One datapoint on widening income inequality in education: Dollar Store is rocking

How do we know income and wealth inequality is soaring in the United States? I’ve been tracking this vital trend for years, largely by following a variety of research efforts that approach the topic from multiple angles, methods, and datasets. But sometimes economic inequality becomes very clear with a single business story.

Most American readers know the Dollar General chain.  It specializes in selling low-price items (hence the name) to largely low income people.  “Dollar General operates in a space that is immune to Amazon : small purchases of low-margin, inexpensive consumables”, as Seeking Alpha puts it.

How are they faring in the richest nation in the world?  Better than ever.  Not only did their revenue rise more than 11%, which is impressive, but Dollar General is going to open up new stores.  Not just a handful, either.  According to their CEO, Todd Vasos:

For fiscal 2018, we have plans to execute approximately 2,000 real estate projects comprised of 900 new stores, 1,000 store remodels and 100 store relocations.

900 new Dollar Generals.  That’s 18 per state, on average.  “[M]ore stores than McDonald’s has restaurants in the entire country”, according to NPR.

Why I am writing about this?  Listen to how Vasos explains his company’s move:

The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer.

The American economy – the one that’s the richest in the world, the one who richest have generated enough money that Swiss banks call our era a new Gilded Age – is creating more poor people.  Dollar General is quite naturally – and literally – capitalizing on that.

Vasos went on:

We are putting stores today [in areas] that perhaps five years ago were just on the cusp of probably not being our demographic, and it has now turned to being our demographic.

There are more and more people in more areas that are likely Dollar customers.  247Wall Street describes them as “lower income people in remote locations.”

Why does this matter for the future of education?  Several reasons.

First, it’s more evidence that American society is splitting apart, as income inequality (amid other forces, of course) increasingly separates us into ever more distant classes.  This has enormous implications for our culture, our society, and obviously our politics.  All of that impinges on education.

Second, consider that this story points to a growing underclass.  As higher education tries to expand its reach, it will increasingly recruit from people who have to shop at Dollar General.  Such students will tend to have weaker secondary school experiences, or be first generation college students, possibly have family and friends wracked by the opioid epidemic.  Colleges and universities will have to support them in ways that may represent a cultural shift and/or cost more money, further increasing tuition.

Third, combining these two previous points, we can see the possibility of increased resentment of experts.  Since we tend to associate expertise with education, and not inconsequentially income, it shouldn’t surprise us to see Dollar General customers hating those who would direct, teach, regulate, and ultimately rule them.

And a question: who in higher education shops at Dollar General?  Answering that question tells us something about our own culture, our inner divides.

How can educators respond to this trend?  How will America as a whole?

 

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A good resource for campus sustainability conversations

Over the past decade I’ve been writing about the many ways academic institutions are responding to the multiple challenges they face.  One of the themes running through these accounts is problematic communication within a campus.  Time and again faculty, administrators, and stakeholders don’t connect with each other, or worse, when strategic decisions are in the air.

To help out the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) has launched a website aimed at helping campuses work together.  It might seem strange for a financial organization to intervene in a communication problem, but chief financial officers have been working on this for a while.  Economic issues are not the easiest thing for Americans to discuss in general, and they can be especially difficult in a campus environment.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I was part of a team that helped advise NACUBO in building the site.)

The Economic Models Project Journey (EMPJ) is a web-based tutorial, guiding the user through a series of questions, videos, case studies, more questions, and other readings, all structured around figuring out how to make a college or university more sustainable.  At the center of the site is a four-part model of how these institutions work, based on their shared and individual natures:

mission resources structure strengths

Questions and readings break down each of the four, letting the user develop their own sense of what their institution’s strengths, structure, mission, and resources are.  I think these prompts work both for individual reflection and group conversation, leading to improved understanding of the campus strategic environment.

At the end of the Journey, the institution should have identified the dimensions of its economic model that are non-negotiable and those that it will focus on to transform itself, having answered the “What Are We?” and “What Should We Be?” questions.

