know of others).  These positions have several things in common.  They are futures oriented, obviously.  They work with legislative bodies and have some ability to monitor public and private activity.  Their focus can be very broad (future populations) or somewhat more narrow (resources or technology). And at least one half of the extant examples are currently held by women. thinks of these offices as “Ombudspersons, or Guardians for Future Generations.”  The former makes sense, given the breadth of the positions, even the Canadian one.  The latter is more ambitious.

I’m writing this after yet another trip, late at night.  My internal clock is recovering from a quick trans-Pacific trip and America’s daylight savings, so perhaps my mood is odd.  But these private and public projects inspire me.  They seem like small signs of humanity lifting its eyes to look ahead beyond the current semester, business quarter, or election season.  Perhaps they are indications of evolution.  At the very least I think they could represent progress.


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An academic accreditor looks at higher ed’s horizon

I think what’s happening right now in Vermont is a crisis in higher education.  There’s no doubt about it…

I’m just back from a week in Australia.  It was a very productive time, and also delightful as Oz always is.  The trip also meant I have a lot to catch up with, including blogging.

So, let me re-enter the bloghouse with a link to a single item, Vermont Digger* interviewing Tom Greene.  He’s the founding president of the Vermont College of the Fine Arts, but, more importantly, was recently a commissioner of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).  That is, he was a college and university accreditor.  For six years.

Higher ed accreditation is almost dark matter in the national conversation about academia.  Accrediting agencies rarely appear in the press.  They almost never pop up in discussions about educational technology.  Yet accreditors are, like dark matter, enormously influential on higher education.  Each campus strives mightily (and at some cost) to retain accreditation; losing accreditation can kill an institution outright.  Even the threat of an agency withdrawing accreditation can clobber student applications and therefore enrollment and therefore campus revenue and therefore…

So let’s look carefully at what Tom Greene has to say about higher education.  His focus is New England, as he makes clear throughout the discussion.  Naturally, given VTDigger’s purview, much of the conversation addresses Vermont.  Kudos, by the way, to the excellent Lola Duffort  for her interviewing.

Greene’s view is empathetic and quite grim.  I extracted this post’s opening quote from his answers.  Overall he sees things getting harder for Vermont higher education, especially from the accrediting side:

I think there’s been a tightening everywhere around tolerance for colleges that are that are teetering…. I’ve actually seen colleges when I was on the commission come back from probation. It’s challenging, and I think it’s more challenging now than it has been in the past.

Be sure to catch that point.  It’s not just that campuses are under a range of pressures, but that accreditors are getting tougher.

ThomasChristopherGreeneSo why are things getting harder in higher ed, especially in New England and Vermont in particular?  Greene leads off his list of explanations with demographics.  Note that the Green Mountain state’s median age is almost 43.  Next he mentions the cultural status of higher ed being in trouble: “I think the idea and value of a college degree and the expense of it is under attack.”

Then he goes on to identify online education as a fierce competitor.  Not all of it: just the megauniversities. And Greene speaks of this in terms of Clayton Christensen’s disruption model, albeit without using the name:

You were seeing a different business model where, you know, University of Southern New Hampshire undergraduate degree tuition is around $8,000 or $9,000 a year compared to the $40,000 or $50,000 it takes for a residential experience. And so people are voting with their feet.

Lola Duffort: Yeah, and their wallets.

Tom Greene: And their wallets.

Recall that SNHU is local to most of New England.  This matters because learners often prefer to take classes from nearby institutions, even online.

So that’s where Greene sees the current state of play.  Duffort takes things further, asking him to see the future of higher ed through his accreditor’s lenses.  Greene gets grimmer:

Lola Duffort: Do you think we’re at the worst part of the crisis? Or do you think it’s going to get worse?

Tom Greene: I think it’s gonna get worse.

Lola Duffort: How much? I mean, do you really think that a third of the schools could close in Vermont?

Tom Greene: Half [of private colleges and universities].

Lola Duffort: Half?

Tom Greene: Yeah. Could. In a short period of time, next two, three, four years. Without some kind of a sea change in how people do business, and how they innovate, and what kind of resources are available to them. I think you’re going to see it… In some cases, closures may look more like mergers or larger institutions taking them over…

Massachusetts has a ton of colleges and universities, most of which are going nowhere, and it has a bunch that are going to close.

Greene goes on to emphasize that he’s talking about private, not public colleges: “It’s different with the state colleges because they have state resources and money, where the independent colleges do not. So I think when it comes to private enterprise, you could see as many as half close the next three or four years.”

To me that sounds like passing peak education.

If this is right, if New England higher ed is in crisis and things will get worse, what will be the collateral damage?  Thankfully both Duffort and Green emphasize the human costs.  Then Duffort points out a particular aspect to that damage:

 A really important thing to keep in mind is that the colleges that are in danger of closing do not enroll the same kinds of students that elite schools do. These are kids that are less likely to be affluent and more likely to be struggling academically — not universally, but in general, if you look at student profiles. These kids are already less likely to graduate on time. If your school shuts down and you have to start all over at a different school, that could really give someone that excuse, maybe, not to finish out their degree. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t hurt the graduation rates of that cohort of students. Then you have to think about more kids leaving school with debt but no degree.

