COVID-19 guts the middle: Matt Reed on higher ed, the economy, and the pandemic

How will the pandemic reshape higher education?

Matt “Dean Dad” Reed offers an intriguing model in a new column.  He posits that American colleges and universities are vulnerable to COVID-19 in a way that echoes the shape of the modern economy: strong at the ends, but weaker in the center, like the shape of a dumbbell.

Let me break down the argument and pull out some highlights.


To begin with, Reed is one of my favorite higher ed writers.  His focus on community colleges is sorely needed and much appreciated.  He also writes from an administrative perspective in a thoughtful and funny way, reflecting his experience at multiple institutions.  You can see that in his 2017 appearance on the Future Trends Forum:


Reed begins this new column with a bit of economic history, explaining some ways by which the American economy changed over the past 70 years.  He accurately notes the transformation of management, the great oil shocks, the decline of unions, and tax revolts.  The arc was one of a shift from post-WWII managerial capitalism to shareholder capitalism.

Then Reed reminds us of how much American academia changed in this period, and how it echoed the economic transformation.  To begin with, he observes that the 1960s was “the formative era for much of public higher education,” adding this astonishing statistic: “In the 1960’s, community colleges were established at an average of one per week for the entire decade.”  (How often is that raised in conversations about the history of higher ed?)


In their internal organization, colleges very much resembled General Motors, circa 1965.  They had pyramidal hierarchies, in which moving up relied on a tricky combination of fitting in and standing out.  They strongly favored white men.  They had internal job security, based on relative insulation from the market, but remarkable insecurity about promotion.  Unions thrived, at least relatively.  They broke education into credit hours that could be assembled and reassembled like so many interchangeable parts.  They produced ever-greater numbers and levels of credentials that were built to be legible to HR departments in companies organized the same way.

However, when the economy started changing circa 1980, academia lagged:

Meanwhile, higher ed just kept chugging along, playing by midcentury rules.  It became somewhat more open to people who weren’t white men, and it experimented with a few innovations, but the basic structure remained.  It just got bigger, until it didn’t.

(Here I disagree somewhat.  Yes, many aspects of US higher ed show the mid-century imprint, from the stable elites to the persistence of college sports to the idea that more people should go to college.  I love reminding audiences of this. But I would draw attention to the adjunctification of the professoriate, which clearly tracks the casualization of labor generally, including the sharp decline of unions.  I also wonder how the expansion and professionalization of “administration” – i.e., staff – fits in.)

Some of you have heard me say a version of Matt’s paragraph.  One reason higher ed is in trouble is because so much was designed in and for the 1960s, and hasn’t caught up that it’s 2020.

But now COVID-19 might end the lag.  Reed asks: “I’m wondering if the pandemic is higher ed’s version of the 70’s oil shocks.”  Readers know that I agree about the potential dangers COVID presents to higher ed.

Matt generously credits Kevin Carey (another guest!) and myself for inspiring this train of thought, finding that the middle of American academia is most vulnerable.  He summarizes our discussion thusly:

the economic effects of the pandemic will be hardest on the middle tier of colleges.  Elites, they suggest, will be fine; they have the resources to ride it out, and they trade on exclusivity.  Community colleges are about access and affordability; they’re the Honda Civics of higher ed.  There’s always a market for that.  But middle-tier colleges – four-year schools in non-metro locations with local or regional reputations and high tuition — may face widespread closures.  They were fragile before the pandemic, often offering discount rates of 50 percent or more; the pandemic simply removed what little cushion they had left.

(I would take care to say that those middle-tier schools include both private colleges and public universities.)

Reed takes this further, looking ahead:

In a sense, higher ed is adjusting to fit the economy again.  An economy with a big middle produced a higher ed system with a big middle.  A barbell-shaped economy is producing an education system in its image.  The pandemic, like the oil shocks, is an accelerant, speeding up trends that were already happening.

To the extent that this diagnosis is correct, continuing to talk about higher ed as if it exists outside of the economy, or of politics, is self-defeating.  We academics, whether we think of it this way or not, have been in the business of producing a middle class for a country that no longer wants one.  That’s not sustainable.

“We academics, whether we think of it this way or not, have been in the business of producing a middle class for a country that no longer wants one” – what a powerful, challenging, even damning statement!