It ends up with a kind of gap analysis, in other words, letting users imagine a future for their school, then steps to take along the way.

The EMPJ site also includes a well stocked library of videos and readings, even including an article of mine. For those uncertain as how to proceed or otherwise use the site, here’s a “how to use this site” page as well.

The Explorer is part of NACUBO’s Economic Models Project, a multifaceted research effort which now includes five white papers on campus business models and related issues.  I can recommend the project and the EMPJ to anyone in or interested in higher education.  It should be especially useful in sparking conversations in times of strategic planning.

 

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What do campus trustees think about the future of higher education?

One of the ways I analyze the future of higher education is by looking into attitudes studies.  These projects investigate what certain key populations think about academia.   We can consider them a kind of higher education sociology, or a glimpse into this sector’s political economy.  They are essential for grasping how colleges and universities change.

For example, Ithaka S&R produces excellent attitudes reports.  Their work on faculty attitudes towards higher ed (2015) is rich and illuminating.  Their recent study (2017) on academic leaders’ considerations was similarly useful, as you can see from our Future Trends Forum discussion about the document:

This is why last month’s survey of college and university trustees is on my radar in today’s post.  The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) hired Gallup to see what trustees think about higher education.  The results, called the Trustee Index, shed light on every aspect of academia.  And these are obviously important people, given their role in shaping the direction of campuses.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but will identify what I think of as the most interesting points for the future of education.

To begin with, most trustees see higher education problems in economic terms.  None of their concerns are surprises, but they do represent powerful policy directions.

Price is the biggie:

Regardless of institution type, the price of higher education for students and their families remains as the top concern for board members — private, for-profit institutions (74%), independent, nonprofit institutions (69%) and public institutions (56%).

More:

When asked to select their top three concerns about the future of higher education in the U.S., 68% of board members cite the price of higher education for students and their families, 41% cite student debt, 33% cite the ability of higher education to respond to changing student and employer needs, and 33% cite the business models of higher education institutions…

Again, these aren’t surprises, but they are, and are likely to remain, administrative priorities.  If trustees are worried both about price and debt, they are probably going to push hard on cost cutting and new revenue models – and that impacts every aspect of colleges.

This attitude is also going to drive a closer relationship with business for many: “only 36% of board members agree or strongly agree that colleges and universities in the U.S. have a strong understanding of what employers look for in job candidates.”

A second point concerns the value of college.  Intriguingly, the stewards of academia are not on board with the higher education for everyone idea.

I’m not sure how this is going to play out in practical terms.  Will the majority of trustees back away from expanding enrollment at their institutions?  Will they support industry apprenticeships?

Third, trustees value their institutions for strongly non-economic reasons.  Look carefully at this set of responses to a question about the role of academia: Continue reading

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“Slaughterbots”: drones, some futures, and education

It’s a vision of a possible future.  Tiny, friendly-looking drones fly out of a truck and buzz across a college campus.  There they work their individual ways into a classroom and explode against several students, killing them.

What?

That’s a scene from “Slaughterbots”, a short video from the Future of Life Institute outlining one possible direction for drones and related technologies.  It is chilling, provocative, and well done.  Watch:

Let me comment on the video in detail, then look into this as a futures document, followed by some more ideas.

0:05 – a good representation (and maybe parody) of the TED/Steve Jobs presentation style.  Bonus points for the techbro CEO/spokesperson.

0:55 – added to the tiny drone are facial recognition and sensors.

1:15 – throws killbot into the audience.  Cute move.

1:35 – note the anti-human stance, the love of command.

2:06 – boosterism: “they cannot be stopped”.  No mention of counterforce.  I’ll get to that below.

2:22 – “thinking big”: more Silicon Valley language, supporting the key feature of scaling up.

2:50 – we cut jarringly away from the TED talk to a series of news video clips.

2:55 – “we have a distribution network” is spoken over images of other distribution networks.

3:03 – it’s barely there for less than a second, but you can glimpse a group of slaughterbots forming a giant swastika.

