Station identification: Bryan Alexander

Time for a little station identification.

My name is Bryan Alexander, and I’m a futurist specializing in education.

To that end I write books and articles, publish a monthly trends analysis report, conduct a weekly open videoconference discussion, host an online book club, and write this very blog.  People support me on Patreon.

I also consult with colleges, universities, libraries, nonprofits, associations, and governments worldwide.

Bryan Alexander dot org

(inspired by well-known monster Warren Ellis; photo by the European Space Agency)

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What happens after American higher education contracts?

What will American higher education look like after it shrinks?

Let’s follow up on this week’s peak higher education reflection.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume peak higher ed happened, and the post-secondary sector contracts.  Call it a market correction if you like, or a trough between two higher demographic waves.  Whichever description we choose, the number of students attending American colleges and universities is significantly smaller than it was in the pre-2012 era.  What changes as a result?

It’s probably reasonable to expect fewer campuses, as some close programs (for example), others shut down entirely, while others merge (for example), especially smaller ones and those in demographic danger zones (the northeast, the midwest).  Remember this is a major change after two generations of growth.

What else?

Class size and student care If the total number of faculty and staff remain the same, and the student population decreases, we could see a shrinkage of class sizes and advisor loads.  This might be good news for students, who’d get a touch more attention.

Conversely, this might not occur, at least not in the public sector.  State legislators and perhaps private donors could well conclude that peak higher ed represents a demand shortfall, and that the logical response is to reduce support.  This makes some business sense, which appeals to a great many policymakers in our neoliberal era.

Greater role for wealthy families A recent Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officers notes two things: that most institutions saw enrollment shortfalls this year, and “[m]any colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay.”  As the supermajority of colleges and universities are massively tuition dependent, enrollment declines hit them very hard.  A reasonable solution is to cultivate more wealthy, full pay students and families.  Conversely, reaching out to poorer students will be less attractive as an economic strategy.

Related to this: even more attention paid to legacy admissions, where those occur.  Such long-term family relationships will be golden.

Increased exploration of automation The old promise of automation is both labor and cost savings, which may well appeal to institutions running into limits on either.  Everything from business operations (think billing) to student support (advising, targeted help) to teaching (automated assistants and tutors) to research (Meta, IBM Watson, etc) can become fields for trialing automation.  Naturally there will be criticism and resistance, a whole emergent politics.

Meanwhile, campuses are likely to expand ed tech deployment in order to attract presumably tech-focused students.  That can take the form of hardware (for example), new learning spaces infused with digital options, new majors and career paths (game design, digital storytelling), extracurricular options, and more.

Wider gap between elite institutions and the rest Some slice of American universities can get by on the powers of enormous endowments.  Let’s call them the academic 1% for now.  Declining enrollment won’t hit them at all.  Meanwhile, the academic 99% run into problems.  The resource and reputational gap between them, already significant, will widen.  If that 1% tends to be liberal politically, the gap could become even more intense on the national state.

…unless there’s a change.  On the one hand, social pressure could induce the 1% to help other campuses through various mechanisms, such as contributing to collaborative organizations or endowing scholarships which students can take elsewhere.  On the other, governmental pressure might do something else with that money.

More austerity Business 101: if income declines, cut expenses.  We might protest that higher education has been in austerity more for a decade, more or less, off and on.  Transforming the professoriate from majority- to minority-tenure track has already occurred.  Many schools have seen service staff cut in certain areas.  However, financial pressure is a powerful motivator, and there are plenty of austerity measures on tap:

  • salary freezes
  • benefit reductions
  • buyouts for older staff and faculty
  • professional development cuts
  • outsourcing various services
  • increasing work loads
  • further adjunctification

Research universities continue to pump out more PhDs than the market can handle, openly and knowingly furthering the adjunct crisis.

In addition, we can see resources redirected from less popular and/or politically powerful units to more popular and/or politically powerful ones.  Curricular overhaul plays a key role here.

More debt Colleges and universities can try to take out more bonds and loans to finance physical needs, as budgets tighten.  This can be a short-term solution, based on hopes for such investment to pay off in increased student interest and/or bets that a cyclical economy will turn around and float all boats.

More online learning If costs go up or higher ed looks endangered, then some proportion of would-be student might well fine online learning a viable alternative.  Inequalities of various types could also drive away politically progressive students.  This is where there’s room for new institutions and organizational forms, as well.