Don’t miss that point.  If New England – if America – still wants more and more people to get significant post-secondary experience, then we are running into a fierce challenge to that goal.  In fact, it looks harder to reach that goal than it did a decade past.

Second, there’s a major impact on Vermont’s society and population.  Green gives a good example of the economic damage wrought upon a locality when a college closes.  Duffort adds a broader angle::

A really key thing is, these private schools mostly recruit from out of state. So they’re bringing people in to Vermont. And a lot of these people stay, right? So what’s really scary is that they are a casualty of Vermont’s very well documented demographic problem, right? We’re an aging state. And we desperately need more young people to come in. So they’re the first casualty of that. And at the same time, their closure will likely accelerate that dynamic. Because you’ll have your people coming in because of these colleges, and then staying and doing basic things, like paying taxes and shopping downtown, but also starting businesses. And more intangible but really critical things like local music scenes. Or, I often think about the local food scene in Rutland County, which is really vibrant and amazing, and has a lot of links to Green Mountain College.

[Michael Dougherty, who appears towards the end of the interview]: And that just kind of goes away once those schools go away.

Lola Duffort: That goes away, right.

Remember that Vermont – along with Maine and New Hampshire – are very rural locations, older than more urban states.  Losing colleges would, according to Duffort, accelerate that aging process.

Given the present crisis and unfolding future, what is to be done?  First, Tom Green recommends better public outreach: “I think we need to do a better job of educating people about how we exist as employers and the kind of economic impact we have.”

Second, he hints at “some kind of a sea change in how people do business, and how they innovate, and what kind of resources are available to them…”  I say “hints” because this point isn’t developed.  I’m going to invite him to speak on the Future Trends Forum and we can ask him about it.

Interestingly, Greene doesn’t call for governmental intervention per se.  He sees state attention as crucial, he can’t think of a policy approach that would help.   “I don’t know what I would do. You know, I certainly would want to know more about it. And I don’t know what tools are available to the governor or the legislature, when they think about higher education institutions closing.”  This is very different from either the general call for states to spend more, or even for states to set up new policies against colleges closing.

What can we learn from this?  To an extent we should be careful in extrapolating too much.  It’s only one statement from one person, after all, and the focus is on just one bit of the United States.  Given those caveats, we can float some ideas for subsequent testing and refining.

For starters at least NECHE looks likely to tighten its accreditation process.  This is vital for every campus in the area, and may also point to further crises to come if colleges that previously skated through the process may now face extinction.

It’s also another datapoint in favor of the view that more colleges and universities will close (or merge; Greene was careful to include that option).  Unless surviving campuses manage to expand enrollment and pick up student survivors, this will throw a spanner into America’s higher education plans.

That one futurist’s view of one accreditor’s analysis.  What do you think?  Do you know of other accreditation statements we can add to the mix?

That’s where I’ll stop for now.  It’s a good interview and you should read or listen to it.  Now I have to head back to the email coalface and also coax my internal clock into figuring out what day it is.

*Here’s a shout-out for Vermont Digger as an example of local, independent, and digitally based journalism.  They do important work.

Also, bravo for providing a transcription!  That’s a lot of work, and much appreciated.

(Greene photo from the VCFA site)

Posted in horizon scanning | Tagged | 4 Comments

Another small American college will close

My most recent blog post had the grim title of “casualties of the future.”  I wrote about how American higher ed is experiencing problems and losses as it seeks to change from one historical stage to another.

And now there’s another example.

Southern_Vermont_College_sealSouthern Vermont College just it will announced close, although its website doesn’t seem to have been updated to reflect this.  The immediate cause is withdrawal of accreditation by the New England Commission of Higher Education (which also hasn’t updated its listing for SVC).

What causes NECHE to end its accreditation and thereby kill the college?  NECHE didn’t think SVC’s finances were sound enough for it to keep going.  The accreditor recently held a hearing on this, looking to determine if the school had

“sufficient human, financial, information, physical, and technological resources and capacity to support its mission,” and that “the institution demonstrates that its resources are sufficient to sustain the quality of its educational program and to support institutional improvement now and in the foreseeable future.”

Evidently, it did not.

One reason for that financial finding may well be the scheduling of NECHE’s investigation.  According to SVC’s president, that hammered the school’s ability to recruit students for fall 2019:

“On Friday morning,” said President David R. Evans, “the board voted to close the college at the end of the spring semester, concluding that, given all the factors including the fact that we ceased recruiting new students almost immediately after receiving notice of the show-cause hearing, and right in the middle of the prime recruiting season, suggested that there was no plausible way we could continue our trajectory of increasing numbers of new incoming students, and as such would face an impossible fiscal situation next year.”

Evans offered these enrollment numbers: “‘We were projecting 365 students,’ Evans said, but now ‘the best case scenario is for 275 students…” In Inside Higher Ed’s note about the closing Evans was very clear on the point that this was about enrollment and finances.

“Please note that NECHE’s concern was limited to SVC’s finances only. The quality of the education we offer, institutional integrity, the transferability of courses and the value of our degrees are not in question.”