Slaughterbots video, swastika glimpse

3:04 – U.S. Senators assassinated.

3:29 – key feature: no signature on a slaughterbot attack.

3:46 – slaughterbot arms race.

3:56 – short story about bots killing university students in Scotland, presumably over a protest.

5:00 – claim that personal firearms can’t stop the bots.  People encouraged to stay indoors – in general, or in response to an attack?

5:04 – slaughterbots named by a British-accented tv news announcer.

5:12 – the attackers, who launch a small swarm from a van.  They are white men, and otherwise unmarked.

6:07 – the higher education attack is apparently worldwide, with nearly 9,000 students killed.

6:21 – some commentator argues that slaughterbots are chilling freedom of expression and dissent.

6:40 – back to the lethal techbro, who emphasizes data and social media.  “You can target an evil ideology.”

7:09 – the fiction ends, and one of the creators, Stewart Russell, a Berkeley computer scientist, reflects on what we’ve just watched.  He emphasizes AI and giving machines too much autonomy.

7:42 – directs us to a supporting website, http://autonomousweapons.org/ .  The site seems to prefer the term “killer robots”.

So how does this fare as a futures document?  Pretty well.  It quickly portrays a near-future scenario, fleshing it out with visual and oral storytelling.  It balances technical discussion with strong emotions (a mother watching her son killed on live video).  It steps back at the end to help frame reactions.  Tonally it aims to instill fear and reaction, perhaps embodying my aphorism: the best way to predict the future is to prevent it. Continue reading

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Two more ed tech organizations come out swinging for net neutrality

What does the impending FCC shift away from net neutrality mean for education and technology?

Yesterday I posted my interview with EDUCAUSE’s policy director.  Jarret Cummings explained that organization’s position in favor of net neutrality.

ISTE logoToday the Chronicle of Higher Education published a column by the leaders of two more education and technology organizations.  ISTE is represented by Joseph South, that group’s new chief learning officer.  The New Media Consortium (NMC) appears in the form of its chief executive officer, Eden Dahlstrom.* . Together they argue that “is the very foundation of our ability to research, to educate, and to innovate. When net neutrality ends this month, we will see that foundation start to crumble.”

Dahlstrom and South make a series of major points, and I recommend you read the whole (short) piece.  I’ll pull out some key ones here.  Each of these are connected to core functions of educational enterprises.

First, ending net neutrality is bad for equitable internet (and therefore educational opportunity) access.  “[L]osing the neutrality of the net threatens to re-stratify access to information and resources that provide both equity and access to knowledge.”  This is especially bad at a time when many in education are concerned about unfair access to education via race, class, region, gender, and religion.

Second, digital learning costs could rise:

[Campus] systems are data-dependent and, at scale, rely on real-time information. Without net neutrality, a major internet provider could charge the vendor that created the tools extra for high-speed analysis, delivery, or on-demand integration to university systems via expensive “fast lanes.” Those additional costs would very likely be passed along to students via higher tuition or fees.

nmc.logoThis has particular resonance for people concerned about escalating college costs: students, debt holders, parents, policy-makers…

Third, the pace of research and invention could slow, given dependence on digital networks:

When the telescope you’re controlling is in Chile and the terabytes of data it generates are shared by your collaborators in Germany, anything short of open, unfettered access to the internet would slow the speed of research, delaying scientific discovery and invention.

Once again, this point becomes especially meaningful in the context of concerns about encouraging innovation or boosting scholarly achievement.  Think about how it also connects with rankings of institutional reputation, which often key off of research publications and recognition.

Overall, this article is a good one to share with people who don’t understand the importance of net neutrality for education and technology.

It also represents a rising tide of publicly expressed concern from leading education and technology groups. That’s ISTE, NMC, and EDUCAUSE.  Cummings mentioned working with NACUBO, ARL, and ACE.  It looks like higher education is starting to come together in favor of net neutrality, and against the FCC’s impending decision.  This is an unusual show of common cause, pointing to just how serious the problem is.

What are our next steps?

