Higher education: the admissions officer view

What can we learn about higher education listening to the staff who run admissions offices?  Inside Higher Ed partnered with Gallup to survey nearly 500* of these administrators.  The results are very useful for anyone looking into higher ed’s present or future.

IHE admission officers' surveyI’ll pull out some of the findings that struck me.  They include issues of marketing, race, international students, and technology, among others.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Recruitment Competition is heating up. 81% of officers “agree their college is increasing its efforts to recruit full-time undergraduate students.”  More officers say their institutions are ramping up recruitment of older students (over 24) as well as everyone online. A clear majority is increasing recruitment of first generation (67%) students.

(Think of this competition increase when considering challenges to inter-campus collaboration.)

On race A clear majority of admissions officers (71%) describe increasing recruitment efforts targeting minority students.

At the same time, there is a strong difference of attitudes towards minorities based on ethnicity or nationality:

[F]orty-six percent of admissions directors believe that some colleges hold Asian-American applicants to higher standards than other students…

39 percent of admissions directors say that Asian-American students who are admitted to their college generally have higher grades and test scores than other applicants.

This brings to mind the Harvard suit.  In response to a question about that story, about one half of admissions officers “strongly agree or agree that the lawsuit is engendering significant distrust among Asian-American students and their families in the admissions process at competitive colleges…”  In addition, about one half of those surveyed “strongly agree or agree… that the Harvard case could lead to new legal attacks on the ability of colleges to consider race in admissions.”

Back to the caucasian majority, there’s a strong division about outreach to that population. “Admissions directors… are divided as to whether colleges should recruit more low-income white students (35 percent agree and 36 percent disagree they should).”

There is also an issue when it comes to increasing institutional exclusivity – i.e., decreasing the proportion of accepted students: “a majority of admissions directors, 58 percent, strongly agree or agree that the increased competitiveness of public universities threatens to impede efforts to admit diverse student bodies…”  Note that this question was aimed at public institutions, not privates or for-profits.

International students Surprisingly, a majority of colleges seem to be leaving alone or reducing their marketing abroad.

The proportion of admissions directors who strongly agree or agree that their college will increase efforts to recruit international students has fallen from 60 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2016 to 42 percent today.

Is this because they fear a losing competition with other nations, given America’s recent reputational hits (Trump, the Muslim ban, widespread media coverage of school shootings)?  “74 percent of admissions directors agree — including 52 percent who strongly agree — that the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration have made it more difficult to recruit international students.”

While most aren’t seeking to expand that population, those surveyed tend to be anxious about its decline. “Fifty-seven percent of admissions directors strongly agree or agree that they are concerned about maintaining the same number of international students at their college in the years ahead.”

Timing Filling a new fall class now tends to take more of summer.

Most colleges are not meeting their enrollment goals by the traditional date for admissions acceptances, May 1. [Just] thirty-eight percent of admissions directors say their college met its goal by that date…

Half of private college admissions directors say they met their goal by June 1, but roughly two-thirds of those at public associate and public master’s/baccalaureate colleges did not.

Testing There’s split on high school testing.  We may soon see a divergence between elite institutions and everyone else based on ACT and SAT requirements:

A majority of admissions directors, 56 percent, believe the University of Chicago’s decision to drop standardized test requirements for applicants will encourage other (elite) colleges to do away with their own requirements. But 7 in 10 admissions directors at colleges that have standardized test requirements disagree that the Chicago decision prompted reconsideration of their own college’s policy. Three-quarters predict their college will continue to require ACT or SAT scores in 10 years.

Here’s an interesting glimpse into campus politics: “35 percent of admissions directors at colleges requiring standardized test scores strongly agree or agree that they are open to dropping the requirement but face opposition from administrators at their college.”

Two more notes about problems with tests:

Three-quarters agree, including 43 percent who do so strongly, that they are concerned about the persistent gaps in test scores by race and ethnicity. Sixty-two percent strongly agree or agree that the emphasis by parents and students on average test scores discourages students from applying to colleges at which they could be admitted and thrive.

The majority of admissions officers are skeptical of AP classes (and tests, presumably) and seem to slightly prefer IB.

On the perception of American higher ed Admissions officers are worried about the popular view of colleges and universities.  It may be costing campuses:

Close to 9 in 10 say higher education needs to do a better job explaining the value of earning a college degree, and two-thirds believe media reports of college graduates struggling to find adequate employment, as well as public discussion of student debt, are discouraging students from considering higher education.

Eight in 10 admissions directors — and an even greater proportion at private institutions — say their college is losing potential applicants because of concerns about accumulating student loan debt.

One interesting note: “Admissions directors at colleges that consider legacy status also express greater concern about future attacks on the ability of colleges to consider race in admissions, and they believe the Harvard case is sowing distrust in admissions among Asian-Americans. ”

Technology IHE asked about two digital tools.  Admissions officers tended to be pleased with their CRM, but “many are dissatisfied as satisfied with their college’s social media strategy.”  That second part is going to be useful for some companies and professionals.

Different types of colleges and universities This report offers some good insights into the ways American institutions differ.  For example, on legacy admissions (preferring descendants of alumni) “42 percent of private college admissions directors [take legacy status into account in admissions],” as compared with a mere “6 percent of public college admissions directors.”**

On the liberal arts: “Just 7 percent agree that parents understand the value [of a liberal arts education] and 5 percent say students do.”

Community colleges stand out from the rest in several ways.  They are much more eager to recruit part-time students (“Admissions directors at public associate-granting colleges are nearly as likely to say they will increase their efforts to recruit part-time undergraduates (68 percent) as they are to say the same about full-time undergraduates (70 percent)”).  Only 22% require standardized tests of their prospective students.

Thanks to Gallup and IHE for conducting this very useful research.