At a conceptual level there’s an interesting topic to explore here, how higher education and the society it’s embedded within follow homologies.  When does a campus look like its region?  How should a university echo its nation?  There are arguments and models on all sides.  For example, the idea that campus populations (students, faculty, administrators) should echo national demographics in certain ways (race, gender) is predicated on homology.  Housing socially unusual or marginal domains of thought on campus, from high energy physics to Byzantine art, is based on the opposite.

Reed sees colleges and universities following macroeconomic structures in their surrounding world.  At a microeconomic level this is actually quite typical, if we think of community colleges shaping curricula to prepare graduates for the economic needs of the local community (hence the name), or universities with a regional/national/international carefully tracking labor force demand for graduates with degrees in law, petroleum engineering, or Russian language.  But the macroeconomic argument sees campuses as akin to cities, communities organized in a certain locality yet intertwined with the broader ways people work and spend.  According the hollowing out of the American middle classes should eventually have echoes in academia.  (Ditto my earlier example of casualized labor)

It’s a fascinating line of thought to pursue.

Back to Matt’s main point: what does this dumbbell shape mean for the future of higher education?  Should governments, nonprofits, philanthropies, and foundations direct resources to supporting the middle of America’s academic ecosystem, rather than its elite or base?  Is this where companies should consider partnerships and gifts?

Meta note: this conversation might be an interesting, small example of how we can use the web in 2020.

First, I wanted to thank Matt for crediting one of my blog posts, and linking to it in fine web style.  (This is still not a universal behavior, alas.)

Second, Inside Higher Ed posted Matt’s column sometime yesterday morning.  I would have encountered it in my daily research trawl, which includes mandatory reading of both IHE and the Chronicle.  I also might have found it from the direct link to one of my posts.  But what actually caught my eye first was Matt tweeting at me.

Third, I could have responded with one or more comments on the Inside Higher Ed page, but that site turned off comments last month (which I think was a mistake and a sadness), so I am replying here instead.  I don’t know how it will connect with the IHE staff and readership.

Fourth, this conversation crosses an interesting range of web-based tech.  Matt Reed published to the open web, although without a Creative Commons license and no comments allowed.  He links to Kevin Carey’s article, which is behind a Times paywall, so not accessible to many readers. It also lacks a commenting feature. Next, discussion ripples across Twitter, which is openly viewable, but part of a giant and problematic enterprise.  Then I weigh in here from the open web.   The discussion does flow across these different levels.

Overall, consider this exchange a short story of how the web evolves in 2020.

(dumbbell photo by Terence Faircloth)

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23 Responses to COVID-19 guts the middle: Matt Reed on higher ed, the economy, and the pandemic

  1. The problem with the barbell is that it still maintains the idea of higher ed as one thing in a hierarchy with Harvard at the top and everything else below, seeming with community colleges at the bottom. This idea is one of the great myths of higher education. I know the rankings and Carnegie status foster this model of higher ed in layers of status, but it is a limiting concept.

    I am also not sure where in this model you put WGU, SNHU and UMGC. These are large, primarily online universities that are doing fine in the current crisis. Are they at the bottom or at the top or another object altogether?

    I would argue that this misconception of higher ed is part of the problem for the middle tier schools. If a regional public university, originally a Normal school, is not quite a flagship research university but also not a community college with its focus on access, what is the role of the school? Liberal arts colleges are fine, but there are too many of them given changing demographics.

    By having an identify based on a mythological ideal form of a university, these schools have not innovated in ways to be differentiated. They have also not been aligned with the needs of their communities and stakeholders, which creates the vulnerability they had before pandemic.

    I was looking at the most recent IPEDS data on online enrollments. It is amazing how in 2018 so few colleges and universities have any 100% online programs. Only half of the 6,000 schools listed in IPEDS had students who were even partially online. Online is not a solution for everything, but by 2018, it would seem like everyone would at least be trying it out and developing capacity. That lack of developing capacity to be able to flex is not doing them any favors now.

  2. Glen S McGhee says:

    Robert Kelchem has been very busy lately making futuristic predictions on “twitter” that bear little resemblance to Matt Reed’s 1970’s-style economic decline. and then, expand the thread to almost thirty-points.

  3. Glen S McGhee says:

    There is, alas, a certain inconsistency when Bryan complains that “linking to it in fine web style” “is still not a universal behavior”, but then does not provide the ability to do that in comments and replies. Is this a WordPress thing?