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I have had many professional engagements with NMC, from being a research fellow to keynoting their annual conference to writing for them.

 

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Update: EDUCAUSE responds to the FCC’s new net neutrality policy move

What should higher education do about the United States FCC‘s upcoming move against net neutrality?

Jarret CummingsTo get a handle on this question I interviewed Jarret Cummings, the director of policy and government relations for EDUCAUSE.  Jarret was very generous with his time and my questions, and gave us the latest news.

Here’s our exchange.  My questions have been edited lightly for clarity.  I added links to resources throughout.

BRYAN: Have you (or EDUCAUSE) issued a more recent statement about the FCC’s impending policy change since your November post?

JARRET: No, not yet – we’ve been working with ACE and the other presidential associations as well as ARL, NACUBO, and others throughout the current process; we’ll have to take stock with our partners on what further statement we think would be most effective given the pending FCC order.

BNA: What actions would EDUCAUSE take, alone or in concert with those research libraries, to try to restore net neutrality? i.e., would you consider lobbying, public advocacy, endorsing candidates for office, aligning with pro-net neutrality companies, etc.

JSC: Since net neutrality impacts the interests of colleges, universities, and libraries as a whole, EDUCAUSE has found that we can best serve our members on this issue by working with a coalition that broadly represents institutional leadership. As non-profit groups, we and our partners can’t engage in lobbying or other political activities like those you mentioned. But we can, and I expect we will, continue to highlight higher education and libraries as major stakeholders in net neutrality with serious concerns about how its loss may impact our ability to serve students and communities. What form those efforts take will depend on the nature of the legal challenges and legislative efforts likely to arise as a result of the FCC’s action.

BNA: When you and partners “highlight higher education and libraries as major stakeholders in net neutrality…”, does this mean EDUCAUSE will conduct public advocacy, or pursue other channels as well?

JSC: It could take the form of submitting an amicus brief in a case seeking to overturn the FCC order and restore the existing rules, or meeting with members of Congress to provide information about how the missions of colleges, universities, and libraries are adversely impacted by a lack of net neutrality. As we’ve consistently tried to explain throughout the net neutrality proceedings in which we’ve participated, net neutrality isn’t just a commercial issue – public service organizations that fulfill vital social, cultural, and civic functions rely on a level playing field online to accomplish their missions. Those are missions at which the country needs us to succeed, and the loss of net neutrality clearly threatens our ability to do so.

BNA: What would you advise member institutions to do?

JSC: I think it’s premature to advise any particular course of action; the FCC’s proposed order indicates that it is no longer open to persuasion, and we don’t know yet what shape a court case or possible Congressional legislation might take, or when. As we sort through those developments in the months ahead, though, it would certainly help for our associations to know that our member institutions support us in working to maintain, or as now seems likely, restore real net neutrality protections.

BNA: Do you think Pai’s new policy, when it comes out next month, will be stymied in courts?  (cf Tim Wu’s argument)

JSC: Any answer I could offer would be pure speculation; there’s simply no telling what a judge or judges “to be determined” might do when presented with the pros and cons of a case that has yet to be filed. That said, the FCC majority is proposing a radical departure from the agency’s historical treatment of net neutrality, even under previous Republican leadership, and it’s asserting in effect that the deference the courts generally afford regulatory agencies is all it really needs to justify doing so. I believe there’s reason to hope a court might see enough to question in that justification, especially given the law governing federal rule-making, that it would issue a stay pending the outcome of the case. That would leave the current rules in effect until the case is decided, which could take a couple of years and thus take us into a different legislative environment.

BNA: Would you consider partnering with technology and/or ed tech companies to help build the case for net neutrality?  Some of these have issued public statements against the FCC’s likely decision, and in favor of maintaining net neutrality. For tech firms I’m thinking of Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc.; for ed tech, businesses like Blackboard, etc.

JSC: I believe that would depend on the case those firms and their industry associations are trying to make. From my perspective, higher education and library groups would have to see strong alignment between our positions and those of other stakeholders, such that working together allows us to better accomplish our members’ goals while not compromising our communities’ principles and interests.