Informal online learning seems likely to grow no matter what.  If a segment of the populations decides against higher ed for political and cultural reasons, they will probably still turn to YouTube and instructional videos, Pinterest for interior decorating ideas, Facebook and Twitter to look for help, and, of course, Google for curiosity.

Taken together, we might expect a smaller academy, more digitally engaged, more unequal, more STEM-focused and less humanities-, holding more debt and fewer tenure-track faculty, perhaps in a better relationship with students.

What do you make of this future?

Posted in future of education, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Peak higher education, 4 years later

Four years ago  yes, way back in 2013 – I first wrote about the peak higher education concept.  Let’s see how it holds up.

peakTo refresh your memory: this idea began as a blog post where I laid out the possibility that enrollment in American higher ed might trend downwards in the wake of the already damaging 2008 financial crisis, with enormous implications for the supermajority of campuses.  This represented a major change after decades of growth.  I focused on student populations (starting to decline), admissions and recruitment challenges, financial pressures on both families and institutions,  adjunctification, and the general sense of academia in crisis.

Comments followed swiftly, with more than a dozen people weighing in on.  Some wondered about the interaction between a growing jobs market and higher ed enrollment, and questioned the accuracy of data. Several saw the digital world as offering a new world of learning, which could either speed higher ed’s decline or transform it.  People compared higher ed to the 2008 housing bubble.  Rolin Moe brought in more politics and neoliberalism.  Mark Vickers fired off a ton of ideas, including the likelihood of American students taking online classes from international providers.

On other blogs, Mike Caulfield responded with a post looking on the bright side of things, arguing against a peak model and in favor of a transition state.  Andrew Gibson went darker, calling for “an Oswald Spengler of higher ed.”  Other comments flowed in via email, Facebook, and other platforms.  A publisher expressed interest.  I followed up with a second post, summarizing and responding to those reactions.

Next, Inside Higher Ed kindly offered me a column to further develop the peak higher education idea.  I identified some issues, like growing difficulty in supporting new student populations (“Like peak oil or peak water, it’s becoming more expensive and problematic to meet demand”), families spending less on higher ed (“downshifting”), and demographics.  Some strategies appeared, like the queen sacrifice and campus mergers, greater attention paid to STEM and international students.

So, looking back at the launch of peak higher education, how did it fare?  Overall, it has proven to be useful, sadly.

Total student enrollment has, in fact, continued to decline, right through the most recent data.

enrollments by sector

Financial pressures remain fierce for the majority of campuses.  Mergers, closures, and queen sacrifices have been in the air for years, as my readers know.  Competition for students has certainly heated up.

Financial pressures grip families even harder than they did in 2013-2014, as debt continues to boom.

The peak metaphor remains popular.  Peak oil didn’t pan out (yet), but peak car is widely discussed, and even peak sand now seems to be becoming a thing.  So the abstract concept is viable.

Clay Shirky offered a version of peak higher ed, arguing that American academia enjoyed a Golden Age, and we’ve since fallen away from that fine era.  “[W]e live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.”

It was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back. It’s been gone ten years more than it lasted, in fact, and in the time since it ended, we’ve done more damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues, by trying to preserve it than we would have by trying to adapt.

What did I miss in those early writings?

I didn’t pay enough attention to the quiet yet rising argument in favor of certain jobs as alternatives to undergraduate education.  From Mike Rowe on, people have called for some young folks to turn to skilled trades and apprenticeships instead of a BA.  I didn’t write about coding academies, either, which might not turn out to be a problem.

I didn’t anticipate the free tuition movement having such traction.  Starting with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 call for federally-supported public tuition, we’ve seen movements for and instances of this at the national, state, and city levels.

When I spoke of enrollment decline, I didn’t do enough to break it out by sector.  Critically, the biggest fall is in the for-profit world.

I also didn’t foresee the potential of a cultural struggle over higher ed, but that might be happening.

And I failed to write about the possibility that international student demand could slack off.  In conversation with scholars since then, but not blogged, I’ve raised the possibility that China might stop sending so many students our way, once that nation finishes rebuilding its university system (in the wake of the Cultural Revolution).  I’ve also discussed the likelihood of certain nations (mostly European) enticing American students away with offers of low tuition.  Few of us anticipated the onset of an anti-immigration federal administration, and how that would depress foreign student interest.

