“Let the death spiral whirl”: Slate celebrates the destruction of small colleges

Slate.comSlate offers an intriguing article on the impending demise of small, private colleges, and why we should all celebrate this.  It is an instructive piece because it presents an example of aggressive education reform’s thinking.  It’s a lesson on how to support the decline of higher education, even from a putatively liberal perspective (Slate’s political slant).  As the author puts it, “Small private colleges aren’t necessarily nefarious institutions, but…”

First, author Weissmann takes care to establish that the targeted schools are not rich.  “[F]orget about elite schools Amherst or Wesleyan (they’re doing fine, anyway).”  Being modestly resourced, tuition dependent, or doing much with less is enough to toss these campuses into the “whirling death spiral” column*.  There’s a severe Darwinism here, perhaps appropriate for a Moneybox piece, but also a heaping of elitism.  The key point is a kind of financial determinism – we know successful colleges by their great wealth, and therefore the opposite must be true.  A school’s lack of affluence is not an operational challenge or even a virtue in this view, but a moral failing, punishable in the market.  I don’t need to make the case for schools remaining outside of market forces to some degree, do I?

A key part of this is accepting Moody’s assessments uncritically.  The 2008 financial crash surely taught us to not do that again, didn’t it?

A death spiral.  Photo by Paul Downey.Second, and speaking of economic determinism, “Small Private Colleges Are in Deep Trouble (as They Should Be)” takes pains to note academia’s demographic and economic challenges, which I’ve described as peak higher education.  The Great Recession appears as well.  Times are rough, and as a result… these schools should close. The energetic ferment of reforming ideas going on in and between campuses is simply not present in this article.  It does not grant to colleges the agency or the forethought to generate compensating strategies.  It’s a stark model of institutional strategy.

Third, speaking of elitism, note the offhand disdain towards non-elite learners: “[t]hese institutions often cater to iffy students”.  “iffy students“: can you hear the disdain in that phrase?  How disconnected from many schools’ desire to work with learners beyond te SAT elite.  Indeed, what some would see as a virtue – helping the underserved, expanding the college experience – becomes, in Slate’s eyes, a flaw.  The article notes that many of these schools are religiously affiliated; some of those faiths instilled an ethic of service to the poor in their campuses.  That seems to have been an error on their part.

Fourth, Moneybox does not see these institutions as being part of the liberal arts tradition.  Weissmann doesn’t do much to describe these institutions, actually, but we can infer from the rolls of, say, the Council of Independent Colleges or the Association of American Colleges and Universities that many consider themselves to be practicing liberal education.  Therefore a “whirling death spiral” will reduce the presence of liberal education in the United States (and the world, given our increasing international student population), restricting access to that excellent pedagogical experience.  In fact, Weissmann completely avoids the “liberal arts” or “liberal education” terms, which is a fine rhetorical move to lower their value in the reader’s eyes.  It’s also a nice link to the aforementioned elitism, since, implicitly, only the richest campuses can support the liberal arts, it seems.

Fifth, to celebrate the death of colleges requires minimizing the human cost.  To be fair, Weissmann does offer a single sentence of human sympathy, to the effect that the death spiral “will be wrenching for the schools and the people who work for them.”  But this doesn’t go far enough.  Perhaps Moneybox is unaware of the terrible labor market for faculty, one where the majority of instructors are part-time adjuncts?  Or that peak higher education is increasing competition for staff positions?  Students who completes classes at these institutions will see their work drop in value for decades to come.  “Wrenching” doesn’t do this justice.

Sixth, the article’s focus on private institutions ignores the latter’s real political strengths.  Not being subject to a state government’s policy demands gives these campuses a great deal of independence and flexibility.  While still bound by federal laws, private colleges can innovate more freely than their public peers.  They can also evade Republican drives to control curriculum, something we might think Slate would approve.

In sum, “Small Private Colleges Are in Deep Trouble (as They Should Be)” gives us a playbook for how to appreciate the end of campuses.  The author offers a ready mix of rationales: economic determinism, elitism of several stripes, avoiding schools’ virtues, all combined into inexorable progress.  Yes, progress, because Moneybox hopes “the demise of a few schools can make the rest of higher ed a bit healthier”.  There the ghost of Schumpeter’s creative destruction hovers, quietly, unnamed.

Let’s see if this mindset persists in 2014.  Perhaps politicians will pick up some of its rationales.  Campus leaders may use parts of the playbook to goad boards and faculty into challenging actions and policies.  Anyone can use these arguments without having to dive too deeply into what’s really going on in higher education – everyone can play!

*”let the death spiral whirl” are the article’s last words.  Seriously.

(photo by Paul Downey)

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15 Responses to “Let the death spiral whirl”: Slate celebrates the destruction of small colleges

  1. amichaelberman says:

    Echos of Clayton Christensen’s claim that “more than half” of universities will be bankrupt in 15 years and he’s “excited to see that happen”. It’s sad to see those that get “excited” by other’s pain…

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  2. M. Allan says:

    Great post as usual. Who do you believe has the best college scorecard out there, to help better judge the value of some of these institutions when looking for a college (and please dont say US News (-; )

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  3. Rolin Moe says:

    Just noticed the pedigree of Mr. Weissman; another business/econ expert opining-as-expert on education. We as educators are not talking enough about the shaping of our discipline from outside forces, but rather reacting or engaging on their ground. I think your take-down is epic; this needs to exist in a space broader than our discipline, though. Is Slate willing to post it as rebuttal?

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  4. I’d like to add: how many of those small campuses are historically black colleges and universities? I wonder how eager Slate would be to applaud their closures.

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  6. Former prof at two small liberal arts colleges here. I’m really bothered by the tone of the Slate article and I am glad that you (Bryan) have called them out on it. Especially bothersome is what you pointed out as the lurking elitism in the article.

    I’ve been involved with the Appalachian College Association for the last year or so, a 36-institution consortium of SLACs serving populations in the Appalachian mountain regions. Many of these schools are struggling financially — sometimes through the consequences of their own poor choices, to be sure, but more often because they serve poverty-stricken, isolated, underserved populations of students who otherwise would have no upward mobility whatsoever and therefore don’t have the tuition base that elite private institutions have. These are the “iffy” students that the Slate article sneers at.

    How a nominally liberal publication like Slate can rectify their liberalism with this kind of attitude toward the poor and underserved is baffling.

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