BNA: What can individuals do who are working in, or taking classes from, educational institutions?  Can EDUCAUSE or your partners in this cause offer us any resources or advice?

JSC: The pending FCC order reflects such a dramatic departure from its previous approaches to net neutrality – not just under the Obama Administration but under the Bush Administration as well – that it’s very hard to say when and how we’ll see its effects on students and other individual consumers. And it’s possible that a federal appeals court ruling could prevent such effects from ever taking place. However, students, faculty, and other higher education and library stakeholders should let their institutions know if they start to experience a loss of effective access to the institution’s online resources and services. If those problems can be linked to anti-net neutrality steps by their broadband service providers, it will help us to more clearly illustrate the basic case we’ve been making – losing net neutrality puts the capacity of the Internet to effectively support learning, research, and service at significant risk.

Bryan again: to sum up, EDUCAUSE sees Pai’s upcoming shift as a danger to higher education.  They are participating in broad-based collaborative efforts with a range of partners (librarians, presidents, chief financial officers) to encourage the FCC to abandon this course, as far as they are able.  Theirs is a practical, not ideological critique, focused on student access and success.

Who else in higher education is taking such steps?

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Getting the future wrong: my bad forecasts

It’s essential for futurists to analyze their own forecasting work over time.  We check to see how we can improve our skills and understanding by looking back at how we looked ahead.

It sounds obvious, and it is obvious within the futures community.  As part of this backwards perspective, understanding errors is very useful. This is a professional axiom.  For example, Phil Tetlock has built an interesting prediction methodology on this theme, teaching people to hone their predictive abilities by checking and rechecking what they got wrong.

People who have heard me speak and lead workshops know, in the spirit of honesty and transparency, I like to mention things I got seriously wrong.  I’d like to share two of those blunders here, and add what I learned from them.

By the way, very few people do this publicly.  Transparency – one of my core values – has its risks.

The blunders both took place between five and ten years ago.

The first one concerned college sports.  From 2008-2011 or so I thought there was a chance that higher education might cut back on athletics. American readers can start laughing now, but I was thinking of a scandal cluster.

Schulman and Bowen, The Game of LifeI had plenty of evidence for this at the time. There was the Penn State sexual assault nightmare.  There was also the University of North Carolina cheating scandal and another one at Florida State.  The University of Miami had a gifts debacle. Jim Duderstadt, then president of the University of Michigan (and home of leading football and basketball teams), told one audience that college sports were “a beast that must be tamed.”*

At the same time colleges and universities were dealing with the 2008 financial crash’s aftermath.  Many faced financial problems, as I and others chronicled.  Since the supermajority of college sports don’t make a profit, as Bowen and Schulman conclusively demonstrated,  – indeed, a great many lose money – I thought campuses might cut back in order to save money for more mission-critical funding needs: faculty and support staff compensation, student life, and student aid.

Obviously this forecast was massively wrong.  College sports did not get cut, and instead were funded quite well.

So what did I miss?

I didn’t recognize the true depths of support American college sports enjoy.  That support goes beyond economics, although many boosters celebrate the (very rare) ability of teams to win money for their hosts.  Many campus leaders and stakeholders love their athletes for reasons including institutional identity and enjoyment of sports in general.  There’s a deep psychology around sports culture.

There were also institutional strategies in play.  Some academic leaders will back sports to attract male applicants, as female students now constitute a majority, and those leaders seek what they see as a kind of gender parity.  Others view athletic scholarships as a way to attract minority students.

I missed these points because, to be honest, I’ve never been a sports fan.  Although I’ve been a weightlifter my entire adult life, I don’t follow professional or college sports.  As a teenager I was bullied by athletes, and decided to ignore their world from then on.  That  led to a blind spot for me in 2008-2012.  As a result of this bad forecast, I’ve been working hard to better understand the topic.  Many FTTE supporters have been very helpful on this score. Continue reading

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