Responding to Scott Galloway’s pandemic reflections

People have been asking me to respond to NYU professor Scott Galloway‘s interview on how COVID-19 will change higher education. I appreciate the request, and now finally have a few minutes to share some reactions.

There is also a recent Galloway video on related points, apparently, but it is locked behind a paywall I cannot access.  Similarly there are some Business Insider pieces, also paywalled, and so I can’t speak to them here.

GallowayIn the interview with James Walsh  – that we all can read – Galloway makes some key arguments:

  1. The value of higher ed will decline as people perceive wholly online education to be of lower quality than in-person.
  2. Enrollment will drop, hitting non-elite institutions the hardest.
  3. Many campuses will not close in 2020-2021, but will cling to life.
  4. Elite universities will partner with the world’s biggest companies.
  5. ” ” ” expand massively online.
  6. Governmental support will not return to 20th century (higher than now) levels.
  7. Liberal arts colleges will be attended mostly by children of rich families.
  8. A national service initiative (Galloway offers “Corona Corps” as a name) would be a good thing.
  9. Online learning will improve, especially in terms of technological platforms.

It’s a very snappy and entertaining interview.  As befits a marketing professor, Galloway offers some quotable lines:

There will be a lot of zombie universities.

[U]niversities [ha]ve all adopted this narrative of “This is unprecedented, and we’re in this together,” which is Latin for “We’re not lowering our prices, bitches.”

We get a lot of ego gratification every time our deans stand up in front of the faculty and say, “This year, we didn’t reject 85 percent of applicants; we rejected 87 percent!,” and there’s a huge round of applause. That is tantamount to the head of a homeless shelter bragging about turning away nine of ten people who showed up last night.

The interview is also a good example of what I mentioned earlier in the pandemic, of faculty criticizing online learning in a way that discourages enrollment. For example,

I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked me, “Should my kid consider taking a gap year?”

What do you tell them?
I tell them it’s a great year to take a gap year.

So what do I make of all of this?

I think some the ideas are sound: campus enrollment being hammered, students taking gap years, some zombified colleges and universities, state support declining.  I’ve made many similar points.

A CoronaCorps could work well.  I doubt the Trump administration has the combination of vision and administrative skill to fire one up, especially in this election season, but I can imagine some state governments (think New York, Michigan, California) doing so.

Liberal arts colleges becoming the province of elite families?  There’s historical precedent for this.  Some LACs are effectively that right now.  I can imagine colleges feeling the budget squeeze and deciding to reduce Pell Grant admissions.  But I also know liberal arts leaders who believe in social justice, and might have the fundraising power to make it happen.

Partnerships with Apple et al?  It’s possible.  There are precedents, like Apple joining up with Ohio State University and with Tennessee State.  But those are for limited programs, not the kind of strategic fusion or acquisition I think Galloway has in mind.  Moreover, I’m not sure Silicon Valley will view higher ed as profit centers in 2020, not without the firms taking a big hand in redesigning universities from top to bottom – something nearly all would resist.

In the middle of the interview Galloway argues that higher ed’s main value is credentialing, not learning.  The thing is, this is a long-standing argument.  One popular nickname is “the sheepskin effect.”  Probably the most well known exponent is Bryan Caplan, who was a great Future Trends Forum guest:

As ever with discussions in higher ed, I wish people would cite sources, or at least describe their interventions in a way that admits other folks have been discussing those ideas for a while.

One problem I see with this series of arguments is that it assumes a nearly perfectly economical understanding of higher education.  As Anthony Moretti puts it,

Students are expected to enter these mega-universities simply to become tools for capitalism. Galloway says nothing about college graduates being better citizens, becoming a volunteer soccer coach or bolstering democracy. Nope, it’s all about money, money, money.

There is no room for other motivations for students, faculty, parents of younger students, administrators, or government leaders.

This leads to a second problem: curriculum.  Do Facebook et al need the full university’s offerings, from computer science to French and anthropology?  Again, Moretti says it well:

Where does the writer, the sculptor, the historian, the journalist, the nurse and other students not in the business or STEM fields fit in this environment? Perhaps more importantly, how do some of those fields — which require intense face-to-face instruction — thrive? Or will those degrees be atrophied until they die in this education/technology arrangement?

