Two stories of campuses doing something about climate change

Just a short post today, sharing two positive stories about academic institutions taking concrete action about climate change.

ITEM: in Illinois, Loyola University Chicago is re-sourcing its electrical power to a renewable provider.  Loyala will purchase power from a nascent solar installation in-state:

Developed by renewable energy developer, owner and operator Swift Current Energy, the project—named “Double Black Diamond”—will be the largest solar farm in Illinois and among the largest solar projects in the country, and provide enough electricity to completely power the University’s Lake Shore, Water Tower, and Health Sciences Campuses.  

When does this start?  “Double Black Diamond is expected to start producing renewable electricity in late 2024.”

Note that the university worked with a consulting firm, Coho, to make this deal.  This is a budding industry that might welcome some college graduates.

This electrical outsourcing switch is also part of Loyola’s broader climate strategic plan.  There’s a lot going on there, from establishing a working group to polling the community, deciding which energy steps to take, supporting a student-run biodiesel facility, doing an inventory of campus trees sequestering carbon, and holding campus climate events.  They publish a clear carbon footprint as well:

Loyola University Chicago_carbon footprint from their plan_accessed May 2023

I appreciate the interdisciplinary charge here: “At Loyola, sustainability is an issue for every department and discipline.”

ITEM: In Maine, Bowdoin College is investing in renovating its buildings to reduce their carbon footprint.  The campus has already made some major progress: “Ninety percent of its electricity already comes from solar power, through a 5000-megawatt array near campus and an agreement to buy another 5000 megawatts from a community solar array in Farmington.”  The new actions include some serious material work:

Bringing Bowdoin’s older buildings into the 21st century means tearing down plaster walls to exposed brick, installing five inches of metal wool insulation in those walls and on the roof, replacing drafty windows, and installing electric boilers or heat pumps.

Bowdoin College bear statue.

From my 2005 visit, a fine statue.

There is also an interesting plan for building out a future energy system, which includes:

preparing buildings for the installation of a new low-temperature hot water heating and cooling system that will begin in 2037, and take five years to complete.

It will replace the natural gas-fired power plant that uses high temperature hot water and steam and is responsible for 75% of the campus’s carbon emissions. Keisha Payson, Director of Sustainability, says the college isn’t committing to any particular technology at this point, believing that advances in geothermal, battery storage, nuclear fusion, green hydrogen and carbon recapture will emerge in the next 15 years.

The whole plan doesn’t come cheaply. “Bowdoin plans to spend more than $100 million dollars over the next 15 years on campus renovations.”

I’m fascinated by some of the details, like this switch to a new building material:

The newest structures on campus, an academic hall and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies, are constructed of fabricated mass timber instead of steel and concrete. HGA, Bowdoin’s engineering firm, says these are the state’s first commercially scaled mass timber buildings. The material was sourced from Austria, as there are no manufacturers in the eastern U.S. HGA’S Lauren Piepho says the use of Mass Timber reduces the building’s embodied carbon by nearly 10%.

Or this financing issue:

[W]hile Bowdoin has a healthy endowment, and generous benefactors, it’s had to borrow to pay for all of these initiatives says Matt Orlando, the college’s senior vice president of finance.

“The reality is for energy projects like this, it’s hard to raise gifts. Most people don’t want to put their name on a steam line distribution that runs underground. So it’s typically debt-funded, so we’re using the college’s debt capacity to borrow money.”

I wonder how long it’ll be a problem to attract donors to supporting such projects.

Bowdoin is also attempting to replicate passivhaus design:

Director of Capital Projects John Simoneau says these continuous barriers of insulation can make buildings airtight, similar to the passive house design concept.

“One of the parts of passive house is to have these really tight buildings. But even buildings that are not passive house like these still have the same air barrier system, you’ve got it tied into the windows, the windows have to have a really low leakage rate and that is part of the energy efficiency of these structures.”

What can we learn from these brief accounts of two institutions’ climate actions?

To start with, taking climate seriously means changing the literal look of a campus.  Bowdoin will not appear to be the same as this work progresses.

Second, such actions involve major investment and future-oriented planning.

Third, climate strategies are not simple, but instead involve many different pieces.  Look through Loyola’s plan to get a sense of its complexity and ambition.

More, I hope, to come.


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American higher education enrollment decline returns to pre-pandemic level

How is higher education enrollment changing?

This week the invaluable National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published their latest data on American college and university enrollment.
Today I’ll summarize the findings, then point to implications for academia’s future. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logo

tl;dr summary – the pandemic enrollment crisis is over, and now total enrollment has returned to its 2013-2019 level of gradual, albeit uneven decline.

Starting with the big picture, total American post-secondary enrollment dropped by 0.5% from spring 2022 to spring 2023, from 16,963,053 to 16,878,602. (For historical context, spring enrollment stood at 18,154,038 in 2019, 17,944,635 in 2020, and  17,511,906 in 2021.)

Broken down by institutional type, for-profits and community colleges enjoyed an uptick this past semester.  Community colleges’ good fortune depends mostly on the rise of dual enrollment (i.e., high school) students. In contrast, public and private four-year institutions saw declines:

higher ed enrollment spring 2020-spring 2023_broken down by institutional type_National Clearinghouse_2023 May 24

Separating out data by degree level, the Clearinghouse assessed that “overall undergraduate enrollment remained stable for the spring term,” dipping down only by  0.2%, or 25,000 students. In contrast, graduate schools saw their student numbers dip down -2.2%, from 3,033,946 in spring 2022 to 2,965,729. This marks a shift away from COVID-era growth.  As Doug Shapiro (the Clearinghouse Vice President for Research and Executive Director, Research Center) put it in a call yesterday,  the pandemic-era “graduate student wave has passed.”

Slicing the data by demographics, starting with age, the report sees a reversal of the long adult education boom, as what growth the past year experienced came from students under 24 years old.  Those under 18 rose by 8.2% and the 18-24 group nudged upwards by a touch (0.3%), while those over 24 declined -3.3%.  We can see this in first-year student numbers, which “grew 9.2 percent from spring 2022.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education created a nice visualization of this demographic change:

enrollment by age 2019-2023 using Clearinghouse data_Chronicle 2023 May 24

Shapiro put it this way: “older students continue to disappear from campuses, except for-profits.”  Why is the adult population falling?  It looks like a mix of losing interest to a booming labor market and a college failure to recapture “stopped out students.” 

Switching to race, spring 2023 saw two continued trends.  White and black student numbers kept declining, while Asian and Hispanic students rose.  NB: this is according to yesterday’s media briefing. I can’t find race broken out in the linked report pdf nor the downloadable spreadsheet.

Turning to gender, the 21st-century trend of female students outpacing males in terms of enrollment might be reversing.  In spring 2023 the number of men taking classes nudged upwards, while women’s numbers declined a bit.  “Female enrollment declined by 1.2 percent (-118,000 students), while male enrollment grew slightly (+0.4% or +25,000 students).”  Women do remain the clear majority of students, numbering 10,023,878 against 7,129,439 men, and also across all institutional types.