The college did try to find a strategic partner and to garner more philanthropic support, but failed:

Over the past few weeks, we have continued our longstanding aggressive efforts to secure additional philanthropic support and seek potential strategic alliances that would strengthen the college and secure its mission into the future.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has offered to teach out some of SVC’s current students.  Norwich and Castelton University may also help those students, according to Vermont Public Radio.  It’s not clear how the college’s staff and faculty will be supported as their employment ends, although the Facebook announcement promises that “we will provide additional information soon.”

Souther Vermont is a very small school, enrolling just under 400 students.  Its endowment is about $3 million, according to US News.

Some of this sad story is very particular to the institution (I’m conscious here of Swarthmore’s Tim Burke and his admonition to focus on a school’s specific history: here’s SVC’s).  As VTDigger summarizes, the college was hit “by two big reputational blows, when its nursing program in 2013 nearly lost its own accreditation, and when its former chief financial officer was accused of embezzlement.”

Some of this depends on the Vermont context, which is not very good for higher ed. The state’s demographics trends are of rapid aging and few traditional-age students. On the public side, Vermont has very, very low levels of support for its universities.  And casualties have already occurred.  Another Vermont campus, Green Mountain, announced it would close last month.  Vermont Law removed tenure from its faculty in a bid to save money.  Vermont Digger notes that “NECHE has decided to withdraw the accreditation of the College of St. Joseph in Rutland at the end of the year…” Can we see Vermont as having passed its own higher education peak?

The SVC story connects as well to larger trends.  As my readers know, Vermont’s demographics are advanced compared to the rest of the nation, but are not unique, as the developed world shows that kind of reduced fertility.  SVC’s fragility to low enrollment is also fairly widespread, especially given its tiny endowment (again, the supermajority of American campuses do not own substantial endowments). Its small size also makes it more vulnerable to pressures which larger schools could better absorb (but not losing accreditation). Note, too, the college’s push for philanthropic support, a classic American college move.  There’s also its drive to “seek potential strategic alliances.” We’ve already seen a similar idea in the Hampshire College story as well as in other merger stories.  I would expect to see more “alliance” attempts as higher ed’s crisis unfolds.

As casualties mount this year, we might expect some other developments as a result.  Media accounts could well run with stories of an academic crisis, and whip up a frenzy of dread (tv news is especially prone to this). Investors and philanthropists might incline towards seeing higher ed or portions thereof as less stable than they once did, which could reduce their offerings (and so even heighten the crisis). Campus communities might become more nervous.  Would-be students might become more skeptical of certain colleges.

On a minor, technological note, I’m struck by how SVC issued its announcement on Facebook.  The college’s main website doesn’t seem to have any information as of now.  The accreditor’s website also looks to be out of date.  In contrast, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts quickly launched their student transfer page.  Are we seeing some academics paying less heed to their open web content and more attention to Facebook?

My deepest sympathies are with Southern Vermont’s community.

PS: I’m writing this from Australia, where I’m working with a group of universities there and a technology firm.  Apologies if this post is unnecessarily dry or telegraphic.  My internal clock is still being reset.

Posted in enrollment | 12 Comments

Casualties of the future: college closures and queen sacrifices

For years I’ve been thinking about ways of explaining higher education’s present and future.  My peak higher education model is out there, for example, notorious and grim.

Beyond that, I wonder if we should think of our time as a transition period between two different ages of American academia.  We can posit that there was a certain phase of the college and university experience from around 1990-2010.  It had certain characteristics: massively increasing enrollment, growing curricula, decreasing public funding, booming financialization, faculty adjunctification, expanding administrative staff, etc.  That phase needs a name, which is doesn’t yet have.  We can also posit that that phase has passed, coming to an end around 2008-2012 with the financial crisis and the end of total enrollment growth.

That academic phase hasn’t been clearly replaced yet. The new phase’s nature isn’t fully evident. Perhaps its outlines will become apparent after several years of change.  I’ve speculated on what that next higher education phase might look like here and elsewhere.  But for now, let’s consider the present as a moment in between those two phases.  That’s our time, right in the midst of a switching period, a liminal space, marked by uncertainty and instability.  We’re in a boundary zone.

bricks in transition

In that spirit, let me offer one of my favorite Antonio Gramsci quotes:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (one source)

If this transition state metaphor is right, it helps explain some morbid symptoms: the current tide of college closures and queen sacrifices*.  Change is rarely painless, and institutional transformation without wide-ranging growth means cuts in certain areas.  Increasing overall financial and demographic pressures place more stress on campuses, some of which can no longer bear up.  The future is arriving and there are casualties.

Let’s consider examples.

Over the past month there have been several stories of colleges closing.  The president and board chair of the College of New Rochelle (New York) announced they will probably shut down by the end of summer or calendar 2019.  Why is this happening?  It comes down to money, of course, but not how you might think.  CNR is unusual in that enrollments there have actually been healthy, due to a strategic pivot towards a health care focus.  What is killing them is a financial scandal from several years ago, one which saddled the college with a debt they simply couldn’t repay.

At the same time Bennett College, a historically black women’s college, is battling its accreditor in court, trying to retain accreditation in order to allow its students to receive financial aid.  The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) removed its accreditation, deeming Bennett financially unsound, and Bennett immediately filed suit to keep it.  A student-led petition calls for Bennett’s chief financial officer to resign:

The Vice President of Business & Finance, Mr. LeRoy Summers Jr… has failed to progress under his finical guidance. He has continued to fail to keep the board properly informed which insight, has gotten us to this place of accreditation status. His nonchalant attitude, towards the students for which he works for, can no longer be silenced, tolerated, or ignored.

