Recently Inside Higher Ed ran two columns arguing that higher education is in serious trouble. Their titles proclaimed a very grim analysis: “What Happens If Higher Ed Collapses?” and “The Culling of Higher Ed Begins”. Both contain useful bits of information and some thoughtful assessments. Both serve the useful function of shocking people out of complacency. Unfortunately, neither go far enough. In a sense, they are too optimistic.
Let me be clear. Doug Lederman and John Warner’s columns are very useful. I recommend sharing them with colleagues, be they in a library, an academic department, a state legislature, or in the next .edu start-up over in the incubator. I like what they’ve done. I just want to add to their analyses, since higher education’s problems are even more extensive and dire than those short pieces had time to address.
To summarize: Lederman notes that “the number of colleges and universities eligible to award federal financial aid to their students fell by 5.6 percent from 2015-16 to 2016-17.” In other words, the number of institutions has declined.
Much of that is due to the for-profit boom going bust.
Warner hits a wider range of trends, including rising American criticism of higher ed, rising tuition, declining state support, demographics (yes!), booming student debt, and wage stagnation. Ultimately, “we’re on an unsustainable path in post-secondary education, and have been for quite some time.” Warner offers two scenarios:
If I had to guess – and that’s all this is – we’ll be looking at one of two scenarios, either some kind of libertarian dream version of a universal basic income that’s sufficient to at least sustain those without access to upward mobility, or we’re in an even worse dystopia, where the wealthy simply wall themselves off from everyone else a la The Capitol v. the Districts in The Hunger Games.
Taken together, these columns sketch out very dark possibilities for American higher education.
Let me make things worse. There are other negative forces we need to bear in mind.
- Rising tuition discount rates. “Tuition” is indeed higher than it has been, but relatively few students pay full freight. This means the wealthiest are paying more, progressively… and at some point they might not want to carry the rest. Moreover, aggressive discounting can lead an institution to actually take in less revenue, which is ultimately unsustainable for many.
- Rising medical costs. These keep pushing up compensation for whichever campus people receive health care support, from some faculty to some staff.
- The likely decline in the number of international students heading to the United States, as a result of Trump. This will put pressure on our diversity agenda and hit finances.
- The possibility that we might not think college is for everyone. Remember, that’s been the thinking since circa 1990, when America committed itself to the knowledge economy. Yet this belief might not last much longer. Fears of student debt combined with stories of badly compensated work may drive people away from higher ed. Real declines in family economic status could render college a long shot rather than a guaranteed good. Increasing economic segregation might keep lower income high school students away from college; we’ve already seen some evidence of this starting to occur. Other options might appeal, including apprenticeships. Students who did or would have attended for-profits don’t seem to be moving into the non-profit world. And don’t forget how many jobs are hungry for workers, and don’t really require a 4-year degree: retail, fork lift drivers, home health care aide, etc. (blog post to come on this)
- Increasing inequality between academic institutions could drive poorer schools out of existence.
- Pressures on research are heating up as funding becomes less available and professional demands continue to rise. Will we see an exodus of researchers out of academia, or will university leaders face anew the difficult choice of directing resources to either teaching or research?
- Political unrest (for example) could drain public funds from universities and/or further sour higher ed’s reputation.
- Automated tutors could draw would-be students away from campuses, if they work, or are seen to work.
These are all present trends. I haven’t spoken of black swans.
I also haven’t spoken to optimistic trends. That’s for another post.