I can imagine a putatively pro-liberal education company like Apple supporting the full course catalog and research agenda, either because they see all of that as constituting the luxury experience, or because they agree with the liberal arts case for preparing students.   But I can also imagine them ruthlessly cutting class offerings and the research agenda back to a narrow pipeline that serves them directly.  It’s not clear which model Galloway has in mind.

The biggest criticism I have of the interview is that it’s not really about American higher education, but just a handful of elite universities.  Listen to which ones get named: MIT (repeatedly), Berkeley, Oxford*, University of California (I think Galloway means the system, not a single campus), University of Texas (ditto), Stanford, Amherst, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, UCLA.  Galloway himself teaches at NYU.  Pepperdine and Boston College appear, but only to be knocked down the reputational scale.

In other words, the interview doesn’t address the overwhelming majority of American higher education.  Community colleges literally do not appear in the conversation, yet they number about one-third of United States campuses and teach around one half of our students.  State universities also count for about one third of the lot, and they aren’t all Berkeleys.  For-profits, of which there are almost 1,000, receive no mention.

Galloway and Walsh emphasize the value of a residential experience, which I certainly appreciate, having enjoyed it myself as a student (University of Michigan) and professor (Centenary College of Louisiana).  But that’s only a slice of American higher ed, something like 20% of students actually living on site.   In an MSNBC interview Galloway focused on 18-21-year-olds, who do constitute a majority of enrolled students, but there are a lot of adult learners as well.

At one point Galloway observes that “the coronavirus is forcing people to take a hard look at that $51,000 tuition they’re spending.”  A good and telegenic point… except the supermajority of colleges and universities don’t charge that much.  (I think that’s NYU’s tuition, according to a quick Googling)

Is this because the recorded conversation fits that lamentable American habit of assuming Harvard stands in for the whole sector?  Or does that focus follow from a truly apocalyptic vision?  The subtitle of the piece – “a handful of elite cyborg universities will soon monopolize higher education” – suggests MOOC-hype-like devastation, that the MIT crowd will stand alone after state universities, for-profits, and community colleges perish.  I know, I know all too well that authors don’t usually get to pick published titles for their articles, and interview subjects even less so, but this bit of subtitle actually connects with exchanges in the discussion.  In a CNN clip Galloway paints a portrait of higher education as institutionally conservative and massively overpriced, therefore due for a reckoning.

So does professor Galloway expect the number of American campuses to drop from 4400 or so down to around one hundred?  If not, how will the non-Stanfords fare?  Will they also partner up with Microsoft and IBM?  Will their non-Latinate tuitions drop?  How will the experience differ across institutional types and geography?  How does academic research change?

An MSNBC interview sheds some light on these questions.  There Galloway forecasts threats to 1,000 lowest-ranked schools (a “death march”) and sees 500 to 1000 of them closing within the next five years.

I am also curious about how elite universities will grow their online enrollment.  In the conversation the marketing professor offers this vision:

technology will expand their enrollments and they will come back stronger. In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000.

How would that work?  Recent history offers countervailing evidence, as the MOOC revolution largely failed to successfully scale.  Meanwhile, the campuses that do enroll tens of thousands online are not the elites.  Instead they are Arizona State, Liberty, and Southern New Hampshire; Lee Gardner described them last year as mega-universities.  Will the pandemic vault, say, edX or Stanford over these currently successful online enterprises?  What programmatic, technological, and pedagogical transformations are required to yield that result?  How can they succeed where MOOCs fell short, and so what the elites so far have not done?

I’d be delighted to discuss these questions and more with professor Galloway, either on Twitter, this blog, or the Future Trends Forum.  And I am eager to hear everyone else’s thoughts as well, as always.

*Naming Oxford one time is the only sign I can find that the interviewer and interviewee are thinking outside of the US.  Otherwise this seems to be really about American higher ed.