All in all, not too bad, I think.

So where will this idea go next?

In the IHE piece I suggested that what looks like a peak now might turn out to be a simple (if large) correction, as higher ed ratchets down to a lower size, then continues humming along.  For example, I offered the possibility that a larger youth population (in some regions) might eventually appear and make its way into the K-16+ pipeline.  Today I think that remains a possibility.  From the future we might dub this “the higher ed trough” period, a low point between two peaks.

However, that trough might last a long time, and end up as a peak after all.  Consider: state governments have massively defunded public higher education, and show no signs of returning to 20th-century levels.  That means costs will continue to be high for students.  Additionally, the American economy isn’t growing very well, which means both tax revenues and the general compensation landscape aren’t likely to expand.  Escalating economic inequality means the working class, the poor, and the shrinking middle class will find it harder to get students to college and through degrees; we might see higher ed become more the province of the wealthy, who don’t exist in numbers great enough to float 2012’s higher education ecosystem.

The demographics remain solid.  America is not spawning large numbers of children, especially in the midwest and campus-rich northeast.  We’re not exactly encouraging immigrants to bring children here, either.

There’s also the possibility of technology enforcing the peak.  The sheer amount of learning options digitally available continues to grow, holding out the possibility of learners using those choices instead of campuses.  The wild card of automation offers the idea of people learning from a mix of software and hardware, perhaps beyond institutional provisions (one aspirational example).

How does peak higher education strike you in 2017?



(thanks to Steven Kaye)

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Equifiasco: what will happen next, and what should we do?

Let’s step back from the future of education for a moment and consider one of the biggest technology stories of the week: the spectacular Equifax hack.   To do so let’s keep thinking about the future, and where this could go.

Simply put, what’s next?  And what can we do?

To recap: Equifax was hacked, and responded in ways that seem to make things worse.  In July Equifax discovered a breach so vast that it “potentially impact[ed] approximately 143 million U.S. consumers [as well as] some Canadians and up to 44 million British residents”.  The US FTC says the attack began back in May.  The exposed data included birthdates, Social Security numbers, driver license numbers, and more.  PIN numbers might be in there as well, but Equifax isn’t saying.  All of which is horrendous, making this one of the worst hacks of the digital age.

As Bill Black puts it,

The experts in cybersecurity say on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the worst, that this is a 10, and it’s almost comically bad. It’s another demonstration of our family rule that it’s impossible to compete with unintentional self-parody, and that’s certainly what the executives of Equifax have demonstrated in this scandal.

Equifax Don't let id theft catch you

From the Equifax main page just now.

Then it got worse.  Because Equifax made things worse.

Notice the July date.  Equifax didn’t decide to tell us about the hack until September 7th.

Here’s how they announced it:

“recently”, as in more than a month ago.  So the damage was done and available for exploitation for around four months. More than a business quarter.   Plenty of time for some executives to sell shares, of course.

Once they came clean, Equifax launched a website wherein customers could check their information exposure.  Said site returned unreliable information.  The site was also insecure, which is bitterly ironic (Wikipedia: “So extensive were the security flaws with the website that Open DNS blocked it on the assumption that it was a phishing site”). also offered a coupon for free credit monitoring, which really sounds like a joke at this point.  (Bloomberg: “thieves could just sit on the information for 12 months and then start exploiting the data”)  To add injury to insult to injury, for several days the site required users to waive their rights to sue Equifax.

They set up a phone line, which didn’t work too well.

Even worse, Equifax still hasn’t fixed the breach.  As a brilliant Ars Technica column observes,

The theft, by criminals who exploited a security flaw on the Equifax website, opens the troubling prospect the data is now in the hands of hostile governments, criminal gangs, or both and will remain so indefinitely.

Equifax’s PR Twitter account gently rephrases this as “challenges”.

Equifax: New To Identity Theft?

I just might be, thanks to you guys. (Actual graphic on

There is some splendid irony in a company in charge of financial probity for hundreds of millions of people fouling its own nest so badly.  As Cory Doctorow put it,

Equifax is in the business of helping employers and financial institutions punish people for making oversights in their business and financial affairs. Being late with a single payment or missing a single bill can constitute a black mark on your Equifax records that lasts for years or decades, affecting your ability to rent or buy a home or get a job.