*499 officers responded, which represents a little over 10% of American colleges and universities.  They are fairly representative, including public, private, and for-profit campuses, and institutions granting associates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

**I admire the archness of this line: “Admissions directors at colleges that take legacy status into account are, as would be expected, much more inclined to say it is an appropriate factor than are those whose college does not consider legacy status.”

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Hayabusa2 and the unfolding future of space exploration

Yesterday, about 200 million miles from Earth, the JAXA space probe Hayabusa2 (Japanese language siteEnglish language siteWikipedialanded two tiny rovers on top of a very small asteroid, 162173 Ryugu. The rovers (named 1A and 1B) are now hopping on Ryugu’s surface, taking photos like this one, and sending them back to Earth via Hayabusa2 in orbit:

Hayabusa2_bounce photo

“This dynamic photo was captured by Rover-1A on September 22 at around 11:44 JST. It was taken on Ryugu’s surface during a hop. The left-half is the surface of Ryugu, while the white region on the right is due to sunlight.”

This is a marvelous story.  Think about these two one-kilogram robots, landing (and hopping!) on an alien rock never before touched by human intelligence, managing to shoot photos which the orbiter transmits across a gulf of space twice as large as the Earth’s distance from the sun, and which we then ogle through the mission’s Twitter feed.  It’s astonishing.

What might this tell us about the future?  Let’s consider Ryugu as a datapoint or story for where space exploration might head next.

For one, the delight and awe Hayabusa2’s success provides remind us of the deep attraction space exploration can offer.  You can get a sense of that feeling from this photo of the space probe glimpsing its own shadow on the asteroid’s surface:

Hayabusa2 shadow

There’s a buoyant optimism to this achievement as well.  It’s the kind of brightness that lights a world many see as dark.

On the other hand, that delight is not a universal thing.  There isn’t a lot of press coverage beyond Japan (ah, once again I wish I read Japanese), if I go by Google News headlines.  There’s nothing on the CNN.com homepage now, other than typical spatters of dread and celebrity; the closest I can find is a link to a story about Musk’s space tourism project, which a Japanese billionaire will ride.  Nothing on Fox News or MSNBC’s main pages.  BBC News at least has a link halfway down its main page.

I can imagine several reasons why these news businesses didn’t decide to celebrate the bouncing little robots.  Hayabusa is a Japanese project, not an American one, and national interest counts for a lot.  No humans were involved, so human interest and story are absent.  Perhaps the whole project looks too science-y for a culture that spins into post-truthiness, contains some serious anti-science and anti-technology strands, or just finds science stories too dry.  Or maybe the American media outlets think Americans just aren’t that into space in particular in 2018.  Some Republicans maintain a dislike of science for various cultural reasons.  Some Democrats might not fear the space effort, at least domestically, is too white and male (scroll down) or too appealing to the hated and Space-Force-mongering Trump.

So far there doesn’t seem to be a mass movement – heck, even mass interest – in growing, or even paying attention to, a United States space effort.  What will happen next may well be the work of small groups and elites.

Beyond the United States Hayabusa2 reminds us that space exploration is more multinational and more disaggregated than ever.  Besides JAXA there are space programs being build up by China and India, including robot craft, astronauts (taikonauts, for China, vyomanauts, for India), and space stations.  The Indian Mars Orbiter still circles the fourth planet. The European Space Agency continues to develop satellites and launch rockets, like the JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer).  Russia is doing some mixture of commercial spaceflight, ISS maintenance, exploration, and geopoliticking.  For these nations space exploration holds out a mixture of prestige, scientific and engineering development, and possible commercial return.

Elsewhere purely commercial space flight continues to grow, as Bezos, Musk, and others live out a Robert Heinlein story by building up their own personal space efforts.  This is, among other things, a sign of how far American wealth has grown, and how much of the elite are connected to technical skills (as opposed to inherited wealth).  It’s an effect of plutocracy, as I’ve said before.  Yuri Milner might lead the first interstellar mission with his Breakthrough Starshot plan.

Meanwhile, NASA is not idle, as a series of  programs are in various pipeline positions.  Juno is still orbiting Jupiter.  New Horizons is heading out towards the Oort Cloud.  OSIRIS-Rex is closing in on its asteroid, Bennu, and Psyche will seek out another.  The James Webb telescope will be launched in 2021.  A new Mars rover is in the works.  Lucy will explore asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit, occupying the Trojan positions.  Many of these are part of the low-cost automated Discovery series. A human return to the Moon, then a human mission to Mars are in different stages of political and technological disarray development.

There is also Trump’s Space Force, whatever that turns out to be, if anything.

Hovering over the Earth and drawing on many nations and companies is the ISS, a splendid and generally undiscussed achievement.

What do these development and trends suggest?

Privatization of space seems likely to continue.  Despite political and social media criticism, Musk and Bezos’ respective efforts appear insulated enough to continue.  NASA, Roscosmos, and the other national agencies look willing to work with space businesses.

Uneven development is also likely, as different programs struggle to master different stations in the space path.  China may assemble a space station while Japan bypasses orbital platforms for the moon, private cubesats head into the deep solar system and private companies keep honing their Earth orbital launch skills.

Spinoff technologies could enter into global society in various forms.  Readers are probably familiar with how NASA advanced computation, solar power, materials science, and more.  Surely the challenges of getting humans and robots further into space will elicit interesting projects that can be used Earthside.  Think about health breakthroughs needed to keep humans alive in environments scoured by radiation, or AI to guide robots through complex situations.

Automated space exploration may predominate.  Human spaceflight is still struggling with low orbit and recalling the dim memory of reaching the moon.  This is expensive, dangerous stuff without much political support, especially in the long haul.   Meanwhile, robots continue to be cheap, far easier to operate, capable of enduring awful stresses, and happy to send gorgeous data back our way.