The story differs by state.  The ones gaining the most students were Maine (5.7%), Kansas (5.4%), New Mexico (4.5%), and Tennessee (3.1%).  States losing the most students were Mississippi (6.8%), Washington (5.3%), Missouri (4.3%), West Virginia (3.9%), and North Carolina (3.1%).

What degrees are these students pursuing? The Clearinghouse uses CIP codes, and under that rubric the leading degree family by far is Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support.  Following that, with about 2/3rds the numbers, is Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences, followed by Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities.   The next highest degree set includes Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, and Psychology.

In terms of changing numbers, the major growing more rapidly than all others this spring was computer science, which boomed up by more than 11%.  In contrast, while a large number of students studied Health Professions and Related Clinical fields, those numbers continued to fall, now below pandemic levels.

What kinds of degrees are students aiming for? Here some previous changes continue to occur.  Undergrads are signed up for fewer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, while trying to get more ” sub-baccalaureate credentials.”  At the graduate level PhDs are stable, while the big change is  “losses in master’s programs (-57,000 students).”

What does this data mean for higher education’s future?  What are the strategic implications?

My first takeaway is that the post-2012, post-peak enrollment decline continues, albeit not at the fierce drop we saw during the pandemic.  As Liam Knox put it in Inside Higher Ed, “head counts seem to be settling into a slow descent.” Depending on the institution, this has budgetary implications, as most American campuses depend on student fees for the majority of their income.

Further, it means that higher education continues to veer away from its late 20th century mission of increasing academic access.  Indeed, Shapiro told me he saw overall enrollment as back to circa 2005 levels, which is bad in this context, and worse when we bear in mind that the nation’s total population has expanded in the past two decades.  Total enrollment of 16,878,602 compares poorly to our peak of circa 21 million, down around 20%, or standing at about 80% of where things once reached.

Second, looking ahead to Nathan Grawe’s demographic cliff, I wonder about campuses recruiting traditional-age students at present.  Is their goal to get as many teens as possible for the next 3-4 years, until their numbers drop?  How will institutions pivot to attract older learners, which they seem to be failing at right now? 

Perhaps my reading is too pessimistic and I’m too wedded to my peak higher ed model. Could the long enrollment decline turn around in the upcoming academic year, 2023-2024?  It’s possible, simply put, if enough people decide to take American college and university classes.  Yet this would be a sea change of attitudes, and a tricky transformation given the pressures continuing to depress enrollment: anxieties about student debt, increasingly hostile politics, increasing public skepticism, and low unemployment.  If the economy sours, perhaps we’ll see a return of some adults from a darkening workforce. Otherwise, we have to expect major cultural shifts for enrollment to return to pre-peak levels.

Doug Shapiro offered another view during our conversation about the new publication.  He used the word “stabilize,” suggesting that the decade of decline may have ended, and now we experience neither decline nor expansion, but an enrollment plateau.   Spring 2023’s decline was, after all, fairly small, especially in comparison to previous years.   I can imagine this playing out if enough of the “college for everyone” model survives its breakup, if community colleges continue to win their dual enrollment game, and if campuses continue to attract significant numbers of international students… until we hit the enrollment cliff’s edge.

What do you think?  Should this data point to a new growth period, continued declined, or a stable time?  Are you experiencing these changes in the higher education world you know?

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Some large-scale decisions we can make about AI in 2023

In my current work on forecasting the intersection of AI and higher ed, I’ve been running into an interesting problem.  Well, several, but today I’d like to share a structural one, caught between futures thinking and where AI is right now.

We’re on the verge of several major decision points about how we use and respond to artificial intelligence, particularly due to the explosion of large language models (LLMs).  These occur at large-scale and also radical levels.   We could easily head in different directions for each, which makes me think of branching paths or decision gates.  As a result the possibilities have ramified.

To better think through this emerging garden of forking paths, I decided to identify the big ones, then tried to map different ways through them.  I also mapped them out in a flow chart, which yielded some surprising results.

Dataset size.  Right now LLMs train on enormous datasets.  This is a problem for multiple reasons: a large carbon footprint, reducing access to the handful of people owning or working at capital-intensive enterprises (OpenAI, Google, etc). For some LLM applications, the bigger the training set, the better.  On the other hand, there have been some developments with AI software which get good results from smaller sets, and OpenAI’s leader stated that big datasets are now a thing of the past.  So in which direction will we take AI, towards building and using bigger or smaller source collections?

Midjourney_several_futures_for_AI_robot lady 2

From Midjourney, prompted to depict “several futures for AI.”

Copyright and intellectual property (IP). Those big datasets include some problematic material in terms of ownership and rights. Usually the corpus curators did not solicit approval from all content owners.  Some (probably most) or the content is under copyright, and these for-profit firms cannot reasonably expect to defend their use as fair use (especially after this week’s Prince/Warhol decision). (Check out this helpful Washington Post article, which lets you check what content is in one major dataset.  My blog is in there, among many others.)

Moreover, some creators want to shield their work from being used by LLMs.  Some are already suing. Will we see such lawsuits or allied regulations shut down these giant digital scraping projects and hence stall AI growth or use, or will LLM projects evade sanctions and continue?

Cultural attitudes. Right now AI is a hotly debated topic, going far beyond hype and kneejerk reactions.  The controversy is not just a pro/con binary, but consists of arguments across numerous divides, axes, and topics.  For example, in the previous point I  mentioned the art topic, which turns on copyright and autonomy. Consider as well debates over job automation, which focus on labor markets and self-worth. Think of divides over machine creativity as creepy or interesting. And recall the deep anxiety about machines making decisions without humans in the loop.

Taken together, we could see an emergent cultural revulsion against AI, much as the 20th century saw build up over nuclear and biological weapons. This could lead to a hardened anti-AI attitude. Alternatively, many people enjoy or just find useful new AI tools for a range of reasons: convenience, boosted creativity, etc. Will we crystalize as a civilization into one stance or another?  (This is where I keep reminding people of Frank Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad idea.)

Midjourney_several_futures_for_AI_robot lady 1

Midjourney, same prompt as above.

Nonprofit/edu/culture heritage projects. Right now most AI projects have surfaced from giant companies (Google, Microsoft, Meta, Baidu) or from a nonprofit owned by same (OpenAI).  So far they have succeeded in being able to assemble the necessary constellation of human talent, massive computing power, huge datasets, and the right software.   Accordingly, we could imagine a short/medium-term future where LLMs are solely the property of giants.  Yet the history of digital technology has reliably shown tools tend to become more accessible and cheaper over time. On a recent Future Trends Forum we discussed the possibility of small, low resourced groups making their own LLM applications.  Indeed, this is an opportunity for nonprofits, educators, and cultural heritage organizations to make their own and with their own spin.  I’ve thought of libraries or faculty and staff teams creating AI based on non-problematic datasets, such as Internet Archive or Hathitrust content.

