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)