Yet there is some interest in getting humans out of the gravity well.  Japan seems committed to creating a lunar colony.  Musk and Bezos burn with the old science fiction and NASA hunger for shipping humans into the great dark.  The lure of Mars seems to be a powerful one, and a multinational, private versus public race could seize the popular imagination.  Older people may experience a rush of nostalgia for the glorious space race of their youth.

Commercial interest in space could drive certain efforts, such as lunar or asteroid mining.  There are many contingencies there, but the prospect of space ore and other resources may attract serious efforts.

This competition could turn malign, of course.  Recall that the 20th century’s space races grew out of warfare, and included many plans for combat and destruction. Nayef Al-Rodhan hints at possible strains in international cooperation:

The possible fragmentation of outer space research activities in the post-ISS period would constitute a break-up of an international alliance that has fostered unprecedented cooperation between engineers and scientists from rival geopolitical powers – aside from China. The ISS represents perhaps the pinnacle of post-Cold War cooperation and has allowed for the sharing and streamlining of work methods and differing norms. In a current period of tense relations, it is worrying that the US and Russia may be ending an important phase of cooperation.

I would add America-China tensions to this mix, along with China-India and China-Japan dimensions.  Space could easily become the ground for geopolitical struggles once more, and possibly a flashpoint as well.  Nationalism, neonationalism, nativism could power such stresses. Additionally, each nation may have political and financial incentives for striking out at private space efforts.

If this hodgepodge of nations and companies manage to drive humans and our machines further into space, either through peaceful or violent means, what then?  We could see more people spending time in orbit, as Mike Wall suggests, perhaps the way some humans now visit and work in and around Antarctica. Enough of an off-Earth settlement could lead to further forays, once we bypass the terrible problem of getting off the planet’s surface, and if we can develop new ways to fuel and sustain craft in space.  The desire to connect with that domain might help spur the kind of space elevator which will ease Earth-to-orbit challenges.

Along the way we might surface some interesting cultural responses.  The 1960s space race saw the emergence of a kind of astronaut cult.  The Soviet space program’s Russian roots included a mystical tradition.  We could see a combination of nostalgia from older folks and can-do optimism from younger people, along with further growth in STEM careers and interest.  Dialectically we should expect the opposite.  A look back at the US-USSR space race shows criticism and opposition ranging from the arts (Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”, Jello Biafra’s “Why I’m Glad the Space Shuttle Blew Up”) to opinion polls (in the US NASA only won real support for the year around Apollo 11, apparently).  We can imagine all kinds of political opposition to a 21st century space race, from people repeating the old Earth versus space spending canard to nationalistic statements (“Let Japan land on Deimos.  We have enough to worry about here in Chicago”) to environmental concerns to religious ones.  Concerns about vast wealth and inequality could well target space.

On the flipside, we might not do all of that.  There is a history of walking back from space, either from a mix of fiscal issues and political incoherence (the United States) or political collapse (the USSR).  The lack of political support might sap space efforts.  Aging polities – i.e., just about every space-faring or interested nations – could view space as a distraction from concerns they deem more vital (national defense, health care, pensions, etc.).  If those who see America caught up in an anti-intellectual, anti-expertise wave are right, that’s bad news for a field as enormously demanding of brainpower as space exploration.  Moreover, tragedies could reduce national or rich person’s commitment.  How will we respond when, say, twenty space tourists crash into a lunar crater and die, in agony, on YouTube? especially if the involved economy is doing poorly?

That’s a lot to hang on one Japanese probe landing two tiny ‘bots on an asteroid in 2018, I know.  But Hayabusa2 is such a signal event that it becomes a fine story to think through.



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Thanking my Patreon supporters

Today I’d like to thank my supporters on Patreon.  The 93 (!) people there have generously contributed to keeping my work going.  In addition to financing, they have also shared their thoughts, questions, and feedback on that platform, which I greatly appreciate.

For those on the “Living Wall of Credits” tier and above, here’s a new visual shout-out to your awesomeness:

Patreon wall of credits for 2018 Sept 19

As an independent researcher and creator, I can’t do this work without you all.  Thank you.

For the rest of my readers, please considering joining them on Patreon!

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An unremarkable yet useful update on the student loan fiasco

We have new data about American student loan debt, thanks to a new report from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).

There is nothing shockingly different in the publication.  There aren’t any sudden changes.  It’s just another datapoint on the sprawling debacle of how we have come to finance American higher education.

About two thirds of students (65%) who received undergraduate degrees in 2017 hold debt, while about one third do not.   The average amount of debt held is $28,650, with “average debt ranging from $4,400 to $58,000 among the 925 colleges that had both usable data and at least 100 graduates in the Class of 2017.”

The geography of debt remains the same, as “high-debt states are located mainly in the Northeast, with low-debt states primarily in the West.”

student debt by states_2017_TICAS

Click through for the TICAS interactive map.

State averages for debt at graduation ranged from a low of $18,850 (Utah) to a high of $38,500 (Connecticut), and new graduates’ likelihood of having debt varied from 38 percent (Utah) to 74 percent (New Hampshire). In 18 states, average debt was more than $30,000.

The data won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention.  There aren’t any major changes.  That average debt load for those graduating in 2017?  It’s “only 1 percent higher than the 2016 average of $28,350.”  The geography of debt?  “Many of the same states appear at the high and low ends of the spectrum as in previous years.”  Defaults continue:

there are a record high 8.9 million federal loan borrowers currently in default, and more than 1 million borrowers defaulting every year. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of federal Direct Loan borrowers are over 30 days delinquent or in default.

