Why is so much of American higher education ailing?
Because it’s overbuilt. Let’s explore that idea by starting with a quick round-up of recent news.
We can start with campus declines and cuts. The president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund now thinks that “too many HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] may face the threat of closure within the next decade.” A Forbes article mentions major enrollment drops for universities in Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma. West Virginia is considering merging or closing at least two universities. Middlebury College is asking selected staff and faculty to retire; if not enough agree to do so, involuntary cuts are on the table (“an elective, incentive-based separation plan for staff as well as a set of elective, incentive-based retirement and separation plans for faculty”).
At the state government and politics level, enough closures and threats to institutions have driven “several arms of [Massachusetts]’s government… [to] explor[e] regulatory changes to try to minimize future damage from colleges that run out of money.”
Turning to graduate programs, some law schools continue to suffer, even as a trickle of new student numbers drops into the epochal enrollment collapse. The University of Minnesota’s law school ran a big enough deficit that it had to get a cash infusion from its parent campus. Vermont Law School has stripped tenure from the majority of its tenured professors.
How about queen sacrifices, when campuses lay off staff and tenure-track faculty? Western Illinois University’s queen sacrifice is proceeding, with faculty and staff being axed, the former apparently from these departments:
- English – 7 Unit B
- Liberal Arts and Studies – 3 Unit A
- Mathematics and Philosophy – 2 Unit B and 1 Unit A
- Political Science – 2 Unit A
- Biology – 2 Unit B
- Curriculum and Instruction – 2 Unit B
- Geography – 1 Unit A
- Psychology – 1 Unit B
That’s a pretty standard queen sacrifice departmental pattern there, with the surprising exception of biology.
Turning to financing education, student debt continues to rise, with a twist. (Remember when total student debt was less than one trillion dollars? Good times.) The New York Times finds that debt held by students seems to have plateaued, while parental debt keeps rising.
Good news for those students, right? No: it looks like they’ve simply maxed out what they can borrow from the feds, so some of them have had their parents increase their share of the burden.
And a tv show has launched, the prize being paying off the winner’s student debt.
So what do we take away from these stories?
First: many, but not all, of the suffering institutions are being hit with enrollment decline. That stems from several forces, depending on the situation. Demographics is a huge one – note how many reeling campuses are located in areas with aging and/or no-growth populations. Another force is a crisis of confidence in some sectors of higher ed, notably law schools, but also rising unease about student debt. One additional driver of dropping student numbers is the shock of declining international interest, thanks to Trump and the spectacle of school violence.
Second, we’re still dealing with America’s decision* to financialize higher ed. That is, we moved from having a majority of our colleges and universities generously supported by state governments to a situation where debt is the prime mechanism for paying for post-secondary experience. This happened across the nation, in red states and blue. (It also happened in other sectors of the economy, as part of the transition away from a large manufacturing labor base, but that’s for another post.)
Nothing is slowing down the debt machine, except the occasional free public tuition effort. It’s only happening in a few states so far, and the national option is, to put it mildly, unlikely.
Third, and perhaps most important, I fear American higher ed has overbuilt across the board. We have created more teaching capacity than there is now demand in many areas and sectors, and so this has become a classic business supply and demand problem. At best we’re experiencing a market correction.
At the same time a swath of higher ed is more expensive to operate. Yes, America decided* to shrink tenure, shifting the faculty profession to a majority of part timers, which not only constitutes a humanitarian disaster, but saves an institution money. But at the same time we ended tenure with the Baby Boom generation, we also grew other costly things beyond those budgetary savings. We expanded the total numbers of faculty of all kinds in order to teach the then-growing numbers of students. We added some administrative elites and their mini-empires. We seriously grew non-faculty staff, from IT to student life to regulatory compliance officers to grants offices. Residential campuses engaged in the amenities arms race. Meanwhile, health care costs have soared – this is something every campus leader complains to me about, because it’s a serious budget item and one that feel they can’t do much about.
That’s what I mean by “overbuilt.” Some people say they “have too much house.” We now have too much university.
How does a nonprofit respond to this problem? One can either seek to increase interest (in economic terms, demand) or cut costs. Increasing demand is something higher ed has been literally banking on since the 1980s, using a variety of methods, including emerging popular wisdom (the BA/BS is the new high school diploma, etc.). You can see some of this still happening with multiple governors urging more of their states’ residents to get post-secondary credentials.
The other response is to cut, and I’ve been documenting this for years, as my readers know.
There’s one more emerging dimension to this, and that is a widening partisan divide. Increasingly Republicans express dissatisfaction with, or hostility towards, academia. There are all kinds of well known reasons for this which I don’t have time to dive into right now (anti-elitism; persistence of creationism; some regionalism; fears of student and faculty politics; some populism; some culture wars attitudes towards gender and race). My point here is that we might see Republicans taking a larger public role in demanding higher education cuts in a variety of ways: state funding to public universities, federal tuition support, cuts to some federal research programs, etc. Hypothetically some Democrats might return to old, old habits of arguing in favor of higher ed.
What does this mean for the future of higher education?
First, we could expect more efforts to boost student demand. That means more lobbying from universities, colleges, and associations… which means more “administrative bloat,” as lobbyists and marketers need to be paid. We could see more support for open education resources, open teaching, and open access in scholarly publication as ways of getting the pro-academia word out there, especially worldwide. Some might use social media to reach more eyeballs. Perhaps we’ll see more culture war battles break out in popular culture.
Second, unless student demand returns and rebuilds, we should expect more cuts across higher ed. Not everywhere – most of the elite remains protected by established reputation and wealth, and some states (Texas, Arizona) are enjoying old school demographics – but broadly.
For several years we have been sliding down the wrong side of peak higher education. When do we reach bottom? How do we best cushion the landing?
*I speak of decision, and sometimes people protest this language. “I didn’t want to reduce state support for higher ed!” “I never voted to financialize the American economy!” Unfortunately these protests miss the point. The changes I described happened with a consensus, either openly discussed or quietly assumed. Protests either didn’t occur or failed to win traction. And we carried on these courses for years. The decisions weren’t imposed upon America from outside. They weren’t natural disasters or the actions of aliens. They weren’t secret. We did them to ourselves, with our eyes wide open.
(thanks to Greg Britton, Aaron Dobbs, and the hard-working Recession Realities blog)