  4. Chris Mackie says:

    I take Christopher Davis’s point that the “barbell” concept is distortive for describing higher education. I’m not sure that’s a strong rebuttal to Reed’s argument, however. US industries in the 1960s were not a single continuum, either–which did not protect them from the forces Reed and Bryan describe.

    I think Reed’s argument is plausible, especially near-term. One factor that I think makes the “barbell” prediction more probable right now is that higher education has formal and informal regulatory mechanisms that are far more comprehensive and intrusive than anything experienced by corporate governance, even in the 1950s-60s. Those mechanisms make growth and closure relatively easy, but fundamental changes of practice very, very difficult. That makes “hollowing out” much easier to accomplish than other, more constructive but also more fundamental responses.

    “Hollowing out” carnage among higher ed institutions should pressurize changes to that regulatory system, but won’t, in itself, accomplish such changes–and it’s the system, more than the institutions, that determines what’s possible. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the current DC administration is working hard to gut some of those regulatory mechanisms. If they’re still in power in 2021, I think they can be relied-upon to continue. It’s unclear whether a Biden admin will build from their work, accept what’s been done without expanding it, or even reverse some or all of it. (I’m assessing, not endorsing. The politics around this are much more complicated for a Democratic than a GOP administration.)

    Until we know what the 2020-24 Federal government will do to enable or deter systemic change, Matt may well be right about the near term, but the middle-term future will remain unclear.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      What are the informal regulatory mech’s you refer to?
      Can we assume the formal regs are these new ones?
      I’m not clear on how you see these playing out.

      Worst case scenario is, DeVos and Jones refuse to give financial ratio waivers, and US DOE / accred-heads drop accreditation for the entire sector — except that ultra-elites, and Title IV funding is turned off. Remember, there has to be a last minute reprieve or the entire sector goes down, even if PPP2 helps.

      • Christopher Davis says:


        I have missed reading your comments at Inside Higher Ed. Seeing your comments here made me realize what I was missing with their decision to turn off commenting on articles.

        Unless you think Trump is going to win in November, this will not be a DeVos/Jones problem. Fiscal year 20-21 just started for most institutions. However the year turns out, audited financials won’be ready until over a year from now. Financial data on this year won’t go to accreditors or the federal government for a long time, and then by the time the feds crunch the numbers, it will be even longer.

        Even for fiscal 19-20 that just ended at most (but not all schools), audited financials won’t be ready for a few months. Even unaudited will take a while this year. We won’t even begin to know how badly the spring of 2020 impacted institutions until closer to the election. Even then, the official reporting won’t be until later. By the time the Department of Ed reviews institutional finances, it will be a new administration’s problem, unless Trump wins.

        This has always been the flaw in the monitoring system. It is a delayed reaction. A school that gets into trouble has plenty of time to get out or more likely get in deeper before anyone realizes what is going on. It will a lack of cash flow that triggers action.

        Full disclosure, I know Diane Auer Jones, and I have a great deal of respect for her. I am interested in how the new regulations will play out, but there has been a tension for a long time reflected in the Spellings Report that policy makers want innovation but they also don’t want the risk that goes with innovation.

        • Glen McGhee says:

          Thank you for the unexpected compliment!
          I have to agree with your observations about the timing of audited financial statements, both from the POV of US DOE and the accreditors.
          So, maybe all the schools have to do is hold their breath?
          I just saw a reference to a NEW $1 trillion bailout for education, probably K-16 if I had to guess (in this week’s Barrons). But that would make the total investment almost $3 trillion, including student debt. When does it end?
          Yes, too, regarding the Spellings-to-now push for innovation. But as we saw in the financial crash, not all innovation is a good thing — Covid has caused the massive diffusion of innovation. None of it was planned.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Glen, Chris: I’m delighted you both can connect here.

            Now that’s a prompt for me to post more regularly in this space!

          • Christopher Davis says:

            Yes. I cannot tell her side of the story about these issues because it is not my story to tell, but I can say that the article is not an accurate depiction of her interests and values. She was working at the Urban Institute when she was tapped for the Department of Ed, so she did not come directly from higher ed. She has experience with both Princeton and community college. It is easy to play the stereotype of a political appointment, but in her case that is not an accurate portrayal.