Can student debt grow in the future?  The report is clear that one limit isn’t really being felt yet: “recent federal data show that more than half of undergraduates [53%] who take out private loans have not used the maximum available in federal student loans.”  On the other hand, the rate of debt growth has slowed down over the past four years:

Student debt 1996-2016_TICAS

So perhaps we’re reaching a plateau, especially as some states gradually remember what the “public” in “public higher education” meant, and as families take other cost-saving measures (students living at home, choosing less expansive campuses).  Perhaps we won’t crack the $2 trillion total debt ceiling.

What’s not in the report?  Graduate school debt is missing, and that can be enormous.  The report also addresses public and nonprofit institutions, meaning it leaves off for-profits (Why? “because so few of these colleges report the relevant debt data.”).  But for some data that comes close, the for-profit graduate picture is much more dire:

the vast majority of graduates from for-profit four-year colleges (83 percent) took out student loans. These students graduated with an average of $39,900 in debt — 41 percent more than 2016 graduates from other types of four-year colleges.

Debt values are self-reported, which can lead to distortions in either direction.  Also missing are students who take classes but leave without graduation.

Taken together, this is a useful update on America’s experiment in financializing higher education.  It shows how widespread student debt is, how expensive and where people are most likely to hold it.  It’s a snapshot of the project in mid-stream.

So what’s next?  How far will the course take us?

(thanks to Inside Higher Ed for the pointer)

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Ten years after the financial meltdown: what did it mean for education and the future?

Ten years ago this month the American economy suffered its worst financial crisis in nearly a century.  Problems had been building through the previous year, but in September 2008 things came to a head with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Recession.  These events changed the world in ways I think we’re still struggling to understand.

With this post I’d like to share some reflections about what that titanic event meant, especially for education and the future.  I invite readers to share their thoughts, including their personal reflections, in the comments box.

There are many good accounts of the crash in all of its complexity, so I will refer the reader to those.  I am especially fond of the documentary Inside Job, which is very lucid, powerfully critical, and at times hilarious.  John Lanchester has written powerfully about then events, although to little American readership, as far as I can tell; let me commend his recent essay reflecting on the crisis and its aftermath.  Adam Tooze offers an internationally-focused account; his new book on the subject looks excellent.

On a personal note, in 2008 I was working for a nonprofit.  We chose late August to roll out a new and more expensive membership plan for our campuses.  Needless to say the timing wasn’t good.  I don’t think the nonprofit ever recovered from that misfire; it disappeared six years later.  This was the recession/recovery environment in which I decided to risk everything on launching a business.


For years the American economy struggled to recover, first in clawing its way out of the recession, then trying to rebuild what was lost.  Americans also struggled to understand what happened.  Determining the causes of the crash and assessing the policy reactions are all still controversial to this day.  (Which confirms my intuition that a big chunk of economics is better understood as a branch of history.)

On the plus side of the ledger, unemployment gradually dropped, year by year, and is now at historically low levels.  Wall Street is doing well. The financial sector, that caused and was trashed by the crash, recovered very nicely even after some new, mild, and much-resisted regulation.

However, the recovery hasn’t been accomplished yet.  Home ownership is down, below even 2006 levels.  This makes it harder for some people to take out loans.

The generation of people who became adults during the crisis suffered a serious financial hit, and haven’t recovered from that loss since.  As Kim Gittleson puts it,

Americans born in the mid-1980s have accumulated 34% less wealth than predicted based on previous generations, the St Louis Federal Reserve found. One reason? We started out with less.

One reason for that drop is that most of the jobs created since 2008 have paid less than $50,000 per year.

jobs since 2009_Axios

For one commentator the combination of rising inequality and declining home ownership spells doom for the middle class.

People had fewer children than usual in 2008-2010.

One key detail of the crash and recovery: nobody was prosecuted for the crisis, neither by the Bush(2) nor Obama administrations.  No Congress set up anything like the 1930s Pecora Commission.  This dog that didn’t bark – and still hasn’t – has become something of a folkloric truth for us, building up the conviction that the powerful are immune to accountability, and that the game might be rigged.

Economic class and inequality reappeared as major themes in American politics, starting with Occupy, then reappearing through Bernie Sanders’ presidential run and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Congressional upset primary win.  Economic inequality and general economic anxiety also reappeared as an explanation of political behavior, from arguments over explanations for Trump’s 2016 victory to new research about the rise of Sweden’s right-wing party.

Education in and after the crisis

What happened to higher ed as a result of the meltdown?

How the financial crisis hit higher ed_cover

No, I haven’t been able to read it yet.

Many colleges and universities were clobbered.  Some saw investments shrink and a few had their cash reserves dry up.  State funding, including scholarships, fell off a cliff as tax revenues dropped and some state expenses shot up.  Hiring freezes, salary cuts, layoffs, furloughs, reductions in force occurred.  Careers were blocked, blighted, set back.  Published tuition and fees rose.

Charitable giving took a big hit as the investments philanthropy and the wealthy depend on were shocked.

Family investments, including home values, shrank, so they tended to prefer spending less money even on the great good of post-secondary education.  It took time – years, in some cases – for families and institutions to progress past this point.  Some have not as of this writing.  Borrowing for higher education shot upwards.

More students took classes overall, as higher ed is often counter-cyclical to employment (with high unemployment people head to school to re-skill).  The recession boosted enrollment.

The curriculum shifted, too.  It seems that students voted with their feet to major less often in the humanities, and more often in a mix of STEM and professional programs.  Interestingly, business is still riding high as a major.

The alt ac movement was kicked into high gear by the 2008 financial disaster.  The reasons are obvious, if rarely discussed: college and university budgets hammered, tenure track jobs declined.  So a cadre of freshly-minted PhDs and near-PhDs had to carve out new worlds.  This is a heroic story, in fact:

I suspect the economic woes that started hitting us in 2008 help explain the steady growth of open education.