The gate here is then: does AI continue to be the province of giant companies, or does it democratize and enter the non-profit realm?

OK, wrapping these together, I found that each had one option which led to maintaining the status quo in key ways. In contract, their alternatives pointed to new ways of structuring AI. In the flow chart I traced these together:

Near future of AI flow chart

Here’s the flowchart. Colored boxes are the decision topics. Colored circles are two aggregate end points.

On reflection, the “New AI Pathways Emerge” looks fascinating, and worth teasing out in a different post.

I’ve used the gate metaphor here and spoken as if humanity is making a decision as a whole at each point, but that’s not historically sound.  We contradict ourselves, normally, and especially spatially. Perhaps we should expect multiple branching points.  Imagine a polity which decides that AI should be carefully controlled by the state, and only take the form of giant projects, well regulated, and only accessing licensed content, while a different nation prefers a wild west approach, with many types of AI projects using all kinds of content.  How would such divergences impact geopolitics?

Additionally, these are just four gates.  Several others are in my mind, like technical quality (perpetually flawed or artificial general intelligence?) and private status (nationalized or not?). Which ones do you see?

Back to higher education: should academics advocate for one path  or another through these gates?  How is enterprise IT preparing for the alternatives? What are the implications of each branch for research and teaching?

PS: I asked Midjourney to image some futures for AI as a flowchart:

Beautiful, but the text makes no sense.

Posted in automation | 11 Comments

Americans’ religious beliefs in transformation: new research

How is religious belief changing, and what does this mean for the future?

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has published new findings about American religious behavior, and the results are fascinating.  “Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval” offers a snapshot of a society in transformation. (I’ve previously written about their 2017 research, which was excellent.)

In this post I’ll identify what I thought of as the most important or interesting details of the report.  One caveat: I’m not a religion scholar, but am looking at the topic as a futurist.

tl;dr – religious belief continues to decline in many registers, although things vary by race and faith.

Continued shift away from religious affiliation While the majority of Americans identify as Christians, their overall numbers are declining.  The number of people who do not claim any religious affiliation keeps rising.  Among white Americans, the unaffiliated now constitute a bit more than one quarter of the population.

religious beliefs by race and denomination 2006-2022 PRRI-May-2023

One aspect of religious affiliation involves physically attending religious services.  Attendance has declined significantly across most religions over the past decade:

religious attendance 2013-2022 PRRI-May-2023

Another way of looking at religious belief is how often people change affiliations in the course of their lifetimes.  Such switching is on the rise: “In 2022, about one in four Americans (24%) say they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition or denomination than the one they belong to now, up from 16% in 2021.”

PRRI breaks down switching faiths by original faith:

People who are currently members of other non-Christian religions (38%) or religiously unaffiliated (37%) are the most likely to say that they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition, followed by about one in four other Protestants of color (28%), white evangelical Protestants (25%), and Hispanic Protestants (24%). In addition, 22% each of other Christians, white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants, and Latter-day Saints also say they were previously a practitioner or follower of a different religious tradition or denomination.

In contrast, “Jewish Americans (15%), Black Protestants (15%), Hispanic Catholics (11%) and white Catholics (10%) are the least likely to say they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition.”

From a different angle, the study identifies the religions losing the largest numbers of believers:

Among Americans who left a religious tradition, 37% say they were formerly Catholic, 24% were non-evangelical Christian or Protestant, 17% belonged to another Christian tradition, 13% were evangelical Christians, and 5% were members of non-Christian religions.

Why do people leave or switch?  The reasons are various:

[A] majority of those who changed (56%) say they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings. Another 30% indicate they were turned off by the religion’s negative teachings about or treatment of LGBTQ people, 29% say their family was never that religious growing up, 27% say they were disillusioned by scandals involving leaders in their former religion, 18% point to a traumatic event in their lives, and 17% say their church became too focused on politics.

The importance of religion seems to be declining The PRRI team asked what respondents thought of the statement that “religion is the most important thing in their lives.”  It’s an interesting way of getting at a sense of value, and that value here is declining – not sharply, but clearly, except for white Catholics and “other Christians”:

religion is the most important thing in my life 2013 vs 2022 PRRI-May-2023

In contrast to these signs of weakening religious institutions, those who continue to believe or affiliate seem to be steady, as few current believers are considering an exit:

Only 16% of Americans say they are thinking about leaving their current religious tradition or denomination. About two in ten Latter-day Saints (24%), other Protestants of color (20%), white Catholics (20%), white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants (18%), and other Christians (17%) say they are thinking about leaving their religious tradition, compared with 15% of white evangelical Protestants, 14% of Hispanic Protestants, 13% of Hispanic Catholics, 11% of Black Protestants, and 10% of both Jewish Americans and members of other non-Christian religions.

Religious institutions tend to not be racially diverse Most churches have communities that consist of one race.  “[T]he vast majority of churchgoers report that their congregations are mostly monoracial.”

At least three-quarters of white Christians say that their churches are mostly white, including 80% of white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants, 77% of white Catholics, and 75% of white evangelical Protestants.”

Overall, I find these results fascinating and useful.  As always with good surveys, I wish for more data and more cuts through it.  Gender, geography, age, and educational attainment come to my mind.

So what can we deduce from this data, and how might it impact higher education?

Whenever futurists see a series of datapoints in a timeline we are tempted to project them forwards.  So a first extrapolation would obviously forecast a continued religious affiliation decline.  Yet we also know that the historical record rarely shows such straight line arcs, and I have two thoughts on such complications here.  First, I was struck by the supermajorities of believers who did not express a desire to exit or switch. It may be that those not too committed to each faith have now left, and what remains are the firm believers.  PRRI finds those remainers tend to also be more optimistic about the future of their respective institutions. In which case we might expect the declines to level off.

Second, and this is more speculative, I’m constantly looking for signs of 21st century new religious movements (NRMs) to appear, as well as for major reformations and schisms to current institutions.  For example, I expect the climate crisis to elicit new sects and belief patterns.  Depending on what happens with artificial intelligence, we could see religious changes in response.  Moreover, nearly every historical religion appeared as a contemporary black swan, so we should be ready for a new faith to appear out of the blue.

When it comes to academia, I’ve previously identified some impacts:

  1. Enrollment and reputation challenges for religiously-affiliated private colleges and universities.
  2. Potential challenges for religious studies as an academic discipline, notably in terms of student interest, and perhaps cultural support for research.
  3. On the intersection of race and religion, we seem – broadly – to be seeing belief dwindle among white Americans, but not so much among other populations.  Religious institutions primarily enrolling people of color might endure, while primarily white campuses dwindle.

Are you seeing signs of these religious trends in your academic environment?

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New York announces a climate change campus

How might higher education respond to the climate crisis?