Why does this struggle matter?  Immediately, losing accreditation will most likely end Bennet.

Other closings and threats of closing are in the air.  The Oregon College of Art and Craft (noted previously) has scheduled its closing for the end of this May.  On the east coast, Hampshire College is enrolling a handful of new students this fall amid public pleas for a supportive partner.   Given its small endowment and persistent funding strains, Hampshire could well shut down.   Enough Massachusetts colleges have recently closed or threatened to do so (Mount Ida College and Newbury College; Wheelock College merging with Boston University in a radical bid for survival) that the state government is developing policies to ease the passing of the next ones.

transition zone

Meanwhile, queen sacrifices* and related strategies of cutting have been cropping up.

Linfield College in Oregon will cut tenure-track and tenured faculty.  On the table are apparently around 20-25 jobs, or about 15% of Linfield’s full-time faculty members.  The reason is, unsurprisingly, declining enrollment, which means reduced revenue.  Oregon Public Radio shared an email apparently from the college president, explaining that:

“A part of the college’s restructuring and academic prioritization process will be to eliminate some faculty positions that were consistent in a time when we had more than 1600 students, but are not sustainable in our present circumstances [1,240 students]…”

Apparently the administration sought to launch a program prioritization process, but the faculty balked, so the cuts will proceed from the top down.

In Montana Carroll College‘s leadership set in motion a plan to cut a number of programs and some faculty.  Note the language; this is a “program prioritization plan.”  On the block:

The five majors that will be eliminated are classical studies, ethics and value studies, engineering science, environmental outreach and interpretation, and environmental policy and project management.

The 10 minors that will be cut are anthropology, arts management and administration, classical studies, economics, European studies, Latin American studies, music, public relations, social media, and TV production.

The three certificates being discontinued are geographic information systems (GIS), project management and social media. The associate of arts degree in English, which currently has no students enrolled, is also being eliminated.

As usual, lots of humanities are on the chopping block.  I’m surprised at the science and business cuts; perhaps the programs failed to enroll students or ran into other problems for local reasons.

Why the cuts at Carroll?  My readers know the drill: “declining undergraduate enrollment contributing to a loss of revenue.”

Further east, Maryland’s McDaniel College announced on Facebook (interestingly) the end of five majors and three minors, plus one graduate program.  The humanities really bear the brunt here:

Art History, Religious Studies, French, German and Music. Minors in German, Music and Latin will also no longer be offered. At the graduate level, we are also suspending enrollment in the M.S. of Deaf Education.

Once more, this is a question of shifting campus resources from underenrolled majors to those more likely to attract students:

Any savings from this evaluation will be re-invested to strengthen our academic programs. Investments will support the reorientation of existing programs to better meet the needs of the 21st century, and to create new programs that will expand the curricular offerings of the College.

This might not be a classic queen sacrifice if no faculty are let go.  No word on that yet.

In Florida Bethune-Cookman University, another historically black institution, saw its president call for cuts across the board.

B-CU interim President Hubert Grimes called for salary cuts, employee layoffs, and an unpaid furlough — measures he said were needed to rescue the embattled university.

B-CU lately stopped participating in a dual enrollment program with local high schools and is also on academic probation.

…and so on.  There are more cases, which I faithfully record in the FTTE report.  But this is enough for now. My point is made and readers may be depressed.

American higher education may well be in a transition stage.   These cuts, closings, and crises are signs of a system in flux.  Clay Shirky called the previous stage a Golden Age, and perhaps the next stage will have such a recognizable character that we come to agree on its name.  Maybe its nature will be divided or simply unclear, given the breadth and diversity of our sector.  Either way, for now we must cope with the uneasiness and instability that comes with transitions.

In this post’s title I used the word casualties.  That’s because I don’t want readers to lose track of the human suffering involves in these stories: careers upended, student work sapped of its reputation, unemployment, local spillover effects, depression, and the fading of delicately wrought cultures.

I also used the word to draw attention to the fact that these things are occurring, and that American academia is not a shiny happy city on a hill right now.  All too often the national conversation about higher education focuses on a handful of elite institutions, which are faring quite well.  Instead, we should look at the whole sector.  I’m using the above examples to shift our gaze.

Today’s final words on transition and change are from the criminally underrated 1990s tv series Babylon-5:

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

*Queen sacrifice: my term for when a campus removes tenured and tenure-track faculty.

(thanks to Stephen Landry on Twitter and many people by email and DM; bricks in transition by Alan Levine; mountain to lowland photo by the European Space Agency)

Posted in horizon scanning | Tagged | 18 Comments

From the country towards the city

One of the oldest story themes concerns differences between cities and the countryside.  My wife and I have been carving out a story on that ancient terrain over the past few weeks as we moved house from the small, very rural town of Ripton, Vermont to the urban and suburban zone of Manassas, Virginia, close by Washington, D.C.  The experience is weird, rich, frustrating, and ultimately very positive.  It feels in many ways like time travel.

leaving the house Logistically it’s been a complex and at times brutal process.  We spent days hauling stuff from the house to a row of U-Haul U-Boxes an hour away.  An interestingly low-tech innovation, those boxen: very simple, tall, deep plywood crates akin to shipping containers.  We rent them, and U-Haul ships them to our destination via truck and/or train.  So Ceredwyn and I, plus our son, Owain, dragged, stacked, covered, grunted, and generally schlepped furniture and boxes both plastic and cardboard, then let U-Haul begin the shipping.