I’m fascinated by how the academic discipline of economics responded to this enormous challenge. While many economics both academic and non-academic failed to anticipate the crisis (again, see Inside Job for some hilarious stories of this) it’s not clear that the economics profession has responded effectively.  Bernanke, Geithner, and Paulson just published a column praising their grasp of and efficacy in handling the crisis, suggesting their understanding was just fine.  “Although we and other financial regulators did not foresee the crisis, we moved aggressively to stop it.”  Dean Baker begs to differ, criticizing their thinking and actions on multiple levels.

I love this 2008 photo and can’t get enough of it.

For some the crash was a textbook example of a black swan (Taleb’s book appeared in 2007), a highly unlikely yet very influential event.  At this point I’m still not sure how academic economics has changed in response, beyond interest in behavioral economics and a sudden popular comeback for Keynesian economics.  Readers are welcome to supply news.

Was 2008-2018 a lost decade for higher ed, or was it a period that began with a terrible shock, followed by growth?

Towards 2018-2028

So what comes next?  What will we be reflecting on in September 2028, on the 20th anniversary of Lehman’s fall?  How will academics think about the epoch?

We know that people had fewer children in 2008-2010.   K-12 schools will be continuing to cope with that shrinkage, balancing class sizes and appropriations.  Higher ed will be on the hook next, as Nathan Grawe has shown that this means a major drop in the 18-year-0ld population for the mid-2020s.

Looking ahead, we should think more about two populations, Millennials and GenZers.  Separated by history from the Cold War’s anticommunism, their experience of modern capitalism approaches that of the Gilded Age’s youth, either caught up in ascendent wealth or in the majority below.  Recall John Lanchester’s observations on how many adults’ lives are shaped by their youthful worldview at 20 years of age.  As John Warner describes in a new book review,

Today’s typical age college freshmen were eight-years-old when the global economy cratered in such a way that even rich people got scared for a little while. The resulting “recovery” has only exacerbated our sense of scarcity and precarity, as the fruits of that recovery have accrued to smaller and smaller groups.

The relatively well-to-do, but not quite rich folks that populate the bulk of the “paranoid parenting” demographic understand the needle their children will be required to thread has grown smaller by the year, and any slip in achievement may result in falling out of the ranks of the economically secure.

How will their career choices change?  How will their politics differ from their predecessors’?

Institutionally, public colleges and universities might suffer continued pressure from state legislatures. At least one observer notes that years of low interest rates will now shape state spending patterns:

the bailout’s policy of Quantitative Easing to re-inflate asset prices has reduced rates of return for pension funds, insurance companies and employee retirement savings. This means that more state and local government income must be diverted to meet retirement commitments.

Something has to give, and it is not likely to be the savings of the donor class at the top of the economic pyramid.

So public universities will often see funding shifted away from them and towards public pensions.  Private colleges and universities may experience something similar if their own retirees’ costs rise.  Either way, that’s a lot of pressure on tuition to rise.  In May of this year I tentatively forecast the first six-figure tuition bill to land in 2029; maybe it’ll be even sooner than that.

…and now back to September 2018, and over to you.  What did the 2008 meltdown do to your life and world?  What do you think it meant for education?  And what does it tell us about the future?

(thanks to Tom Haymes and many others for their thoughts)


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My class, two weeks in

Teaching for the first time in sixteen years continues to be exhilarating and fascinating.

LDES-703 is an interesting experiment, a hybrid on several levels.  Our live sessions take place one night each week.  For those most of the students gather in a face-to-face classroom on Georgetown’s campus.  One student, based in California, joins via videoconference.  I, based all over the place, follow suit.

The classroom has multiple cameras and microphones.  An Owl camera captures a wide range of views, and also rotates to face whichever student is making the most noise.  As instructor, my experience looks something like this:

At the top you see me, an overview of the whole thing, the remote student, and our class name.  The second tier shows the Owl view, around 270 degrees of the class (maybe more).  The bottom row offers glimpses of students, including one speaking on the right.  Sometimes the second and third tiers offer two different glimpses of the same person, which is pretty neat.

(There’s a chat box, but only for students who aren’t in the Georgetown classroom.)

In practice… it’s really smooth.  I can hear students speaking, which is essential.  I can also get a sense of the room’s vibe or gestalt.  Students can see and hear me, so long as I score places with sufficient bandwidth.

In terms of course material we have moved into looking at futures, so we’ve covered a series of methods.  We have fun crafting a four-scenario quadrant set.  Some students were familiar with the Horizon report from last year, and several had actually built their own versions, so discussion went well.

We had one major reversal when it came to asynchronous technology.  Readers may remember that I offered a set of technologies for the students to choose from:

Canvas (the official campus LMS)
Discourse (nice discussion board tech; would plug into a WordPress instance)
Domain of One’s Own (Georgetown already has this set up)
Email (for communication and also Google Alerts)
RSS readers (thinking of introducing Feedly and Inoreader)
Instagram (will need a class hashtag)
Twitter (” ” ” ” “)
WordPress (either a single class blog or each student with their own blog)

I presented each one with its affordances, advantages, and limitations.  On the sly I built up a quick little WordPress site for them to use.  I was surprised to hear a class consensus in favor of… the learning management system.  Some saw it as more private, and they valued their privacy.  Many others liked its integration into calendars and workflow.

So I had to very quickly stand up a Canvas instance, which I’d never done before, despite having followed the LMS scene closely from the start.  That entailed a rapid dive into online tutorials, ruthlessly exploiting a friendly Georgetown technologist,  and applying all of the online pedagogy I’ve developed and studied in my career.  Canvas was by far the easiest LMS I’ve used.  I did hit some odd blocks – modules didn’t work for my purposes, and discussion thread organization was iffy – but managed to build and roll the thing out.  Students requested formal Assignment pages for each assignment, which was fair, so I wrote those up.