One answer to this very large question is for a given campus to expand its academic teaching on the topic, across the curriculum.  A second answer involves expanding a college or university’s research work, also across the disciplines.  Over time, an institution’s commitment to building and sharing global warming knowledge increases.

As an alternative, we can imagine the creation of climate programs within larger universities.  Or in a more ambitious way, by creating an entire climate institution.  I speculated about this in my recent book, Universities on Fire, forecasting that “entire graduate schools and undergraduate colleges specializing in the climate crisis appear…” (4) Later on in the book I added:

Looking decades ahead, we can imagine an academy increasingly devoted to studying the Anthropocene through familiar academic departments and new ones. Depending on an institution’s nature and strategy, we may forecast new forms for such work: centers, institutes, academic programs, colleges within universities, entire standalone colleges and universities devoted to researching the topic.   (86; emphases added)

That is precisely what New York state recently announced.  Stony Brook University will lead the construction of the New York Climate Exchange on Governor’s Island.

According to the Stony Brook official page as well as the New York Times’ article, the Exchange has several distinct yet interconnected functions.

Stony Brooke Exchange rendering

From the project renderings page.

Research and development This is how the Stony Brook page leads off, describing the Exchange first of all as “a first-of-its-kind international center for developing and deploying dynamic solutions to our global climate crisis.”  R&D appears to be key.

It’s still early days, but the Stony Brook FAQ offers a list of potential research topics:

The Exchange will tackle the most important elements of the climate challenge: air, water, food, and energy studies. Some initial areas of focus include:

  • Green infrastructure for coastline resilience
  • Electric vehicle-to-grid integration
  • Circular organic waste management
  • Climate resilient hydroponics
  • Data visualization of extreme event impacts
  • Policy strategies for implementation of solutions
  • Advanced aquaculture for urban food security and carbon capture

Teaching One part of the new school’s pedagogical function involves teaching undergraduates and grad students.  Stony Brook makes it sound like its own branch campus:

The Exchange is an opportunity to amplify and expand the research already being done at Stony Brook in the areas of climate and sustainability. It will also offer a Climate Solutions Fellows program for graduate students, a Climate Solutions Semester for undergraduates

I’ve written that climate teaching should be interdisciplinary, and Stony Brook agrees:

Climate solutions are not limited to the so-called hard sciences and require an “all-of-the-above” approach including across the humanities, social sciences and healthcare. The Exchange envisions many interdisciplinary projects on Governors Island and welcomes ideas and inspiration from all fields of study. Additionally, we expect that the arts will be well-represented through performances, art installations, and other possibilities.

More teaching: workforce development The curricular strategy sounds based on jobs for the immediate community, with the Exchange “host[ing] job-training and skills-building programs for local residents to help them launch successful careers that improve our regional environment.”

Indeed, Stony Brook belabors the point, emphasizing that the Exchange isn’t a liberal arts space so much as a job training center:

The unique purpose of The Exchange will be to bring together the voices of all stakeholders so that solutions to our climate crisis are not just academic or theoretical, but social and practical — including research that becomes commercially viable and ideas that lead to immediate action on the local and global levels.

(Readers of American higher education history will recognize this centuries-old argument about theoretical versus practical teaching)

The Times article describes a statistical emphasis on workforce: “The campus will create more than 2,200 jobs, city officials said, and eventually serve 600 college students, 6,000 job trainees…”

Midjourney imagines_An_academic_climate_change_center_on_New_Yorks_Governors Island 2

One of Midjourney’s efforts on the topic.

Rethinking campus operations In addition to conducting higher education’s classic functions of teaching and research, the enterprise will experiment with its operations as part of its climate focus. “The design and operations of The Exchange itself will serve as a model for sustainability with a carbon-neutral facility that blends into the natural landscape of Governors Island.”

One goal is to be electrically sustainable.  According to CBS:

“It’s going to be covered with solar panels and have geothermal energy. So it will not need electricity from the grid at all. In fact, it’s going to give electricity back into the grid,” said Claire Newman, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island.

Blending these functions It sounds likely that climate study will cross institutional domains.  For example, the New York Times mentions that “[t]he climate hub will serve as a ‘living laboratory’ that features resilient design.”  I imagine faculty research, student inquiry, and the campus physical plant all involved.

Stony Brook offers this sketch of topics which can be integrated across those domains:

Environmental Justice and Inclusion

Reconciling global inequities, reducing burdens, distributing benefits more fairly, and redressing past discriminatory practices and their impacts.

Climate Interdependence

Adopting the “nexus” approach to sustainable climate change solutions with emphasis on the connection between the critical ecosystem domains of water, food, and energy.
Sustainable Urban Environments

Developing and demonstrating sustainable, affordable solutions for coastal urban environments, starting on Governors Island and extending outward into New York and beyond

How is this funded and supported?  The Times describes several sources:

About $150 million in funding will come from previously allocated city capital funding, city officials said. Another $100 million is from the Simons Foundation, founded by the billionaire James H. Simons, and $50 million will be contributed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by Mr. Bloomberg, a longtime supporter of rebuilding the island. The consortium will raise another $400 million and cover operational costs…

Additionally, the Exchange has a lot of partners from academia, the corporate world, and local non-profits.

Things are in the planning stage now.  Construction itself won’t begin until 2025.  The Times thinks it’ll open for business in 2028.

One criticism of this project comes from Scotland’s Donald Clark, who sees the construction as flying in the face of climate change’s needs:

Let’s solve our carbon footprint problem by ‘building’ another campus in an island…. head, table, thump….

It has long been the knee-jerk reaction in Higher Education to shove up buildings, as if that were the solution to a problem. In this case, it’s exacerbating the problem.

I share Clark’s concern, as the Twitter exchange shows.  It also reveals a split in academic thinking about global warming.  One side follows the historical pattern of recognizing new or expanding academic endeavors by creating new material expressions (buildings, campuses, sites), infrastructure (jobs, programs), and by hiring people.  Against this is the broader economic thinking we see from no-growth and de-growth advocates, who would see us shrink our footprint, especially the richest “us.” Within American academia we could align this with the decade-running enrollment decline, or the so far scarce idea of deliberately shrinking a campus footprint (cf Gordon Gee’s recent move).

I’m also worried about how the thing will actually get built, given the enormous problems of building anything in the New York City area (cost overruns, delays, scope creep, etc).

At the same time I’m impressed by this group of partners committing themselves to creating an academic entity dedicated to the climate crisis.  There’s a lot of potential there, both locally and in terms of R+D for the world.

Are there any similar academic entities in the world?  How many more should we anticipate?

Posted in climatechange | 1 Comment

When will the first university or college charge $100,000 per year?

When will the first American college or university charge $100,000 or more to attend? What might that mean for higher education?

I first asked this question back in 2018.  I wanted to use that psychologically important six figure price as a milestone to come, a signal event in the history of rising published institutional charges.  In that post I offered a forecast. Today I’d like to check in on that post, as I’ve been doing ever since (for examples: 2021, 2022).

