Here’s one possible way for colleges and universities to survive the current crisis. We could deem higher education too big to fail.
Background: the linked article refers to the recent brush with institutional death experienced by the City College of San Francisco (CCSF). Its accreditor had repeatedly found CCSF to be deeply flawed on financial and administrative levels, and ultimately recommended the college be stripped of accredited status. The evaluating body still thinks CCSF should lose it, but granted the large school a two-year grace period.
Kevin Carey thinks this outcome is like the one enjoyed by the largest American financial institutions after the 2008 crisis*. The banking sector was too well connected and simply too deeply embedded in the global economy, and its destruction would have been too damaging to the world and to well-represented sectors. Applying this analogy to that college,
The political backlash was fierce. The faculty union lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Education against the accreditor… Politicians including the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes part of City College, issued public condemnations…
Because the consequences of closing these institutions are so severe, they have become, in effect, “too big to fail.”
Perhaps this is one near- and medium-term future for much of American higher education. Not every institution faces this level of accreditation challenge, of course; some face equally serious threats from other sources. No matter how many queen sacrifices campuses perform, or how many bad financial ratings schools receive, or how furious families are at the specter of debt, we won’t allow colleges and universities to shut down.
Imagine carrying this logic a few years forward, as a declining K-12 population threatens traditional-age undergraduate education, and as families continue to chafe under finances wracked by a decade of reductions and stagnation. We could still decide that closing campuses was worse than letting them persist in trouble.
Recall that America generally accepted the argument that our biggest, most rotten banks were too big to fail. The Tea Party turned away from criticizing banks, and Occupy both withered and was crushed without public outcry. The crisis banks are bigger and more successful than ever.
How could this analogy play out in higher education? The CCSF case gives some pointers. First, if a big campus closes, those students are thrown into an education market which probably can’t host them. That human cost (or consumer crisis, as many will no doubt see it) is unsupportable. Bad optics for politicians. Which leads to the second point: such a crisis would spur politicians to act, be they local, regional, and/or national, depending on the institution. The threat of a big closure could mobilize governments to cough up some additional support, when the alternative looks more dire. Third, private institutions can mobilize donors for a life-or-death moment.
Too big to fail won’t save all of higher ed. As in the financial crisis, when smaller banks and those lacking political connections could sink beneath the waves, similar campuses could shut down. Think of schools that don’t win media attention, or serve religious denominations that can’t muster effective support, or don’t have sufficient political allies, or lack enough donor wealth, or simply serve a small number of students. I leave identifying those as an exercise for the reader.
I don’t want to describe this argument to support or decry it. Instead, I think it’s worth considering as a possible future of education, one grounded in recent policy decisions and their cultural reception. Perhaps too big to fail is an argument higher education will embrace, given the powerful hold the financial sector exerts on our government, both political parties, and the collective imagination.
*Carey argues that colleges’ internal governance structures also allow bad practices to survive unchecked. I’m unpersuaded by this, but think the external preferences and policies are what’s crucial here.