(thanks to Brian Pech, Steve Hargadon, Bill Meador, Luba Vangelova, Steve Kaye, Steve Worona, and Robert Gibson for nudges; thanks also to Rob on Twitter for a key pointer)

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26 Responses to Responding to Scott Galloway’s pandemic reflections

  1. Gretchen McKay says:

    Come on. If the drum beats that I hear are true, that students will delay admission if their first year is “online,” how can there be a forecast of 10,000 students enrolled via online learning? I don’t buy it. And I am not a head-stuck-in-the-sand person. I have learned online *well* and mentor others about it. I’ve figured out hybrid modalities for three of my courses that are taught every year. I don’t buy his schtick.

  2. Ramesh Kumar Nanjundaiya says:

    I just wish to add a point on the subject of Internationalization of Higher Education in the USA.
    Most of the international students who were coming (majority were from China and India) to the USA campuses for higher studies be it bachelors or masters degree programs, etc would have availed US$ loans from banks in their respective home countries to finance their education in the USA including tuition, air travel, boarding lodging, other expenses, etc,. One of the main conditions of the loan is that the student actually demonstrates that they are undertaking class room on campus education in the USA. With online classes, this may perhaps not happen for 2020 fall admissions. By the way, per data available, during 2018-19, USA earned US$ 43 billion from international students studying in the USA. Earnings in the year 2019-20 reportedly was already much less and for 2020-21 frankly nobody knows?

  3. Keil Dumsch says:

    Bryan, I hope you get a chance to interview Galloway and I’d like to be one of the people who asks him a question. My take on it is that he is mostly right. But he’s not thinking 100% clearly. He correctly identifies credentialism and the prestige brand issue as the core problem, but then in the Vice video proposes solutions (like better funding for public colleges) that largely don’t address the issue. The only solution to ending this cartel and conflict of interest is to have third-party credentialing, and (as Glenn Reynolds has pointed out) legally forbid employers by hiring by where someone went to school. Further, he gets miffed with Heather MacDonald when she rightfully suggests that the public colleges have many of the same problems as the elite privates.

    As for online learning, I don’t know if he’s 100% right about that. I just don’t see too many schools being able to monetize it, especially if and when credentialing is removed from the equation. Colleges have their heads in the sand on this issue, and should be learning from the clear precedents shown by the difficulties of the music, publishing, and journalism industries.

    Certainly Anthony Moretti is correct that college should not just be about jobs and money. But these factors are too important for most people to ignore, especially when the cost and opportunity cost of college is so high. Kevin Carey is right that most of the general ed should wait until job skills and jobs are firmly in hand. Plus colleges (and their media flacks) are trying to have it both ways, with the pseudo-aristocratic dismissal of students’ concern a about jobs while at the same time touting in their promotional materials the lifetime monetary benefits of attending their college.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good thoughts, Keil.

      What do you envision third party credentialing to look l;ike?

      • Keil Dumsch says:

        We have some elements of alternative credentialing in existing industries. Examples include some tech companies using HireArt, the accounting profession using CPA exam, pro sports using the scouting process and combines.

        To me a fair and effective job credentialing process should include these elements:

        1. Credentialees not required to pay for the credential. The degree system fails abysmally at this. It’s astronomically expensive and a conflict of interest. To me employers should be the main ones paying for the credentialing process, since it is part of their hiring.

        2. Every candidate is judged by the same set of criteria. This doesn’t happen with the degree system, since each of 4,000 colleges issue degrees.

        3. High-quality, accurate assessment of skills that differentiate candidates for employers. Degrees don’t do this well since they are awarded for completed coursework and seat time, not necessarily skills and knowledge. Plus everyone gets the same degree so they don’t differentiate.

        4. Periodic re-assessment to make sure skills have been retained and added. Degrees are date stamped, so they don’t do this. My BA degree was from 1990.

        5. Rigorous, thorough, in-person process with a battery of interviews and various assessments that can’t be cheated on or done in a superficial way. College degrees are based on grades and tests that can be cheated on, and papers that can be ghost-written or plagiarized. Similarly, I am concerned about any alternative credentialing system that involves only a paper or online test. To me those assessments don’t go deep enough and there’s the potential for them to be cheated on.

        • Dahn Shaulis says:


          Who would resist this reform and what could be done to remove this resistance?

          • Keil Dumsch says:

            Dahn, the only people who would oppose this reform are colleges, their media flacks, politicians and anyone else who had an interest in perpetuating the college credential cartel scam. We need some sort of citizen-based movement against any resistance.