Then delays struck.  A winter storm hit, plastering the roads precisely along our route and making the last bit of loading harder.  We learned at the last minute that we had to change up the house’s smoke and CO2 detectors.  Handing over materials (including the house keys!) almost failed when one office person went absent, the other was unprepared, and Vermont’s poor infrastructure nearly killed phone calls for help.  Paperwork surprises cropped up… but we hit the road with Ceredwyn at the wheel (she’s the best driver I know), me crammed into the passenger seat under piles of storage blankets, suitcases and boxes occupying every cubic inch in the Forester’s rear half, and three unhappy cats stacked carefully in the back seat.

The roads were bad in Vermont, New York, and Pennsylvania, covered with snow and ice.  This slowed and stressed us further.  The time for my class drew nigh, so we found a pet-friendly hotel near Albany and holed up for the night.  My students were entertained by my Zooming to them from yet another locale, then delighted when Hunter the cat climbed on top of my head.  Then we hit the road at 5 am the next morning, heading south so I could be in good broadband range for that week’s Future Trends Forum.  We did that at a friend’s apartment near our home.  For several days we were between homes.

Then we were in our new home!

Bryan_new house

We finally arrived, exhausted and a bit dizzy at the prospect.

The house is vast, compared with our previous one.  Its amenities and functions were confusing and surprising at first.  Most of my indoor habits misfired. I felt like a Soviet emigre in the United States, or a time traveler racing ahead from 1940 to 2020.

In the kitchen is an induction stovetop, controlled digitally, rather than a gas-fired unit, controlled by knobs.  Heat and air are smoothly provided by shiny machines in the basement and ducted quietly throughout the space, instead of by a wood-fired stove.  Locks are on all doors and some windows (we never needed locks in Ripton).  Plentiful electrical outlets dot every room.  There are smoothly plastered walls and ceilings.  Gentle carpets or shiny paneled floors underneath my feet.  I didn’t need to stoke or feed the fire, nor to bring in wood from outside. I feel like I fell asleep when Truman was president and just woke up.

Services changed as well.  Mail is delivered right to our door (in Ripton we drove about 4 miles to the community post office).  Trash and recycling are picked up (formerly, biweekly runs to the town trash/recycling depot).  Meal delivery is now a thing, and from a huge range of restaurants – we’d never experienced that in Ripton.

And my cell phone works at home!  Recall that Vermont had – has – at best “uneven” coverage.  I was never able to use my phone at home; it took a 25 minute drive to get bars.  The irony of this is that I’ve been keenly interested in mobile devices since 2000, when I connected with Howard Rheingold on his book Smartmobs, yet couldn’t actually use smartphones at home.  Now I have my Galaxy S8+ on or near my person 24/7.  I’m using it for more functions and more frequently – more Instagramming, for one.

It’s very odd not to have a land line.  We actually gave our stack of landline phones (including the one we reserved for power outages) to the new owner of the Ripton house, since we have no use of them now.  It’s also an improvement.  Today Ceredwyn and I realized that our house is quieter, because we’re not getting hit by waves of spam callers, like we used to get in Vermont.  I no longer have to share my cell number with the apology “I might not answer it if I’m home, because…”  Now I focus on one phone line instead of three.

Speaking of services, it took Verizon many days to figure out how to send a person to the house to turn FIOS on.  My shaming them on Twitter helped them get it done.  Then triumph followed.  Check out the speeds:

broadband blazing 2019 Feb

In contrast, in Ripton the best Consolidated could cough up was around 6.5 mbps down and 0.7 up.  “Your Internet speed is very fast” indeed!

I downloaded a 2 hour film from in one minute.  Steam installed two big games in about that many minutes.  Uploaded attachments just work. I’ve played music from three tabs simultaneously and mixed them just because I could.  I’m starting to feel like this image Alan Levine made of me:

Bryan blown back

Other services: travel has become better, including air and rail.  Dulles airport is about 20 minutes away.  National, maybe 50.  Commuter rail into DC is 5 minutes away.  The nearest Metro line, about 20.  Traffic is higher, of course, so I’m learning times and itineraries.  The much lower cost and greater options for air routes is astonishing.  I easily find routes that cost one third of what I paid from Burlington, and take half to one quarter the time.

So much of this was and remains disorienting after living nearly 20 years semi-off-the-grid. For example, we now have neighbors. A lot of them, visible from the house in all directions. A good number of cars drive past. Country silence has been replaced by the soundscape of advanced industrial civilization. I’m half aware of a nearly continuous, uneven susurration of machinery.

A Facebook friend half-jokingly shared this story about impending loud noises, due to artillery tests in Quantico (20 miles away).  That reminded me not only of Vermont stillness, but also of how we grew accustomed to occasional gunfire.  That didn’t come from violent crime; instead it was hunters and people practicing their shooting.  Hearing gunfire here should have a very different meaning.