Again, note that this is my taking classroom democracy seriously.  The students got to make informed decisions that practically shaped and reshaped the class.  I want them to own this, and have to be ready to change my plans and do more work as a result.

So far the students approve.  They’ve been using the discussion items well.

Also in terms of democratic pedagogy, we continue to share our respective experience of higher education.  The combined population is pretty diverse this way, so our conversation yields a broader picture of higher ed than if we just hewed to a single view.  I’m fascinated by their individual trajectories and excited about where they’re headed over the next several months.

Next week they will wade into Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King’s How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers.  The idea here is to deepen the students’ understanding of how an American college or university actually works.  We already began on the first week with an exercise that shared their pre-class knowledge of academic institutions.  Now Mitchell and King will take them further.

Also up for Wednesday: they are to check out current news stories from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle, blogs, and Twitter content that they find.  This is their start in conducting environmental scanning, which we introduced last week.

Previous posts on this class adventure: introduction; week one.

Posted in teaching | Tagged | 3 Comments

Did the European Parliament just hit the internet with a big, dumb stick?

The European Parliament just voted in favor of several new copyright policies.  It’s just one step in a long and complex process, but it could have powerful effects on the internet.

Specifically, the Parliament approved two articles.  One (article 11) would require certain technology platforms (think Google News) to pay intellectual property holders when they display snippets of the latter’s content.  Some call this a link tax.  The other (article 13) requires digital platforms (think YouTube and Facebook) to implement filters that would check for copyrighted content in uploads, and block accordingly.

Debates seem to follow a classic split.  On the one hand, IP holders and some of their allies think this is great, because it means more pay for them creators.  Some of them think their opponents are spreading FUD from Silicon Valley giants.  There’s also a touch of Euro-centrism against arrogant Yankee companies. On the other, tech companies, copyright activists, some of the internet’s founders, and the EFF think this is terrible as it will chill people’s online expression.  This group also sees a scale problem, with larger entities better able to follow the law than small ones.

Here’s a sample:

In remarks following the vote in Parliament this morning, MEP Axel Voss, who has led the charge on Articles 11 and 13, thanked his fellow politicians “for the job we have done together.” “This is a good sign for the creative industries in Europe,” said Voss. Opposing MEPs like Julia Reda of the Pirate Party described the outcome as “catastrophic.”

So what does this tell us about the future?

In the very short term, the Euro Parliament has to work on these articles a bit more, leading to another vote in January.  So the policies could die, be strengthened, mutate, or remain.

It’s another sign of the long-running friction between copyright law and the internet.  To paraphrase Anonymous, we should expect them. (I don’t have time to write more about this, as I’m between planes)

This also reiterates the tension between (some) large content owners and (some) individual creators, a tension that’s been in play for two generations of computing.  It’ll be interesting to see how this angle plays out.  The “nationalist” side of the EU debate is telling.

Where do you think this will head?

Posted in economics | 10 Comments

The stark geography of America’s digital divide

Many factors shape America’s digital divide.  The access we have to broadband – or even just to the internet – depends in part on our income, our race, our age, and our education.  (I’ve written about this.)

Perhaps the strongest driver of digital inequality is geography.  Simply put, the more rural one is, the worse the internet access is.  The more urban, the better.  Yes, there are exceptions, obviously, with some urban poor folks lacking access and some country people enjoying broadband.  But the pattern remains.

You can see it clearly in this week’s new Pew Research memo by Monica Anderson. To be clear, in this research they didn’t poll internet speeds, but Americans’ attitudes towards their internet access of lack thereof, so this measures subjective rather than objective responses.  But unless we want to view rural Americans as unusually cranky, and suburban/urban people as unnaturally cheerful, this should be a good guide to attitudes and probably their underlying reality.

To begin with, your attitude towards broadband depends on where you live:

roughly six-in-ten rural Americans (58%) believe access to high speed internet is a problem in their area.

By contrast, smaller shares of Americans who live in urban areas (13%) or the suburbs (9%) view access to high-speed internet service as a major problem in their area… [A] majority of both urban and suburban residents report that this is not an issue in their local community… [emphasis in original]

Interestingly, some non-geographic factors don’t seem to make a difference for rural people’s internet attitudes:

20% of rural adults whose household income is less than $30,000  a year say access to high speed internet is a major problem, but so do 23% of rural residents living in households earning $75,000 or more annually. These sentiments are also similar between rural adults who have a bachelor’s or advanced degree and those with lower levels of educational attainment.

Age and race do shape attitudes:

Rural adults ages 50 to 64 are more likely than those in other groups to see access to high-speed internet as a problem where they live. Nonwhites who live in a rural area are more likely than their white counterparts to say this is a major problem (31% vs. 21%).

Related to these attitudes towards broadband are access to two technologies:

adults in rural areas also are less likely to own mobile devices or to use the internet. While around two-thirds of rural Americans have a smartphone, those shares rise to around eight-in-ten among those living in cities (83%) or the suburbs (78%),

And listen to this part:

some rural Americans do not use the internet in any capacity: 22% of adults living in a rural area say they never go online, a share that is more than double that among urban or suburban residents.

More than one fifth of rural folks don’t go online, period.  Not “we don’t have broadband” or “we don’t use cell phones,” but they don’t do the internet.  Think about what that means in 2018, that separation from so much socialization, news, government services, education, businesses…  Think about how much “legacy media” is front and center in their lives.  What is this population’s presence in American culture?  How are they connected to higher education?

Now, nothing in this report should shock anyone.  The geographical divide over internet access has been a thing since the 1990s.  This study doesn’t reveal a new trend, but offers a datapoint on an established one.

I wonder about the politics.  If this many country people are unhappy with their poor broadband access, is there a constituency politicians can respond to?  Can state-level politicians bridge urban and rural populations with this issue?