99,999 by Alan Levine

To recap and summarize: I was trying to estimate when the first American campus would crack $100,000 for total cost of attendance for a year of full time undergraduate schooling.  That means the combination of tuition and fees, plus room and board.  It includes only published prices, not accounting for discounts through scholarships etc.

For example, here’s the official, published total cost of attendance for the University of Southern California, with a helpful breakdown:

University of Southern California total cost of attendance 2023 May 11Amherst College helpfully adds some further expenses:

Amherst College total cost of attendance_2023

Looking for such data, I selected some or all of the most expensive institutions, checked out the rate by which their prices rose, and estimated that one would breach six figures by the 2029-2030 academic year.  Last year I revisited these Most Expensive Universities (MEUs) and found several getting pricier more quickly.   Two, Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania looked like they would reach six figures by 2026.

Let’s check in on those MEUs in this year of 2023.

Here’s the list of leading contenders I assembled previously, updated with their official costs for the upcoming (2023-2024) academic year, re-ranked in descending price order:

USC $90,921

Harvey Mudd College 89,115

University of Chicago 89,040

Wellesley College 89,091

University of Pennsylvania 89,028 ($88,892 for living off campus)

Amherst College 88,599 (assuming the insurances aren’t waived)

Tufts University 88,300 (without health insurance, as noted)

Northwestern University 87,804

Dartmouth College 87,793

Brown University 84,828

There are others in this bracket.  Cal Tech is definitely towards the top with an annual charge of $86,886.  Columbia University’s total cost comes in at $85,967.   Claremont McKenna College prices in at $86,500.  Duke University: $84,517.   Stanford University: $84,683. Sarah Lawrence College publishes a direct charge of $81,224. Harvard University slides just under the 80K bracket with $79,450.

(For simplicity’s sake, I’ve left off estimates of non-billable personal costs, as well as extra fees levied on first-year students.  I’m also using on-campus housing figures, as the host campus is responsible for those, unlike for off-campus living.  I include books, as those are both necessary class costs, and also amenable to open education resource amelioration.)

In my previous posts on this topic I worked from a 4% annual price increase.  If we apply that to USC, they cross over the $100K barrier in four academic years:

2023-2024 $90,921

2024-2025 94,558

2025-2026 98,340

2026-2027 102,274

Harvey Mudd also crosses in that academic year, just a hair behind:

2023-2024 $89,115

2024-2025 92,680

2025-2026 96,387

2026-2027 100,242

Let’s see how all eighteen of those campuses fare over the 2020s:

Institution 2023-2024 2024-2025 2025-2026 2026-2027 2027-2028
USC 90,921 94557 98340 102273 106364
Harvey Mudd College 89,115 92679 96386 100242 104251
University of Chicago 89,040 92601 96305 100157 104164
Wellesley College 89,091 92654 96360 100215 104223
University of Pennsylvania 89,028 92589 96292 100144 104150
Amherst College 88,599 92142 95828 99661 103648
Tufts University 88,300 91832 95505 99325 103298
Northwestern University 87,804 91316 94968 98767 102718
Dartmouth College 87,793 91304 94956 98755 102705
Cal Tech 86,886 90361 93975 97734 101644
Claremont McKenna College 86,500 89960 93558 97300 101192
Columbia University 85,967 89405 92981 96701 100569
Brown University 84,828 88221 91749 95419 99236
Stanford University 84,683 88070 91593 95256 99067
Duke University 84,517 87897 91413 95070 98872
Sarah Lawrence College 81,224 84472 87851 91365 95020
Harvard University 79,450 82628 85933 89370 92945

(I fudged cents manually, mostly cutting them off, because I couldn’t figure out how to handle that in Google Sheets.)

2026-2027 seems to be the breakthrough year with five institutions crossing over.  Next, academic year 2027-2028 sees six figures as par for the course for this MEU group.

Now, that 4% back-of-the-envelope number is out of date.  Inflation famously or notoriously has taken off over the past two years, and that definitely impacts college and university economics. The inflation rate has cooled off this week to 4.9% (Bureau of Labor Statistics), but was obviously higher for a time.  Some of those higher costs are baked into present pricing (think energy, food service, health care, and also staff cost of living) and so will goose up charges for the near future.

Let’s see what happens if published prices go up by a rough and simple 5%:

Institution 2023-2024 2024-2025 2025-2026 2026-2027 2027-2028
USC 90,921 95467 100240 105252 110515
Harvey Mudd College 89,115 93570 98249 103161 108319
University of Chicago 89,040 93492 98166 103074 108228
Wellesley College 89,091 93545 98222 103133 108290
University of Pennsylvania 89,028 93479 98153 103061 108214
Amherst College 88,599 93028 97680 102564 107692
Tufts University 88,300 92715 97350 102218 107329
Northwestern University 87,804 92194 96803 101644 106726
Dartmouth College 87,793 92182 96791 101631 106712
Cal Tech 86,886 91230 95791 100581 105610
Claremont McKenna College 86,500 90825 95366 100134 105141
Columbia University 85,967 90265 94778 99517 104493
Brown University 84,828 89069 93522 98199 103108
Stanford University 84,683 88917 93363 98031 102932
Duke University 84,517 88742 93179 97838 102730
Sarah Lawrence College 81,224 85285 89549 94026 98728
Harvard University 79,450 83422 87593 91973 96571

2025-2026 is the new breakthrough year in this model.  A majority of MEUs join the six figure club the following year.

What does this mean for higher education?

In a sense all of this data-gathering and modeling doesn’t matter very much.  $100,000 is an arbitrary number, no more important than $99,999 or $100,001. I’m also picking on a very, very small slice of American colleges and universities.  The community college sector, for example, is far larger in number of institutions and educates a massively bigger number of students.  Further, it’s not exactly shocking news to reveal that higher education’s sticker prices rise.

Yet I do think this probe could be of use.  To begin with, the switchover from five to six figures may prove to be psychologically or culturally significant. We do tend to pay extra attention to such numbers, like the year 2000 millennium or numbering COVID dead by increments of hundreds of thousands, then millions. To the extent the first campus to cross this arbitrary milestone becomes a cultural moment, I hope these posts can prepare some of us.  Further, I expect at least some administrators to be aware of the potentially bad press for that milestone, and will take steps to make it look less frightening; we can anticipate such steps now.

There’s another reason to pay attention to these MEUs. They tend to draw outsized attention both within and outside of the academic ecosystem.  Their reputations loom large within a very calibrated institutional hierarchy. How they handle price increases, and how society responds to them, will be the subject of study from other colleges and universities.

More deeply, I think such staggeringly high sticker prices illuminate the real pricing model of higher ed, one based on combining those fees with deep discounts.  I expect discount rates to grow in tandem with the published prices, perhaps reaching 75% by the decade’s end. This clearly reveals the massive disparities of American income and wealth; indeed, one could see our deepening discount+rising prices model is a carefully structured expression of living in a post-Piketty world.