Others things are close by the house.  Many things.  Within a 10 minute drive are multiple grocery stores – from Ripton, it was 30 minutes to the nearest single one.  There are bookstores (3!) within that 10 minutes span, many restaurants, an industrial park, a coworking space, a tavern with board games (nice), a museum or three, a beauty salon, an assisted living facility, one public library, banks, barbers, pet suppliers, schools, drug stores, and… we’re still exploring, and are overwhelmed.  In contrast, within 10 minutes of our former house were some other houses, a spring, and many trees.

On foot we can largely reach other houses, since the immediate area is a residential tract.  There are some trees, but of course not like in Ripton.

Spider in a box

Cats love being in boxes wherever they are.  I think they enjoy the box aspect of moving.

There are a *lot* more people, and a different mix.  Within two days I found a science fiction club (never found one in Vermont in nearly 20 years).  Ceredwyn has been flabbergasted at the huge numbers of children.  Racially, the area is far more diverse than Ripton, with a large Latinx population, as well as plenty of other populations represented.

Culturally, we’re still learning.  There are very few signs of public religiosity.  Not much public art.  I’m getting the sense that people are very busy at work and caring for families.  Very busy – the coworking space has a wide range of presentations scheduled for the next month.  Much activity takes place in DC.

Foliage: we have a small, fenced-in yard and a lawn out stretching around the house.  We have been examining it carefully for planting purposes, watching when and when the light falls, observing some flowers peep forth (in February!).  I’ve gathered and stacked fallen sticks and tree limbs; I really can’t help myself.  We have to talk with the local housing authority to see what and where we can plant and compost.

Hunter and Ash in cat carrierOur cats were very confused at first. They hid in their carriers or sulked in a closet. Hunter actually growled at his siblings. It took days for them to feel bold enough to explore, then comfortable enough to lounge regally among the boxes and to sprawl benignly upon the carpets.  They now seem quite happy.

We won’t let them outside because of traffic.  Our back yard is fenced in, but the cats would likely find their way through it.  Until we perfect a way for them to be out without danger we have to be jailers.  So far the cats haven’t pressured us on this score.

At times I feel a different tempo.  It isn’t quite the frantic pace of New York life, but I am getting gradually used to doing more things with the outside world in a given day.  Put another way, life in the new home feels like the tempo of life when I travel, which is usually to cities or big towns.  I can get more done, partially due to having so many options physically nearby.

That’s all for now.  Any questions or observations, either from people who’ve made similar transitions or those who haven’t?

Posted in personal | 5 Comments

Are mega-universities the future?

How big will campuses get? A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article argues that what it calls mega-universities are a trend to watch.

Lee Gardner defines such academic behemoths in terms of size.  He cites enrollment numbers upwards of 80,000.  Western Governors enrolls more than 91,000, according to Wikipedia. Liberty University has over 100,000 students.  That’s beyond most colleges and universities, which max out around 50-60,000 students (one source; Wikipedia).

WGUFlagMega-universities are not defined just by quantity.  Megas differ in some qualities, including emphases on online learning, adult learners, and a business attitude:

While some so-called mega-universities have physical campuses, they’ve focused intensely on building online programs. They’ve emphasized recruiting working adults over fresh high-school graduates. They’ve embraced competency-based education, in which students earn credits from life experiences and from demonstrating proficiency in a subject. They market widely and vigorously, and lean into, rather than recoil from, some other common corporate practices and philosophies.

Among those adults, these megas have a particular target: “the more than 30 million Americans who have some college credit but who never graduated.”  They also seem to have a precise mission: providing “‘all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,’ says Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause” (Grajek was also a fine Future Trends Forum guest).

Gardner positions the megas as one strategic response to demographic trends:

While community colleges have long served students of all ages, traditional four-year colleges’ “business model is being blown up and, demographically, they’ve seen a decline of traditional-age students, so there’s this wondrous new discovery of the adult learner,” [Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University] says.

And yet the current crop of megas may well own the marketplace.  Most started in the 1990s or soon after, and so reaped first mover advantages.  Gardner’s interviewees think the field is full, and that it will be difficult for anyone else to enter the megasphere.  He cites Michael B. Horn (another fine Forum guest) as saying “there’s probably only a select number that can meaningfully enter the space.”

What can we make of this?  What can megas tell us about education’s future?

On the face of it, mega-universities obviously exist.  They enroll students and employ both staff and faculty.  They have clearly found an educational market to satisfy, pointing one way forward for American higher ed as demographic trends see our younger population dwindle and their elders grow.

They must be realizing some economy of scale.  The article mentions rising costs, but surely there are benefits at a per-unit level.  Compare organizing a university for 90,000 students to a college teaching and supporting 2% of the number.  Some American campuses practice small class sizes, intensive student support, and high touch service – and it’s costly to do so.  The successes of the megas are further evidence for the possibility that small colleges will decline, while larger units persist.  Indeed, the multi-unit nature of WGU and others can be seen as pointing the way to mergers.

