Losing faith in the value of college: an important Wall Street Journal article

(Greetings from a hectic month.  I’m writing this right after starting to teach a big class, participating in several professional events, and now traveling to Qatar.  Greetings from the Istanbul Airport.)

How are Americans turning away from higher education?

I’ve been writing about this for a decade, exploring enrollment declines, changing political attitudes, macroeconomic developments, and more. Recently I’ve offered the term “shattered consensus” to describe the end of popular belief on college for everyone.  Last week Doug Belkin (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) wrote a good Wall Street Journal article summing up explanations for that broken consensus.  I’d like to summarize it here and offer some reflections

Belkin starts off summarizing the consensus model neatly:

For three generations, the national aspiration to “college for all” shaped America’s economy and culture, as most high-school graduates took it for granted that they would earn a degree. That consensus is now collapsing in the face of massive student debt, underemployed degree-holders and political intolerance on campus.

What caused that collapse?

Belkin criticizes institutional governance as slow and conservative, not letting academics respond more quickly and effectively to a changing world.  He blames pre-college prep as insufficient and duns college teaching for not being up to the task.  Colleges and universities have hired larger proportions of undersupported adjuncts to do the teaching work; those temporary employees are also strongly incentivized to reduce instructional demands and inflate grades in order to win better evaluations.  On top of this, cheating seems to be widespread and growing.

The price paid to attend college has famously increased, due to familiar reasons: “state budget cuts, administrative bloat and runaway spending on campus amenities.”  Meanwhile, returns to degrees are not guaranteed:

Of 100 random freshmen enrolling in college today, 40 will not graduate. Of the remaining 60 that earn a degree in six years, 20 will end up chronically underemployed. In other words, for every five students who enroll in a four-year college, only two will graduate and find a job based on their degree.

And then there’s student loan debt.
University of student loans

Belkin adds that polling shows declining faith in higher ed, and argues that there’s deep interest in alternatives, such as apprenticeships.

This all maps onto what I’ve been seeing pretty well.  Adjunctification, rising prices (and costs), declining polling, hunts for alternatives, etc. all fit the picture.

I do want to offer a gentle commentary on a few points.

First, while colleges and universities can be very slow to change, it’s not true of all.  Small institutions, like small ships, have a tighter turning radius and have the potential to implement new ideas faster than their giant colleagues.  Private institutions also have the benefit of independence from a layer of state policy and observation.  Further, community colleges are laser-focused on their local community needs (hence the name!) and frequently adjust their offerings to better suit demand.

Belkin argues about enrollment that “As students abandoned the humanities and flooded fields like computer science, big data and engineering, schools failed to respond.” Actually, enrollment in STEM, allied health, and business has soared for more than a decade. Many colleges and universities have managed to offer classes and degrees to power those rising enrollment numbers.   I’ve actually heard from more than a few deans that they fear overdoing it and pushing supply past demand.  (Naturally, much depends on the specific situation of a given campus and the people it serves.)

Second, I would caution readers that Belkin tends to focus on one part of higher ed for most of the article.  Higher ranked four-year colleges and graduate program-offering universities are the main target.  For example, when he writes “Professors compete for tenure on the basis of the quality of their research and publishing track record. Teaching is mostly an afterthought” that leaves off liberal arts colleges and community colleges, among others.  The criticism of amenities arms races boosting costs also sets aside institutions with low numbers of residential students.

Al Akhawayn University

Al Akhawayn University

Third, I remain skeptical of many commentaries based on “administrative bloat.” The term is a tricky one, usually accounting for all staff at an institution who aren’t faculty or students who aren’t working on campus.  That means presidents to custodians, IT staff and librarians, deanlets and grants officers. Their numbers have grown for plenty of solid reasons: increased regulatory burdens, the expansion of IT, greater demand for student services (think of mental health, student life), and more.  Decreasing state support for public institutions has led some of those schools to hire more people for fundraising, from development offices to people charged with nurturing business partnerships.  Sure, there is excess staffing in some fields and outright featherbedding, like in many aspects of American life – but also plenty of overworked, underpaid, marginalized, or just plain ignored staff who badly need better support.

Fourth, and this might have more to do with the Wall Street Journal’s politics*, Belkin touches on American politics too quickly.  It’s important to tease out some details, like the large upsurge of academic skepticism and outright fury from Republicans.  It’s also worth digging into surveys to see different levels of support vs skepticism broken down by age, gender, academic attainment, race, and geography. In other words, politics play a big role in breaking up the college for all consensus, and it’s worth at least a whole article just making sense of it.

Summing up: this is an important article, for all the extra themes I wanted it to sound.  The shattered consensus seems to be breaking into reality.  How will academics respond?

*I’m referring to the WSJ’s investigative journalism wing, not its opinion pages.  The former does solid work, like cracking the Theranos story. In contast, the latter can be,… extreme.

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2 Responses to Losing faith in the value of college: an important Wall Street Journal article

  1. “For three generations, the national aspiration to ‘college for all’ shaped America’s economy and culture, as most high-school graduates took it for granted that they would earn a degree.”

    I hate to be difficult, but given that fewer than half of working adults in the US have a Bachelor’s degree, this “consensus” sounds like it excludes everyone lower down the socioeconomic ladder than middle class suburbia.

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