At another level, Anderson’s research might also give us pause.  Why are we so accepting of this digital divide?  Mitigating is is clearly not a major priority for governments or businesses.  And what does it tell us about how we use technology, and about education’s future?


Posted in technology | 3 Comments

Heading into my new class

This week I started teaching my first class since 2002.  I’d like to blog about the experience.

In this post I’ll describe what I hope to achieve with the class: how I’m organizing it and what I expect.  I’ll add the syllabus at the end.  (Here’s a post introducing the class.)

The topic is the future of education, so we’ll approach this from multiple perspectives.  Readings cover education (of course), economics, demographics, technology, and futures work, along with science fiction visions of the future.  Classwork will be discussion heavy, since it’s a seminar.  Students will also create a future campus of their own devising.

One principle I hope to establish is classroom democracy.  I plan on giving the students a lot of say in how the class will work.  I set up the syllabus, but have given them room to pick readings and one week’s topic (see below).  Together we’ll craft a set of norms for class interaction.  As ever, I want to honor student views, experience, and interests, as they are not only contributors to class, but its co-creators.  Students will also help determine our technology setup.  (Our reading of Freire and Horton is definitely in my mind)

Speaking of technology: the default situation is that I will lead one live class per week over video from wherever I am (Vermont or traveling), while the students gather in a conference room on Georgetown’s campus.  I may make it to campus once or twice, depending on logistics.

Kennedy Brothers conference room

The space from where I’ll be teaching.

More on technology: the asynchronous part of the class can draw on a wide range of tech, so I’ve picked out this set for students to choose from:

Canvas (the official campus LMS)
Discourse (nice discussion board tech; would plug into a WordPress instance)
Domain of One’s Own (Georgetown already has this set up)
Email (for communication and also Google Alerts)
RSS readers (thinking of introducing Feedly and Inoreader)
Instagram (will need a class hashtag)
Twitter (” ” ” ” “)
WordPress (either a single class blog or each student with their own blog)

I plan to present the use case for each, along with advantages and disadvantages, then see where the students would like to go.  I prepped a class blog, just in case.

One technology theme for them to explore is openness, both as a general idea in education as well as a practical one for their own work.  How much I can share about the class – including here, on this blog – is going to largely be up to them.

OK, here’s the syllabus.  I’ll follow up in another post with how the first class actually went.

September 5

Topic: introductions and models

  • What are our backgrounds and interests?
  • How should this class best proceed? Class norms and practices.
  • How does higher education function?
  • Our current information and technology practices.

September 12

Topic: higher education and the future


  1. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The Education Gospel” (introduction to Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy)
  2. Alexander, “Apprehending the Future: Emerging Technologies, from Science Fiction to Campus Reality” (https://er.educause.edu/articles/2009/5/apprehending-the-future-emerging-technologies–from-science-fiction-to-campus-reality)
  3. “Horizon Report: 2018 Higher Education Edition” (https://library.educause.edu/resources/2018/8/2018-nmc-horizon-report)

Forecasting method: Delphi

September 19

Topic: how higher education works


  1. Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King, How to Run a College A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers, Introduction, chapters 1-6
  2. the past week from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and selected blogs and Twitter feeds

Forecasting method: horizon scanning

September 26

Topic: the state of the art


  1. Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King, How to Run a College A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers , chapters 7-9
  2. Vernor Vinge, “Fast Times at Fairmont High”
  3. the past week from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and selected blogs and Twitter feeds

Forecasting method: horizon scanning

October 3

Topics: narrating the future of education


  1. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Scenarios for the Future of Schooling” (https://www.oecd.org/site/schoolingfortomorrowknowledgebase/futuresthinking/scenarios/38967594.pdf)
  2. Stanford 2025 (http://www.stanford2025.com/; scroll down)
  3. Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, chapters 1-3

Forecasting method: scenarios

MID-TERM PROJECT DUE: Trends analysis, 700-1000 words.

October 10

Topic: the impact of population changes

Reading: Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, chapters 4-11

Student readings: two TBD

October 16

Topic: education and technology

SPECIAL CLASS FORMAT: joint meeting with Learning and Design – 502.01, Technology and Innovation in Higher Education class (NOTE THE DATE CHANGE)


  1. Isaac Asimov, “The Fun They Had”
  2. Martin Weller, 25 Years of EdTech (http://blog.edtechie.net/category/25yearsedtech/)
  3. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology, I

October 23

Topic: education and technology

SPECIAL CLASS FORMAT: joint meeting with Learning and Design – 502.01, Technology and Innovation in Higher Education class (NOTE THE DATE CHANGE)


  1. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology, II
  2. Karl Schroeder, “Noon in the Antilibrary” (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611829/noon-in-the-antilibrary/)

Student readings: one TBD

October 31

Topic: education and technology

Reading: Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology, concluded

Student readings: two TBD

MID-TERM PROJECT DUE: A strategy recommendation to a college or university of your creation, 700-1000 words.

November 7

Topic: race, gender, and profit in higher education

Reading: Tressie McMillan Cottom, the rest of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

November 14

Topic: determined by student discussion and interest

Readings: Maria Sachiko Cecire, “Massively Open” (https://medium.com/@mscecire/massively-open-1f705cc61e70)

Student readings: four TBD

Final project discussion and planning

November 21 (Thanksgiving)

November 28

Topic: imagining higher education’s futures


Forecasting method: science fiction

Final project discussion and planning

December 5

Topic: our futures of education

Final project presentations

Posted in education and technology, teaching | 9 Comments

The FTTE report is now a paid subscription publication

FTTE logoToday the September Future Trends in Technology and Education report will appear.

I have a major announcement about that.  This is the last free issue. From now on FTTE will only be available by paid subscription.

If you would like to subscribe, there are now two options.