            That said, we don’t want a system where people say “to hell with college, who needs it?” and skipping college or dashing through it and doing just enough learning to get credentialed. We want everyone to get the schooling they need (emphasize on need) in a judicious, purpose-driven lifelong way (like with libraries).

            The present system, with the big blowout four-year experience at big and fancy colleges (of which there are too many), with colleges controlling credentialing and jobs down to file clerk requiring a degree, is anti-meritocratic, too expensive, and unsustainable.

        • Glen S McGhee says:

          Thank you for this detailed list of criteria. I’ve been wondering about it for a long time. Glen

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Galloway makes some important points. The truth is, higher ed in the US has almost always reflected and reinforced white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and militarism. In the US, it’s definitely a racket. Check out these articles:

    Observations of the College Meltdown in Real Time
    College Meltdown Resources (includes college choice and career planning tools)
    Charting the College Meltdown
    A preliminary list of private colleges at risk
    Are Brand Name Coding Bootcamps the New Higher Education Scam?
    College Meltdown Expands to Elite Universities
    Education is a Racket
    Higher Learning Commission: Accreditation Is No Sign Of Quality
    The Slow-motion Collapse of America’s Largest University
    Enrollment declines, campus closings, economic losses and the hollowing out of America
    Community Colleges at the Heart of the College Meltdown
    What happens when Big 10 grads think “college is bullsh*t”?
    US Departments of Education, Defense, and Veterans Affairs Shirk Responsibilities to Servicemembers, Veterans, and Their Families
    The College Meltdown Is Painfully Obvious
    When College Choice is a Fraud
    Music Videos of the College Meltdown

  5. Glen S McGhee says:

    Education and the Death of Human Capital, Hugh Lauder

    So much of this conversation is superficial because it lacks access to the underlying cultural constructs, which remain masked and hidden. How unfortunate that we have to reply on Covid-19 to bring this discussion to the present.

    “The Death of Human Capital : Its Failed Promise and How to Renew it” by Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, Sin Yi Cheung (Oxford University Press, 2020).

    “Human capital theory, or the notion that there is a direct relationship between educational investment and prosperity, has governed Western approaches to education and labor for the past fifty years. However, many degree recipients have experienced the opposite. This book demonstrates that the human capital story is one of a failed revolution that requires an alternative approach to education, jobs, and income inequalities. … A controversial challenge to the reigning ideology on economics and education, this text provides important insights into the current plight of the overqualified, underemployed labor market.”

  6. Dahn Shaulis says:


    You ought to write something about the mega-universities and the higher education assembly line.

  7. Glen S McGhee says:

    It’s all about how big you can make your marketing budget. Nothing else seems to matter. The bigger you are, the more you can suck up federal funds like a vacuum cleaner.

  8. Glen S McGhee says:

    So, who is this Scott Galloway? “Interesting guy”.

    • Keil Dumsch says:

      Dahn’s and my contact Blair Kettle just posted that on LinkedIn and I directed my comment there to you, Dahn, and Bryan. Galloway is still not getting at the problems with credentialing and the ability (or inability) of colleges to monetize their online offerings. I also think he is wrong about elite colleges gobbling up the enrollments of closed colleges. Have to protect that elite brand via exclusive admissions.

      Him pointing to college closures points to an issue of excess capacity. Well, if he thinks we have excess capacity he is late to the party because here he is back in January.

      “One way to reinvest in the unremarkable: a Marshall Plan to increase 4-year public colleges by 40%, and junior colleges and trade schools by 80% over the next 10 years.”

      Unless that is a misprint and he means increasing enrollment, he is calling for more colleges to be built. Uh, what?? He is not getting the supply and demand part right. In most cases increasing supply would bring costs down, but what we have with college is irrational demand in general, coupled with an obsessive demand for luxury/elite status. So it’s not just the Dutch tulip mania, but also a mania for buying the highest-rated tulips (meaning the elite schools).

  9. Glen S McGhee says:

    Bryan was talking about the higher ed bubble 6.5 years ago! Even worthy Sherman Dorn got it wrong because he never read “The Credential Society”.

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