When education doomsayers aren't grim enough

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.

colleges getting federal aid

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.


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12 Responses to When education doomsayers aren't grim enough

  1. Bryan – These are all plausible factors to support your case for HE’s demise. I can’t argue very well against your position.

    However, I will offer this: One of the most influential presentations I have ever watched was a 2004 lecture by Thomas P. Barnett (a renowned military adviser) entitled “The Pentagon’s New Map for the 21st Century” (available here on C-SPAN: https://www.c-span.org/video/?182105-1/pentagons-new-map-powerpoint-presentation ).

    One of his statements provides the lynchpin for his premise: “We like to look at the world in terms of rule sets.” This parses out into a set of assumptions about the configuration of the world, our nation, our interests, and how the Pentagon orients itself (both in its composition and deployment) to sustain those interests. There are, however, periodic “rule set shocks” that instantly relegate the prior rule set to obsolescence. In the 9-11 attacks, the rule set of presumed ground-based military confrontation in eastern Europe was replaced with rule sets related to asymmetric warfare, insurgency, “winning the peace” and other things that the Pentagon was wholly unprepared for at that moment. (The lecture cites numerous similar rule set shocks going back centuries, which I believe you will find fascinating)

    I mention all of this because what you and the other authors are describing are the symptoms of a similar shift in higher education’s rule set, though perhaps not quite as sudden and dramatic as a Sept. 11-style terror attack. And it isn’t as though this notion has gone unnoticed – old news.

    And yet, despite the numerous shocks to its rule sets, the Pentagon has lumbered on in its continuing existence. I propose to you that higher education will lumber similarly, though perhaps with shifts away from certain traditions associated with the “old” rule set, and more alignment with the needs of the “new” rule set – whatever that might be.

    The bottom line here is that higher education (as is the Pentagon) is pretty good at doing what it does. I don’t think either will go away, but it will transform.

    The “disadvantage” found in higher education is that there are no singularly dramatic events that would require immediate response, reflection, realignment, and transformation in the same way the Pentagon has had to do. This has created, IMO, a sense of malaise to rethink the value proposition we offer to society and reframe the issue.

    Maybe what we need now more than ever is MORE decline. It might motive change more quickly towards a new rule set.

    • Steve, that’s a terrific metaphor. It might be a useful and productive prompt to explore what the emerging new rules are.
      Then we could discern how universities and colleges could avoid fighting a conventional war in central Europe – er, teaching and researching as if it were the 1980s.

      I was very interested in Barnett when he was working on the presentation that became _The Pentagon’s New Map_. What’s he up to these days?

      • weevie833 says:

        I follow him on Twitter now but that is about it. I’m glad you are familiar with that lecture. It was a shot in the dark to refer to it. I liked it so much I actually went and ordered the DVD from C-SPAN back in 2004! I guess that qualifies me for a certain level of geekdom…

      • Definitely some fine geekery there, weevie833 .
        Please keep on firing those shots here!

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Reflecting on and adding to the ongoing discussion in higher ed media, that is also taking place across social media. Main stream media cannot be far behind (cynical yawn). That said, it behooves all levels of academic labor and higher ed stakeholders to pay attention — without falling into troll or click bait black holes.

  3. Great post Bryan. All these aspects compound to create
    this new paradigm we are entering into. We wanted to
    send you a shout-out for the thought provoking material
    you continue to provide for these much needed discussions.


  4. Tom Haymes says:

    “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)”

    – all of these jobs are high up on the automation list, especially the first two.

    • Quite true. Which feeds into my curricular charge: what do classes look like if we assume automation, and not training ppl for jobs that will be automated?

      …home health care is a strange one. Expect resistance to automation there.

  5. Pingback: Is College a Risk? The Modern Learners Podcast #21 - Modern Learners

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