By contrast, Equifax expects its stakeholders — whole nations’ worth of people — to overlook its gross misconduct.

Others have observed that Equifax has suffered breaches previously, and not responded like a good actor.

So what can we do?  Over the past week we’ve learned one thing not to do, which is to trust Equifax.  As an column asks, “Now that Equifax has potentially suffered what may be the worst ever data breach as far as impact on American consumers, please clarify what Equifax was doing to make it “a leader” in protecting data.”

That leaves us… in a kind of wilderness.  We might be on our own. Forbes – not exactly a Marxist outlet – offers useful DIY advice for individuals acting in isolation. Ditto the New York Times.  The US FTC proffers related advice, plus the laughable recommendation to keep trusting Equifax.  CNN naturally advises us to be scaredBloomberg notes the vague possibility of state and federal investigation (which is probably why Equifax backed away from the lawsuit waving thing) and law-making (including maybe this one), plus the likelihood of individual or class action lawsuits to come.  None of which helps us now, as Equifax continues to leave hundreds of millions of people’s data exposed, and treats customers like friable dirt.

So what happens next? Continue reading

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Are American attitudes towards higher education segmenting?

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll examines American attitudes towards higher education, and it’s very useful, even concerning stuff.

I’ll pull out the trends I find most interesting.

To begin with, overall faith in higher ed is declining.  This is really just two data points (2013 and 2017) (or datasets) and it’s only one poll (of 1200 people).  But it comes very close to this Pew study from July in finding growing divisions about post-secondary education within the United States.

attitudes towards academia_WSJ-NBC 2017

The important bit is the color bars shifting.

One detail: young people (Millennials, Zers) have become more skeptical over the past four years, while their elders (Xers, Boomers, etc) haven’t changed much.*

Another detail: the gender shift.  Men are more skeptical, while women haven’t altered their view.  “[F]our years ago, men by a 12-point margin saw college as worth the cost. Now, they say it is not worth it, by a 10-point margin.”

Perhaps the biggest point:

The shift was almost entirely due to growing skepticism among Americans without four-year degrees—those who never enrolled in college, who took only some classes or who earned a two-year degree. Four years ago, that group used to split almost evenly on the question of whether college was worth the cost. Now, skeptics outnumber believers by a double-digit margin.

Conversely, opinion among college graduates is almost identical to that of four years ago, with 63% saying college is worth the cost versus 31% who say it isn’t.

The linked article combines these, adds party affiliation, and geographical location, and finds this disturbing segmentation:

Democrats, urban residents and Americans who consider themselves middle- and upper-class generally believe college is worth it; Republicans, rural residents and people who identify themselves as poor or working-class Americans don’t.

That’s a pretty stark divide.  Is this a blip driven by recent politics and media foci, or the sign of an emerging separation within American culture and society?

*This is weirdly misread in the article’s text, as “almost a mirror image from four years earlier.”

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The next stage for the richest universities: attract more rich families

It’s well known that the wealthiest American universities have enormous endowments.  This has actually become a policy topic of late, even a bipartisan one, especially as family income inequality continues to deepen, and as many non-elite colleges and universities struggle with financial pressures.  The question arises: what should the Harvards of this world do with their riches?

One economist proposes an answer which should attract at least some academic leaders.   Instead of diverting more funds to expand access to the poorest and otherwise marginalized,  Tyler Cowen argues that the richest schools should focus on recruiting even more students from the wealthiest families.

Why and would would this work?

One reason is reputational, based largely on continue to further these universities’ research strengths: “why not expand the profit centers of America’s top universities?”

A second is the ongoing, widely disliked, nearly universally embraced amenities arms race. Cowen identifies an “unfortunate reality… that some donors might limit their support if say Princeton offered them and their children a less tony and exclusive experience. ”

But the largest reason is, to echo Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.

[I]n an age of high income inequality it seems America’s top schools have hardly tapped out this pool… The actual constraint on how big top schools could grow is how many eligible donors they can find and cultivate, if only through admitting their children.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from all kinds of American institutions, from private colleges to public universities, public libraries to private museums.  If the rich are getting richer and the bottom 50/60/70% are not, it makes sense to follow Willie Sutton.  I’ve written about this new form of patronage – surely someone will dub it “Patronage 2.0” – previously.

