Notes on the US News & World Report higher education apocalypse

This week US News & World Report – home of the leading American college and university rankings scheme – published a column arguing that higher education is entering the end times.

I’m not being hyperbolic.  The published title echoes author Lauren Camera‘s stated thesis:

The higher education apocalypse is coming.

apocalypse library_CogDogIn the same breath Camera mentions that “many in the higher education space have been sounding the alarm over for years.”  As one of those many, and as a rare if not unique futurist in that company, I want to offer some reactions here.

First off, I agree with some of the article’s points.  It’s correct that American demographics are bad for colleges and universities aimed at 18-year-olds, especially in certain regions, like the northeast.  Camera also mentions the decline of the for-profit sector (“The sudden closure [of Mount Ida], which until then had been a storyline associated mainly with corrupt for-profit schools…”).  She also adds a key point about the Massachusetts campus crises, reminded us that  the state is, or thinks of itself as, “the higher education mecca of the world.” (Closures in Vermont or Illinois don’t have quite the same shock value.) State governments are going to have to take steps to help students.

Note that those steps might not involve saving campuses.  One of the article’s sources, Carlos E. Santiago, Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts, explains his strategy:

“Our objective is not fundamentally to stop an institutional merger, closure or consolidation,” Santiago says. “It’s really to protect students as best we can.”

Be sure to catch one other quiet comment from the commissioner.  He reports that “There are some people saying, ‘Let [endangered schools] fall off a cliff.'”  That’s a chilling sentiment, and one not often expressed publicly, but one that plays a role in higher ed’s unfolding future.  I’ve tracked other instances of it as I’ve found them, like Jordan Weissman’s cold-blooded wish to “let the death spiral whirl… [i]f the demise of a few schools can make the rest of higher ed a bit healthier…”

Camera also mentions two survival strategies in play: “Other schools have tried selling property or deferring maintenance costs…”  These aren’t sexy and rarely get discussed, but are certainly being used or considered across the US.

Second, I like the use of the word “apocalypse” here, for its etymology and history. Nowadays we usually understand the term to mean “giant catastrophe,” but an older sense of ἀποκάλυψις has to do with revelation (hence the name of the Christian Bible’s last book).  It’s the tearing away of illusion to reveal the underlying reality.

So with higher ed if we speak of apocalypse or doom or other similarly grim terms, it can help our understanding.  The term nudges us to think of higher ed as a whole, not just one sector or region, as is our typical practice.  It also goads us to pay attention to the economics, including business models, which many in and around academic often have a hard time doing.  Apocalypse is a clarifying term, a surprisingly useful heuristic.  There’s also the recent pop culture resonance, given our love of doomful stories, for what it’s worth.

Third, though, I have several objections to the piece.  My biggest is that it is, perhaps perversely, too optimistic.  It doesn’t hit enough of the challenging trends.  For example, the demographic crisis isn’t just because of the 2008 birth dearth, but also due to the impact of modernity and development, which will persist as the financial crash’s echoes fade.  Many American universities have also relied on international enrollment, but that’s ticked down over the past two years, thanks to Trump and school shootings, a downturn likely to persist for at least the short term.  The article doesn’t mention the many financial issues afflicting American higher ed, including cuts to state funding of public higher ed, fears of rising tuition, and universities struggling to control costs.  We don’t see the major enrollment shift towards STEM and business, away from the humanities, which is causing departments and campuses to scramble and cut.

On a related note, the “apocalypse” doesn’t just mean institutional deaths, but also woundings.  The cuts to faculty and staff that I’ve been documenting, most visibly under the queen sacrifice header, are driven by many of the same forces that combine to kill colleges, and also count in terms of human suffering and institutional decline.

On the flip side, apocalypse is too strong a word, despite my admiration for its etymology.  It implies a massive die off.  Instead what I’ve been seeing is something closer to a market correction, when the least sustainable entities shut down, mostly along the margins.  I’ve referred to this as peak higher education, which describes a gradual decline, but not a total collapse.