Missing from this conversation is the presence of potential megauniversities in state systems.  The Houston Community College ecosystem – I think the largest community college system in America – includes twenty-three campuses and 69,000 students.  Twenty-four Penn State campuses serve 97-99,000 students. The University of North Carolina system teaches almost 229,000 students across 17 campuses. Think of the number of students enrolled in all sixty-four SUNY units: more than 600,000 students, or more than half a million!  Could any of these become something like a mega-university?

SUNY provides a cautionary tale here.  Chancellor Nancy Zimpher coined, used, or reinvented the term “systemness” as a way of getting those 64 colleges and universities to think more collectively, especially from the administrative cost savings angle, which could have led to more resources directed towards teaching.  The opening plan was quite ambitious, including as well standardized IT across the system.   OpenSUNY counts as a success story, I think. There is now a series of inter-campus services and functions. Yet it seems that while campuses accepted some shared services, they resisted other forms of collaboration, especially on the administrative end.  It seems that many campuses often saw local conditions as more important than SUNY-wide ones.  I can’t find evidence of successful inter-campus teaching or shared curricula. By 2017 Zimpher’s tenure concluded with moving towards a shared data and improvement center.  Is SUNY a megauniversity?  Not quite, but Zimpher’s vision pointed in that direction.  Its at best uneven realization suggests state systems will face serious challenges in trying to scale up to something like WGU or Southern New Hampshire.

In the meantime those megas are thriving.  How much will they influence the rest of academia?

(WGU flag photo from Wikipedia)

Posted in future of education | 9 Comments

Some stories for the future of education

Now that my wife and I have hauled ourselves 550 miles or so through storms and chaos, we are resuming our lives and work.  Finally I get resume blogging.

But where to pick up?  I thought one good way to get back blogging would be to share several stories which seem interesting for education’s future.

I’ll blog about the move soon, for those who are interested, as I claw free some time.

ITEM: citizen scholarship continues to be a thing.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Fine Arts Library has republished a collection of photographs in order to elicit public assistance in understanding them.  Taken by Ed Bacon, an important Philadelphia architect and urban planner, they lack metadata and contextual information.

Philadelphia_Ed Bacon

The effort already is seeing results. Bennett said in just the first several days the Flickr page for the Ed Bacon Photo Project had garnered thousands of followers, and several hundred email comments, “from Boston to Berkeley.”

Similarly, one group of astronomers is asking amateur stargazers to observe when an asteroid briefly blocks views of the star Sirius.  There’s potential value in multiplying such observations, which can be sent to the team (who also provides instructions).

This isn’t new.  People have been crowdsourcing photographic information and metadata since the Web 2.0 days.  Short version: citizen science, citizen research is still continuing.

ITEM: the governor of Alaska has proposed cutting that state’s public university system’s support by 41%.

This sounds scary, but might not be all of that.  This is a proposal, not a law itself, and seems likely to be reduced as the legislature chews on spending.  Moreover, Alaska is an unusual state in many ways, including its strong dependence on oil sales.  But this story is nonetheless significant.  We could start with the human, intellectual, and economic impacts:

University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen told the Anchorage Daily News that the proposed cut is the largest in the university system’s 100-year history and could force its campuses to fire about 1,300 faculty and staff members. Johnsen said several research efforts would also be in jeopardy.

There are other implications to the governor’s proposed slashing. First, it represents another case of a state slashing public university funding.  While states have recently increased support slightly, public support is far below where it was in the 1970s, nearly universally.  Second, note that governor Dunleavy is a Republican.  While some American education politics and policy is non- or bipartisan, there is a rising strand of sharp party differences.  This could be data for an increased GOP hostility to universities.

I said “universities.”  Note that Dunleavy, while cutting those campuses, wants to increase funding for another part of Alaskan higher ed: its community colleges.

Over all, [Dunleavy] wants to withdraw a $154 million state subsidy from the university system while carving out $20 million more for community campuses, which he said operate more efficiently, costing the state just $8,210 per student, compared to $25,336 per student at the state’s four-year campuses.

Is any other state attempting such a split within public post-secondary education?

ITEM: charitable giving to American higher education reached its highest level ever.  The total was $46.7 billion. “Giving increased by 7.2% in fiscal 2018, the ninth consecutive year of gains,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

That total, impressive as it is, is very far from evenly distributed:

charitable giving to top schools 2000-2018_WSJ

Harvard, Stanford and Columbia universities each raised more than $1 billion, as the divide continues to grow between a handful of fundraising giants and everyone else.

The top 10 schools by total donations represent less than 1% of all U.S. colleges and universities. But these schools raised 18% of all funds last year, according to the survey. Seven schools received gifts of at least $100 million in fiscal 2018.

Note the upward direction of the graph’s line.  That’s consistent with macroeconomic trends of escalating divides by income and wealth.

So: citizen science, one state’s cuts, and charitable gains.  Signals from possible futures for education.


Posted in horizon scanning | 2 Comments

Moving and turning 52

Today my wife and I are moving house.  Specifically, we’re hauling boxes from the house into a van, driving said van to a U-Haul transfer station, then driving back for another load, repeatedly.  The cats are nervous.  Our son, Owain, is helping.  Ceredwyn and I are managing what feels like a thousand details, and are tired.  Yet bit by bit our move proceeds.  We have one more day of this schlepping, and then we hit the road.  In a few days we’ll be living in Manassas, Virginia, close to Washington, DC.