Once again I must hedge this discussion. These are crude, first-order extrapolations.  A whole galaxy of events can throw them off target: escalating war in Ukraine, which helped trigger inflation; a financial crisis; economic and/or political crises between the United States and China; political chaos involving the 2024 election; climate disasters; etc.  Within higher education administrators have options and strategies which could take them in different directions.

For now, I hope I’ve inspired some discussion.  I’ll check back on this six figure forecast a year from now.

(daring odometer photo by Alan Levine)




Posted in economics, future of education, higher education | Tagged | 16 Comments

Rebooting my use of Mastodon

After another few frustrating months on one Mastodon server, I’m trying the whole experience again with a reboot.  I shifted my account to a new instance, which means you can find me at this address? handle? some elephant-ish nickname?

Mastodon band, photo by frenkieb

Not this Mastodon – but I do love the band.

I confess to being of two minds about Mastodon.

On the one hand, I’ve had a poor experience with the thing so far.  Each server I’ve used has ranged in badness from administrators hating me to  staging a vast, roaring silence in response to my every toot. The onboarding process isn’t great, reminding me of what greets non-geek users of Linux or, back in the day, Second Life.  There are many mores and practices to pick up, some of which aren’t readily understood and/or contradict.

On the other, too many people I respect have made a point of committing to Mastodon. And I like the distributed, user-oriented idea of the Fediverse.  So I’ll give it a shot.

This does take time.  I’ve got to learn this new server’s ways.  I have to manually build up my social network there – right now it’s about 1-2% the size of what I enjoy on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thankfully, some folks have been very helpful in the process.

I remain on all of my other platforms.  I haven’t exited Twitter. I do owe a blog post about why I persist on Twitter and Facebook (nobody ever complains about LinkedIn), and my explanation is a version of Willie Sutton’s famous answer.

In the meantime, if you’d like to connect with me on the tusk plane, is how to find me, I think. Do share your own contact in comments, if you like.

(awesome photo by Francis Bill)

Posted in technology | Tagged | 15 Comments

Extrapolations: notes on Apple’s climate fiction series, episodes 4-8

How can we imagine the future under the impact of climate change?

Extrapolations PosteI’ve been watching the Apple TV+ series Extrapolations, which offers an interesting example of climate fiction.  It’s a kind of anthology show, with each episode depicting one story at a point in the next few decades as the global situation worsens.  Some characters, events, and themes knit the episodes together.

I summarized the first few episodes previously.  Let’s continue and finish the season.

For each episode I’ll offer a plot summary, a sketch of its extensive worldbuilding, a bit on themes, and some reflections.  At the end I’ll add some thoughts as I have time.

Spoilers ahead.

4: “2059: The Face of God”

The American president Burdick (as in burdock, I think: prickly) signs the Climate Intervention Treaty, banning geoengineering  It classifies certain substances as controlled ones: calcium carbonate, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide.  Carbon sequestration isn’t working.  Billionaire Gita Mishra threatens to unleash a geoengineering project unless Burdick withdraws from the treaty, citing climate justice and blaming other billionaires for working (instead) on rockets. The president convenes a team to grapple with the situation, while also working with Nick Bilton, CEO of megacorporation Alpha.  Someone shoots down Gita’s plane and as a result the other planes unload their geoengineering payloads, followed by hundreds of thousands of drones around the world doing the same.

Worldbuilding: global warming is heading to 2.5 degrees C.  There are accords signed during the Tel Avid COP which took place in episode one.  Djibouti has large seawalls or barriers. So does Mumbai.  The Alpha company is larger than ever.

We see many new or developing technologies. Holographic displays are still working.  A new invention is an uncrewed, zero carbon emissions perpetually aloft plane, solar powered a drone.  Very light phones now consist of little earpieces, which can project large virtual screens. Other phones are entirely transparent. There are also fully transparent computers. Drone deliveries are commonplace.  Some kind of food tech involves making food at home from proteins.

Themes: the world’s elite making top-down decisions.  Family is central – i.e., we begin with father-son tension over geoengineering. That father closely advises the American president.  The son runs away to his stepmother.  That stepmother builds aircraft, while the father sails on sailboats.

5: “2059 Part II: Nightbirds”

Quick prologue: someone steals from the Svalbard Seed Vault. The main plot concerns an epic road trip across part of India in order to set up a beneficial project.  An assassin and aspects of ordinary life threaten the mission.

Worldbuilding: India is at war against … Pakistan? A southeast Asian volcano spewed ash into the atmosphere and cooled things off a bit.  The previous episode’s conclusion is referred to as an act of eco-terrorism, but its impacts are hard to discern.  Daytime temperatures get hot enough to disable and kill; curfews restrict human access to extreme welt bulb temperatures.

Technology: there’s a nanobot treatment for breathing problems.  People use insulated sleeping bags to protect themselves from excessive heat.  You can launch drones by a  simple hand toss.

6: “2066: Lola”

The plot concerns a character who works as a kind of personal stand-in for the people clients have lost.  He changes his appearance, switches up languages, and studies memories to best represent the missing or dead.  Cognitive issues begin to beset him, as he’s the grown-up kid who had summer heart in an earlier episode, and then things get worse.

Worldbuilding: the summer heart idea from a previous episode returns, with impacts to brain function.  Increasing heat drives up digital cloud service costs, or at least is the justification cloud companies use to jack up rates. People can suffer from “heat rage”; perhaps CRISPR can help.  Rotterdam was evacuated and London’s Metro floods Blockchain is key to digital infrastructure and has a huge carbon footprint.  There are Heal the Land colonies, with some cultish overtones, and also with implications that participants/members can change their identities to live there.  CO2 might be up to 560 ppm. The previously mentioned animal resurrection service claims to be about to reintroduce humpback whales.

Extrapolations_Going Away Party

7: “2068: The Going Away Party”

The story involves a New Year’s party in San Francisco hosted by an aging and failed inventor and his frustrated wife.  There are many nods to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), including tensions and betrayals between two couples and an argument over children existing. The holiday structure for this family-based representation of the future calls out to Years and Years (2019).

Worldbuilding: the Alpha virtual assistant is still a thing, with people using their voices to summon presentations. Phones are still thin slivers of glass. Hologram interfaces can be based in a locket while a chip allows people to see augmented reality superimposed on their vision at any time, even during sex. Robots – androids – are advanced enough to simulate human beings.  Economic class divides are sharp.

The atmosphere is poor with people carrying their own oxygen to breathe. At least one person embraces a no-hugging, no-touch ethos; it’s not clear if this is just a personal affectation or a new cultural form.  Solar and wind power have declined, at least because of poor atmospheric quality. Heat waves kill large numbers of people. “Climate fatigue” is apparently a thing animals and presumably people can suffer from.  Carbon constitutes a currency in some way, including in a black market. Uploading or “digitizing” the human personality is starting to be possible, in part to putatively reduce one’s carbon footprint.  Burbank, California no longer exists.  The Hague is hosting trials of corporations and individuals for crimes against the climate, or ecocide.