  1. You can sign up through the FTTE site.  The cost is $5 US per month (which is a pretty good deal, the price of 1 or 2 cups of coffee).
  2. Alternatively, you can support the work through Patreon by joining the “On the living wall of credits” tier for $10 per month.   That gets you the FTTE report each month, plus the addition of your name to that credit wall (a big graphic listing supporters) which will then appear in all future FTTE reports, my face to face presentations, on this blog, and in Future Trends Forum session.  Supporters on this tier also get access to early and sometimes exclusive looks at my content, including video.

Whichever method you choose, new FTTE reports will arrive in your email inbox every month.

So why the transition from free or pay-as-you-like to paid access?

I want to be very open here, as I have been about my work for years.  I also want to be clear and direct.

The first reason for the change is the report’s content.  FTTE reports have gradually grown into rich publications.  How rich?  A quick glance through some of the past year and a half’s run shows each report running 18, 15, 17, 18, 15, 19, 15, 14, or 20 pages. Word count per issue ranges around 3054, 3637, 2987, 3361, 3747, 3754, 3040, 4170 words.  The number of end notes per issue?  83, 72, 63, 59, 66, 86, 66, 57, 90 (and please know that these aren’t just links by themselves, but carefully and regularly formatted bibliographic references).  The pdfs range in size from 1 to 4 megs each, thanks in part to the inclusion of many graphics.  September’s issue has 23 pages, 4589 words, 89 footnotes, and 6.3 meg in .doc format (2.3, squished down into .pfd).  These aren’t quick blog posts or link dumps, but substantial research publications.

FTTE chart, Campus Technology edit

The trends we follow.

Put another way, I think this content is worth something.

The second reason for the transition?  Time.

Producing FTTE is now a serious part-time job.  The end-of-month production process takes about 12-14 hours (prosing out each point carefully, double-checking cites, identifying which trends did and did not get support that time, building the ToC, rearranging the issue’s flow to be more sensible, editing graphics, changing page layout for legibility and to avoid big white spaces, proofing several times, pdf creation, Mailchimp wrangling…).  Meanwhile, I conduct at least 1-2 hours of research every single day (yes, weekends too) throughout each month, hunting accounts of trends that I assess and sometimes include into the current report.  I send some of those out through social media or direct content with experts for fact- and reality-checking.  Roughly that amounts to about 10 hours per week, on average.

That’s time I can’t spend on other work, a/k/a opportunity cost.  It’s hours I can’t spend making other stuff: writing books, making videos, or cudgeling the podcast towards its long-delayed appearance.  FTTE now represents a class I can’t teach or a client I can’t support.  It’s time that I’m not spending on paid work – and please remember that BAC is a standalone small business, independent of any institutional backing.  Every single hour counts for sustainability.

Recall, too, that I will turn 52 in several months.  I currently work 60-70 hour weeks.  Biology is increasingly likely to put in scheduling requests that my professional passion and work ethic won’t be able to refuse.

Now, there are steps I could take to save time in FTTE production, but none are viable.  For example, I could simply cut down the amount of content, producing lighter issues.  FTTE lite? This just galls me professionally.  I could hire staff to conduct some of the work, but a) it’s actually hard to outsource most of this, b) it would add to my business costs, and c) it would add some extra time for organization, management, and logistics.  I could just shut down the thing entirely, but I don’t want to do that.

Another option would be to return to FTTE’s original purpose.  You see, it first appeared in 2012 when I was working for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).  I created FTTE as a benefit to paying members (in 2013 I carried it over to my own enterprise).  So we could imagine some new membership framework within which the report would be a benefit, but to put it mildly the startup effort there is of an order of magnitude greater than simply transitioning to subscription.

Tag cloud from the early days of FTTE.

In short, I’m committed to producing a rich, high quality publication that I don’t want to shortchange.  Shifting it to a paid subscription model is the best way forward.  It is the only way I can see to make the thing sustainable.

Meanwhile, none of the other Future of Education Observatory offerings are changing at this time.  This blog, the Future Trends Forum, the book club, the book store, all my other social media outputs (Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, Facebook) remain open and free.  That’s a lot of free content.  FTTE is the only Observatory project that is moving behind a paywall.

I expect that this transition will likely cut down the number of FTTE subscribers from the current population of 2,029.  I know some of you won’t be able to afford this, and I’m truly sorry; please contact me if you would like to talk.  I suspect many have enjoyed the price point to date, and will be unhappy with the increase.  It’s hard to change from free to paid. I get that.

This change may also elicit public criticism.  Some may object to what they see as a decision motivated solely by commercial logic or greed.  Others may deem this move a betrayal of openness, and a hypocritical move to boot, given my passionate and public support for open.  I understand all of that and am sympathetic to the last point.

On the other hand, perhaps the openness of this decision and the quality of FTTE will inspire support.  Maybe old and new subscribers will decide that it’s worth supporting this work.  Perhaps new sponsors will step forward. I sincerely hope so.  Some people might celebrate the idea of supporting a creator making stuff, rather than paying for a platform. Some may chime in to agree with Bruce Sterling’s line (somewhere; still can’t find the source) that information doesn’t want to be free – it wants to be paid.

To sum up: from here on out FTTE is available only to paying subscribers and supporters.  If you’d like to join, you can sign up through the FTTE site for the basic subscription. Alternatively, you can support the work through Patreon by joining the “On the living wall of credits” tier.  We will welcome each and every one of you.

My thanks go to all the many, many people who have supported FTTE over the past six years with your comments, ideas, suggestions, constructive criticism, graphic design input, editorial assistance, and general support.  My thanks as well to my Patreon supporters, many of whom worked closely with me on this decision making process.  And more thanks still to my wife and business partner, Ceredwyn; hopefully we’ll hear from her soon.

As ever, please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Posted in About, FTTE report | 15 Comments