To his credit, Cowen isn’t urging those richest universities to become more exclusive.  That short column includes several good reasons for the toniest campuses to not resist admitting students of the 99%.  Expanding recruitment from the richest is the way to make this growth of access occur:

It’s hard to believe that America’s top schools are not exclusive enough, so let’s have a few scale up their entering freshman classes very rapidly. And let’s have extra legacy admissions — or rather some of the wealthy parents — foot the bill.

In a sense this is just the most advanced form of what we already do with discount rates.  (That refers to the difference between a campus’ sticker price – published tuition etc. – and what students actually pay, once various forms of aid have been factored in.  I have some helpful posts on this very topic.)

There’s some fascinating discussion in Cowen’s blog post comments section.

One question I have for you all is this.  How far will America go with this?  Just what are we willing to do in redesigning higher ed around the economic power of an increasingly distant upper crust?  Are we quietly accepting the emergence and strengthening of something close to a hereditary elite, where income, education, and assortative mating coincide to reproduce a new gilded age semi-aristocracy? (cf this pro-legacy cri de coeur for one especially pungent example)

One last question: when will the rich decide to stop footing the bill for the rest of us?  When will the 1%, roughly, determine that they have met their social obligations, that there’s a limit to their n0blesse oblige when it comes to higher education funding?  How will they signal this opinion?  What actions will they take?


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Changing America: important new research on religious belief

How American society is changing is a vital topic for anyone thinking about education to consider.  I’ve written about demographics, politics, technology, and macroeconomics, but have not yet addressed an important force: religious belief.  Fortunately, a new study just appeared with fascinating insights into American religions now and to come.

First, I’ll share what I found most important and useful.  Next, I’ll speak to the educational implications.

To create the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report, “America’s Changing Religious Identity”, Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones surveyed more than 101,000 people about their beliefs and identities by phone (a little more than half by cell phone), organizing the study based on a PRRI ontology of religions.  Their headline finding is dramatic: “The American religious landscape has undergone dramatic changes in the last decade and is more diverse today than at any time since modern sociological measurements began.”

Here’s a good graphic illustrating that diversity:

religions in 2016

(Note the biggest slice of that pie isn’t religiously affiliated.)

White Christianity continues to decline White Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants all saw their numbers following a recent downward path.

In 1976… a majority (55%) of Americans were white Protestants…As recently as 1996, white Christians still made up nearly two-thirds (65%) of the public. By 2006, that number dropped to 54%, but white Christians still constituted a majority.8 But over the last decade, the proportion of white Christians in the U.S. has slipped below majority. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian—and only 30% as white and Protestant.

That’s a major, major transformation.  And it plays out geographically:

Diminishing white Christian presence_PRRI

One key aspect of this is the rising proportion of Christians who aren’t white – most notably, Latinos.

Not being religious is growing The report put together avowed atheists, people who dub themselves “secular”, and a few others to find a historically unusual situation: “No religious group is larger than those who are unaffiliated from religion. Nearly one in four (24%) Americans are now religiously unaffiliated.”  And those numbers are growing dramatically: “Since the early 1990s, this group has roughly tripled in size.”

religiously unaffiliated 1976-20167

The authors admit that unbelief (or unaffiliation?) is often linked to youth, but note that this population is actually getting older:

Although unaffiliated Americans tend to be younger than religiously affiliated Americans on average, the group collectively is older today than it was a generation ago. Today, about one-third (34%) of unaffiliated Americans are under the age of 30, while nearly three in ten (29%) are at least 50 years old. In the 1970s, half (50%) of all unaffiliated Americans were under 30 years old, and only 17% were age 50 or older. The median age of someone who was unaffiliated during that decade was also seven years younger than it is today: 29 vs. 36, respectively.

If this trend rises, the media spats over Richard Dawkins et al might just be the opening skirmishes of a broader cultural war.

No religion has anywhere near Christianity’s numbers Setting aside the nonaffiliated for the moment, “[n]on-Christian religious groups constitute less than one in ten Americans. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are each roughly one percent of the population. Jewish Americans account for two percent of the public… 1.9% of the public identifies as Mormon”  So, what, around 7-8% total?  That’s a very small population, and a very diverse one to boot. Continue reading

Posted in demographics, trends | 4 Comments