8: “2070: Ecocide”

Zillionaire Nick Bilton is tried for ecocide. We learn that he was born a Russian, Nikolai Biltinov. He views life as transactions and thinks it’s best to assign fantasy worlds to the poor. Bilton’s company launches a carbon drawdown product, albeit one which will reduce atmospheric carbon down to 470 parts per million, a number determined by a shadowy cabal of businessmen.  Bilton built that technology (the “Newcomen,” named after the British inventor of the first steam engine) based on stolen tech from an inventor, whose daughter he raises in hiding.  That daughter calls for CO2 to drop to 350 (as in this organization).  Bilton ends up in orbital prison.

Worldbuilding: carbon dioxide is over 560 ppm.  Ecocide became a crime in 2050, according to Alpha. There are prisons in orbit and a penal colony on the Martian moon of Phobos. Some British and Dutch cities are domed.  Bees and wildflowers disappeared in mid-century.  Somehow genetic engineering addressed illiteracy.  The Marshall Islands are no longer habitable.

At least one court is automated by AI. Holographic representations are larger than in prior episodes, although scales and alignment can be off; their controls can be embedded in furniture. People can use a series of holographic avatars to disguise themselves. There are also Star Trek-Holodeck-style virtual spaces, complete with AI-driven agents. Data can be stored in little slivers; phones are now similarly sized tiny devices, stuck on people’s heads. Drones deliver printed-out communications.

Themes: the morality of businesses, the culpability of consumers.  The climax of the episode blames humanity as a whole for climate change.

Overall, I think this is an impressive and noteworthy show.  It aims to accomplish a lot, tracing out one climate crisis future in significant detail.  I want to focus on that issue for the rest of this post.

How do you tell a story about the climate crisis?  It’s a famously vast topic, a hyperobject, and one a whole subgenre – climate fiction – wrestles with.  To treat it Extrapolations models several strategies, starting by foregrounding family stories.  This humanizes complex problems and offers ready emotional connections.  Similarly, the show keeps putting small human interactions before us to embody the hyperobject: a courtroom drama sans jury or in-person spectators, two smugglers in a truck, a few members of a board.  Overall there’s a lot of microcosming at work.

The program also tells the global warming tale through the top-down viewpoint of many thrillers, with leading characters being political and economic leaders, offering us exposition and persuasion.  It is not very democratic, in that we see most of the world order shaped by elite decisions, imposed top-down style.  It’s a straightforward way of showing us the world through the people in charge of it.  “Nightbirds” and “Lola” are exceptions to this rule, their characters on society’s bottom rungs, mystified about most of what’s going on.  Our protagonist in “Nightbirds” sees an explosion in the sky and doesn’t know what to make of it; we do, because we learned about it from the world leaders who made it happen in the previous episode.

Extrapolations proceeds by sounding a deeply melancholic note most of the time.  Episode are tonally and often visually dark, showing as catastrophes and gradual decay.  This builds to nearly Wagnerian levels by episode 7 as we realize the world is so terrible and hopeless that escaping and hoping for a civilizational reboot is the best available option.  (And if you’re skeptical of uploading’s viability, it’s fancy suicide.) Episode 8 tries to undo that tone by setting up a clear villain for a clear fall, leaving an image of optimism behind.  Unconvincingly, I’d add.

The series also approaches the problem of climate narrative by trying out different genres.  “Nightbirds” is a grungy crime thriller, while “Face of God” is a glossy grand political thriller, “Going Away Party” a brutal family drama laced with posthumanism, and “Ecocide” a courtroom drama.  It’s an anthology approach of sorts, tackling the problem from multiple perspectives.  I’m not sure how this plays out with audiences, especially those who prefer a tv series to plow a single generic furrow.

I have many more thoughts about the show, but want to pause for now and save ’em for another post.  Has anyone else seen it?  I recommend it with reservations.

(“Going Away Party” via

Posted in climatechange | Tagged | Leave a comment

American faith in higher education is declining: one poll

Last month the Wall Street Journal and NORC ran a poll asking Americans what they thought about their views of the nation, particularly about economics.  One question concerned higher education.  The answers to it are sobering and I’d like to revisit them today.

The results are also behind a paywall, in the WSJ’s case, and not available on the NORC site, as far as I can tell (I emailed them; no response yet), so I’ll try to summarize what I can here, thanks to the help of a fine librarian and some time poking around databases.

The main takeaway is that our view of higher education’s value is souring.  Fewer of us see post-secondary learning as worth the cost, and now a majority think college and university degrees are no longer worth it: “56% of Americans think earning a four-year degree is a bad bet compared with 42% who retain faith in the credential.”

The question was put this way:

When it comes to getting a four-year college degree, which of the following statements comes closer to your point of view? A four-year college education is worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more income over their lifetime or not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off?

Note that this isn’t a one-off finding.  WSJ/NORC have been doing this for a decade, every several years, and the trendline is against higher ed.

In 2013, 53% of Americans were bullish on college, and 40% weren’t. In 2017, 49% of Americans thought a four-year degree would lead to good jobs and higher earnings, compared with 47% who didn’t.

Broken down by gender, women tend to have a higher opinion of higher ed than men do.  Decomposed by age, skepticism is highest among younger people.

The overall negative trend occurs in each population slice, yet to different degrees:

Women and older Americans are driving the decline in confidence. People over the age of 65 with faith in college declined to 44% from 56% in 2017. Confidence among women fell to 44% from 54%, according to the poll.

What can we take away from this single question and its responses?

We can resist the temptation to load it with too much significance.  After all, it was a small poll, reaching barely more than 1,000 people.  It was just one question, not allowing for much nuance.  The other questions in the survey emphasized economics, and in measures allowing for some anxiety, so encouraged a simply ROI view of college.

Some will criticize the poll as coming from the Wall Street Journal, but I don’t think this is a good critique.  The opinion side of the WSJ is definitely on the reactionary side, yet the journalistic enterprise is solid.  The latter is who took down Theranos, for example.  And the article’s author, Doug Belkin, does fine work.  (He was a great guest on the Future Trends Forum.)

Yet I think we can count the results as significant.  I don’t think they’ll surprise anyone who’s been following American opinions about higher ed.  It’s clear that academia’s status hasn’t been trending in a favorable direction for a while.

What’s behind that downward impression?  My readers already know the answers: increasing student debt and its cultural presence; declining enrollment; politically charged critiques, now largely from the partisan right; a low unemployment rate suggesting one doesn’t need a BA/BS to starting working into the middle class.  I’d like to add “bad media coverage” but am not confident in this, because I avoid some media (tv news) and have not found a good study on the point.