Why am I so relatively cheerful?  Because demand for higher education remains broad and deep.  Americans still have a consensus around the idea that everyone’s life would be better with some post-secondary schooling.  Nations around the world follow a similar belief, trying to get more people into colleges and universities, not fewer.  These are economic considerations in part, based on the idea that higher ed accelerates individual earnings.  They also involve a sense of social good, wherein more university education translates to a richer life for everyone involved.  As a result the general idea around the world is to increase people’s access to higher education. That’s not the sign of an industry about to utterly collapse.

There *is* a higher education crisis, as I keep pointing out. It’s already exacting costs and imposing casualties.  We’ll see more of those in years to come, especially as the total set of American colleges and universities shrinks. I just don’t think it’s catastrophic for the entire sector.

Other people weighed in on the US News article over on Twitter.  Economist and author David Feldman notes that some of the story’s elements don’t cohere:

Quite true.  The Christensen reference concerns technological threats.  The article only mentions tech once, and that’s in a positive light (the Georgia State data analytics strategy).

Elsewhere, like me, David W wants to include other factors:

That actually does get into Clayton Christensen territory with “lower cost colleges.”  It also echoes my point about fear of student loans.

Overall, I thank Lauren Camera for writing a dark piece for that journal, and look forward to her next.

(apocalyptic photos by Alan Levine and Luka Henusaki)

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5 Responses to Notes on the US News & World Report higher education apocalypse

  1. Michael Flood says:

    For years we were told that pricing (tuition) in Higher Education was going up faster than inflation because of rising demand (enrollments). Now that clearly isn’t the case and, in fact, enrollments (demand) is falling. Yet we don’t see any drop in the prediction of tuition (price) continuing to outpace inflation.

    So, guess what? If the entire demand curve is shifting left (lower quantity demanded at a given price) AND tutition (price) is continuing to rise too fast (whether due to decreased state/federal support or something else)… you’ll end up seeing a more dramatic drop in enrollment.

    This will continue to place pressure on institutions to cut variable costs or convert fixed costs to variable (i.e. sell off long term assets including buildings, real estate, etc).

    I don’t think we are hearing anyone say Higher Ed is a bargain and “of course!” they’ll send their child. All we hear is that it is increasingly overpriced, maybe not worth the expense, not affordable without hefty scholarships/loans and major employers starting to provide paths to employment that don’t require a degree…

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Very sound analysis, Michael.
      What you described – cutting variable costs, turning fixed to variable – has been happening since around 2012 in some areas; earlier, in some cases, thanks to the 2008 crisis and growing anxiety around debt.
      I would add to it: switching the professoriate over to majority adjunct.

      But many costs are baked in and rising. Think of the full spectrum of administration, as well as growing health care and retirement costs. Not to mention physical plant.

      I’ve been talking about higher ed as past its peak, which is one model. What you describe might be a response to that – or, more darkly, the lead up to a bubble bursting.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Higher education is in crisis because the US is in crisis. The US educational system has always been corrupt and grossly unfair. It was built through genocide, enslavement, and oppression.

    Those who grew up between World War II and the late 1960s, mostly Baby Boomers, saw something different: improved living conditions for working families, including women, and even for people of color.

    But it’s been getting worse since the late 1960s. “Savage inequalities” (Kozol) lead to “degrees of inequality (Mettler).” At the same time, “the rich get richer and the poor get prison (Reiman).”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education_in_the_United_States

  3. Keil Dumsch says:

    Bryan, I’m a bit surprised that you remain cheerful. That “broad and deep” demand for higher ed is largely an artificial demand pushed by government education policy these past 40-50 years. The student cohort that used to skip college is going to go back to skipping college, and entering the trades, small businesses, getting employer-provided training, bootcamp-style direct-to-work training, etc. The party’s really over if the colleges lose their job credential monopoly. The credential monopoly, I would argue, is the single biggest factor in the obscene cost of higher ed. The tech industry is already moving in the direction of third-party credentialing. The article also doesn’t mention the nightmare scenario for colleges of a general economic meltdown or the trillion-dollar college debt bomb bursting. Every college, except for maybe the high-endowment private colleges, should be seriously worried for their futures at this point.

  4. Lee says:

    Excellent analysis Bryan.

    One key area of concern isn’t the “headline cost” of education, but the unpublished discounted price. This is what is pressuring margins… see NACUBO’s report.

    https://www.nacubo.org/Press-Releases/2018/Average-Freshman-Tuition-Discount-Rate-Nears-50-Percent

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