          • Glen S McGhee says:

            EdDive confirms. Looks like she will be resigning soon. Good riddance. If not, she poses a lethal threat to the entire sector to the extent that she has Trumps’ ear. Proposed Republican PPP2 is not delivering for ACE and higher ed.

          • Christopher Davis says:

            Last December at the Middle States annual meeting, Jones was one of the keynote speakers. She talked about another aspect of the Dream Center collapse, the Argosy students in doctoral psychology programs. This part is personal to me as I had a friend in her last year at Argosy Phoenix.

            Jones mentioned flying to an APA meeting to discuss options, and the position of the accreditors was that they were unable to change rules on residency that would allow students to transfer without re-taking credits. Jones worked with APA to give them the assurances they needed to do what was right for the students.

            My friend had already completed her dissertation. She had a one year clinical experience left. She had already applied for the internship. APA had to allow the receiving school to take over a site established by Argosy, in addition to allowing transfer. This also required, though I don’t recall Jones mentioning it, HLC to remove their rules on residency requirements. Argosy was accredited by WASC, so it was not even in the same region.

            The Dream Center was a disaster. I don’t know what the Department and the accreditors were doing approving the sale. If we rewind a few years, the Obama administration personally negotiated the transfer of the Corinthian schools to another non-profit. Most of those schools have closed, and the new owner invested significant resources to allow a more orderly closure.

            The Dream Center misspent Title IV money by not giving it to students. That had nothing to do with the two HLC schools that lost accreditation. That was mismanagement and fraudulent.

            So who benefits from HLC reversing its decision to keep those two campuses accredited? Not the Dream Center which was going to collapse regardless. The Dream Center so mismanaged money that the Department is unlikely to get anything back of the money sent to those two schools. Not the former owners of the schools that were sold to the Dream Center.

            The beneficiaries are first the students and secondarily the U.S. taxpayer. The students took classes and earned credits. If the schools were not accredited, then those credits are worthless. That time is lost. Any students who earned degrees during that time have worthless degrees. I believe, just as was the case with Argosy, that the Jones was working to protect the individual students from further harm. I seem to recall that Glen has been critical of the accreditation system in the past. These students were caught in the bureaucracy of the rules of HLC and the rules of the Department of Education. HLC, rightfully, is concerned about not following Department of Ed rules. It becomes a deadly embrace between the two regulators to find a solution.

            The U.S. tax payer s benefit because if the schools remain unaccredited for that period, then all student loans for those students can be wiped out. Since the Dream Center has no money, that will not be clawed back.

            I was an HLC peer reviewer for 15 years. I know the staff there. I have also done a change of control visit for them. Not anything related to the Dream Center, but I am familiar with the process. I have also gone through a change of control and a university closing as the school accreditation liaison officer. I unfortunately have personal experience navigating these issues.

            I also wonder to what degree HLC and the Department are not happy with each other over Grand Canyon. HLC approved the change of control, and the Department did not recognize the conversion to non-profit status.

          • Glen S McGhee says:

            Thank you, your experience with these aspects is valuable. NACIQI is meeting today, so this will come up. I’m reading your comments now. Here’s Halperin’s comments to NACIQI on this mess.

          • Glen McGhee says:

            I think you put your finger on it when you said, “… Jones was working to protect the individual students from further harm.” Problem is, this is not Jones’ job — it is out-of-scope for her, just as it is for everyone else involved. Sad.

            Bureaucracies, no matter whose interests they serve, are structures of power that end up serving themselves. Ironic, isn’t it? That students are nothing more than sheep to be sheared. Another reason for calling a degrees, a sheepskin.

            Yes, I’m a critic of accreditation — I taught CC for 9 years, and my school ignored faculty and adviser and dual enrollment standards, and got away with it. The same exact recommendations came up every reaffirmation. Why even bother?

            Bureaucracies are even worse, sometimes, as you describe here.
            My sense is the 1992 HEA amendments did not contemplate ownership changes. Another reason, don’t you think, for every school to have a teach-out plan that works — especially now?
            Thanks for taking the time to fill in important context.

      • Chris Mackie says:

        I should probably have said “statutory” v “non-statutory.” Mostly, I was referring to accreditation and other not-quite-statutory AA mechanisms.

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