It’s hard to find nuance in such discourse.  Most people work from the assumption that published tuition is what people pay, for instance. The huge range of degrees, the variety of degree levels (certificate, bachelor’s, masters, PhD, microcredential), the spectrum of perceived institutional quality, the complexities of labor markets all shape so many different paths through higher education, to say nothing of the varieties of personal human academic experience, notably including preparation.

The non-economic benefits of higher education also fall away.  Personal growth, especially for traditional-age undergraduates; finding purpose in life; exposure to different ways of thinking; immersion in new social contexts: a purely economic assessment ignores these desiderata. The public desire that post-secondary students learn certain things (civics, numeracy, communication, etc.) is also nonpecuniary in outcomes.

A deeper survey would do a better job of accounting for these real details.  But the overall sourness seems to be there and deepening.  And I urge my colleagues to not dismiss this as an economically driven argument, a point I hear all too often, given the real costs and burdens higher education imposes on a substantial number of students.

I’ve previously written about how Americans from the 1960s on were fairly united in their belief that the more post-secondary experience people got, the better. That consensus seems to be fraying now, and a significant loss of faith in higher ed can have major consequences for the academy.

First, since the majority of colleges and universities depend on enrollment for their financial sustainability, declining interest in post-secondary experience means fewer students on campus.  This yields increasing economic pressure on these institutions.

Second, a series of major challenges facing humanity need academic input. The climate crisis might be the most salient of these.  Dealing with technology and disinformation is a leading topic for many people. If enrollment declines, we reduce the number of scholars producing research as well as the number of students educated to handle these crises.  Decreasing support for higher education could also sap our ability to collaborate with communities and influence public debates.

Third, higher education depends financially on public goodwill to a significant extent.  The roughly two-thirds of American institutions which are public receive some (albeit too little) funding from their respective state governments.  Public and private institutions alike can draw funds from state and federal government grants.  A public which is skeptical of how these campuses operate is not likely to support spending more on them.

Further, we depend on public goodwill in non-financial ways. A public who thinks academics do valuable work might be less likely to want to control our research and teaching. A hostile population may be more willing to, say, cut tenure for the dwindling proportion of faculty who have it.

Again, this is all about one question in one poll with a small n. But it points to directions higher ed and its national setting are headed in, and we should think hard about how to respond.

(Many thanks to the Georgetown University library staff for helping me track down this story.)

Posted in future of education | 6 Comments

Queen sacrifice at St. Cloud State University

How can colleges and universities respond to today’s many challenges?

One strategy is to cut: to delete various academic programs, support staff, and faculty. When such axing includes tenure-track faculty I call it a queen sacrifice, borrowing the chess metaphor to recognize the radical nature of the decision.  I’ve been documenting these moves, sadly, for years.

St._Cloud_State_University_sealToday’s example comes from St. Cloud State University, which announced it would cut a series of academic programs and lay off a group of academic workers.

I’ll outline what I can determine about the story, then reflect on its broader meaning.

According to the local Star Tribune, six programs facing the axe include undergraduate and graduate ones:

The majors to be phased out are philosophy, theater, nuclear medicine technology, real estate and insurance at the undergraduate level, as well as marriage and family therapy at the graduate level.

The human cost involves professors and administrators: “The university will also lay off 23 faculty and 14 staff, which will save more than $4.1 million in the coming year, as well as offer early separation incentives for employees…” I cannot determine the tenure or other status of these people.

Proportionally, the layoffs seem relatively small.  The campus Wikipedia page estimates 783 faculty, so the cuts count for around 3% of the whole.  The same source offers 773 staff, yielding about 2% cut.  That’s not counting however many take “early separation.”

The rationale behind this queen sacrifice will not surprise my readers.  St. Cloud enrollment has declined recently.  Not just declined, but plummeted:

The student headcount at St. Cloud State has dropped from more than 18,000 in 2010 to about 10,000 last fall. But not only are the numbers dropping, the students are changing: Nearly 50% of students are part-time, about 25% are under 18 and enrolled in postsecondary classes, and about 10% are 35 and older. [emphases added]

Looking at the St. Cloud website, their official enrollment statistics for the past five years present a stark picture:

St Cloud University enrollment 2017-2022

One important dimension of this story is not just the cuts, but shifting resources away from the truncated programs and people.  Note this explicit description:

the suspension of those majors will allow the university to reallocate resources into programs with higher demand and dig out of the deficit, according to St. Cloud State President Robbyn Wacker, who announced the budget cuts Wednesday.

“programs with higher demand” means the leadership found theater etc. to not enroll enough majors, while they anticipate finding more students majoring in other programs.   Which programs promise enrollment gold? “[H]olistic health and wellness, education, leadership, and engineering and applied science.”

So what does the St. Cloud story mean for higher education as a whole?

There’s always a risk in generalizing from one story out of 4,000 or so, especially given the rich diversity of American higher ed. But we can find some forces at play in this case, which also occur elsewhere.

Take the enrollment decline.  My readers know I’ve been tracking this since America passed peak higher ed in 2012.  Minnesota, where St. Cloud lives, has been really losing students.  Another local source estimates the state’s declining enrollment as 100,000 since 2010.  One source of that decline is, as my readers also know, dropping birthrates as well as internal migration: “‘There is a decline in enrollment that is being driven by the underlying demographics,’ said Susan Brower, Minnesota State Demographer.”

Beyond demographics, there seems to be a demand decline because of changes in the labor market:

While the enrollment declines have impacted The University of Minnesota System and private non-profit colleges as well, the drop-off has been greatest across Minnesota state four-year universities like Saint Cloud State.

“That suggests to me that there is something else going on too,” Brower said. “Either with the way that they’re recruiting or the way that they’re aligned with the other needs of potential students.”

This last points to what I’ve previously referred to as the shattered consensus, the end of most people thinking everyone needed more higher education.  Perhaps Minnesota in general is experiencing early signs of that transition, and St. Cloud is at their leading edge.

Parody Saint Cloud State University seal, reading "Dont Think Too Much," from the Daily Nous website

Parody seal from philosophy website Daily Nous.

On a different point I was surprised by the unusual mix of majors being cut.  Typically the arts and humanities lead queen sacrifices, so seeing theater and philosophy was unsurprising.

Yet marriage and family therapy, nuclear medicine technology, real estate and insurance? I would have thought all parts of therapy would be going well, given increasing demand for that profession.  The university’s decision to do more with “holistic health and wellness” should incorporate all of therapy.  President Wacker’s recent column in favor of university degrees cites similar fields as good examples of the higher ed experience.

Ditto nuclear medicine, especially with the state’s aging population.  Real estate, though – perhaps Minnesota properties are declining in value as the population shrink.  Perhaps all of those departments were just performing badly, or students and administrators saw them as such, in which case the situation might be particular rather than offering an instance of a broader trend.

Overall, the St. Cloud story offers us yet another queen sacrifice example.  As I’ve said earlier, we should look for more examples as other universities and colleges experience declining enrollment and other financial pressures.

(thanks to Stephen Landry)

Posted in higher education | Tagged | 4 Comments