Also, today I turn 52.

Over the past two years I blogged about turning 51 and 50, so this has now become an autobiographical blog series.

It’s strange, this new sign of mileage, partly because it is unremarkable.  There’s nothing special about the age as far as I can tell.  Even the number 52 is a bit dull, offering few interesting resonances, except for the classification of this poor whale.  (Go on and listen to its sad song.) Moving house cross-country after living in one spot for almost 20 years is a far, far more meaningful and fraught event.

As a child of the Cold War’s last and most apocalyptic phase, I am sometimes surprised to be alive past the half-century mark, and not long dissolved into radioactive ash, sifting down across a ruined world.

52 by duncan c


Looking ahead is what I prefer to do.  I’m still following the plan: working on the future of education and technology through a variety of means.  Along those lines I’m making media, writing, teaching, consulting, speaking, and learning.  I’m not slowing down.  Indeed, one reason for our move to the DC area is to improve my work efficiency (better infrastructure in particular).  It also means I can do more virtual work, make my travel more efficient, and hopefully do less of the personal-carcass-hauling stuff.

I remain consumed with the desire to do more.  To push ahead, to search, to make, to learn, to listen.  I only feel the desire to rest when my traitorous body sabotages my plans.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life!

I’ve been checking myself for the typical signs of an aging American male, and do see some of them.  Nostalgia hits me more strongly than it used to, mostly for history, aw I can’t get enough of the Cold War.  Also for reading as I find myself remembering reading certain books in specific times and places: Borges by an upstate New York waterfall, Bradbury on a Michigan lawn.  Not so much nostalgia for music, which surprises me.  My tastes remain weird, broad, and uneven.  There’s some goofy love for movies I saw in the 70s and 80s.  Weirdly, I find myself looking for stuff online about two of my teenage gaming hobbies: wargames and roleplaying.   We Are the Mutants makes me happy.

Comic book cover: 52Yet nostalgia is selective, as it is for everyone.  For every song I cherish there are dozens that just seem sad at this distance.  Sorting my comics into keepers and donations, I have a hard time reconnecting with the youthful enthusiasms that led me to buy so many.  Most of what my cohort remembers fondly leaves me cold or embarrassed.

Along those lines I do cherish a small generational resentment.  Since most discussion of generations focuses on Millennials and Boomers, this Xer is left out – which is both typical and expected.

I don’t feel any desire to dun “kids these days.”  I still dislike when people my age or older bash Millennials and Gen Z.  Instead people under 30 fill me with optimism for the future, often more than I feel for their elders.

Related to this: I do not think of retirement.  I suspect I’ll work right into the grave for a variety of reasons (politics, my disposition), and can’t foresee a way for me to slow down in a significant way absent a health emergency.

My health is ok. I can still bench about my weight (240 pounds) and enjoy a full day’s energy level, yetI seem to be more vulnerable to very cold weather than I once was.  I’ve been consumed with the house madness on top of work, which has wrecked my exercise routines; I should resume the walking and weight-lifting in the new digs, and maybe add cycling.  BMI is still too high (37), so this has some urgency.  Otherwise, no sign of entering so-called andropause. No afternoon naps, no concentration problems.  I still don’t feel the desire to talk about health issues with other people.

As a futurist I am keenly interested in medical advances, and try to look ahead to their impact down the road.  I just don’t think many will apply to me, thanks to the way America allocates health care.

I am more frightened of losing cognitive functions than of just about any other degradation.

Related: I am more conscious of allocating my time.  I’ve pushed away some books, conversations, movies, and especially tv series because of the dreadful sense that my available window for experiencing those things is shrinking fast.  I multitask with a greater sense of desperation.

Musical interlude!

Related: I can’t tell if I’m speaking less.  I don’t mean in keynotes and addresses, but in social settings.  Over the past few years I’ve been focusing on listening to people more carefully, as well as not exercising older white man privileges.  I encourage people to say more, and ask them questions. Usually I am more interested in what and how other people think than in convincing them of my ideas. (Those of you who’ve known me for a while, please feel free to comment.)

Apparently one sign of aging is valuing friendships more strongly, and I do get that.  Living in a remote spot and working a lot has meant I maintain and enjoy many of these virtually, which is ok for now; hopefully I can increase those connections in our better-connected new home.  For all of its annoyances and evils, social media works for this purpose.

The flip side of this gaining love for friends is bitterness about friends and colleagues falling silent. I’m told that older folks are more self-sufficient and less dependent on the opinions of other people, but I’m not getting that yet, possibly because my profession relies so much on reputation.  Being cut off by people I once had a connection with doesn’t sadden, but galls me.

Thinking of betrayals or past mistakes is something I have disciplined myself to quash, as a kind of cognitive optimism.  Death metal helps.

What also helps is checking back over the past year to see what I’ve accomplished.  I turned in the manuscript for my new book and the editor likes it.  FTTE switched to a paid subscription model successfully.  The Future Trends Forum reached its third anniversary, connecting with nearly 2,700 people.  The BAC business continues to grow.  More conversations, more learning, more creation… and we sold our house to move to a much better situation.

I’m teaching again.

And my wife and children infuse every single day with love.

Onward.  Onward!

(photo by Duncan C52 cover from Wikipedia)

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