Another American college prepares for serious cuts

2017 grinds on, and another American campus announced plans for serious cuts.  It’s definitely a queen sacrifice instance.

Wheelock College

The school in question is Wheelock College in Boston.  It is:

put[ting] its president’s house on the market, is trying to sell one of its dormitories, and is reevaluating its programs, including perhaps eliminating undergraduate degrees altogether in the future.

It’s not clear which programs in particular face the ax.

What’s causing the crisis?  Dear readers, you already know: “mounting financial pressure and plunging enrollment.”


In 2014, the school accepted its largest freshman undergraduate class of 265 students. This year, Wheelock is hoping to enroll 150 freshmen.

The school’s graduate enrollment is also sliding. It enrolls about 330 graduate students and expects to admit about 150 students this fall, Haugabrook said.


Meanwhile, Wheelock saw its operating expenses outpace revenue by $2.6 million in 2016 and $2.5 million in 2015.

Its endowment has also been shrinking, from $53.9 million in 2015 to $50 million in 2016, according to its financial statements.

The crisis goes beyond cuts today: “The school will recruit a freshman undergraduate class for 2018, but plans for 2019 are on hold as Wheelock charts its new direction.”

What can we learn from poor Wheelock?   Sometimes an institution possesses valuable property that it can part with for short-term cash.  Queen sacrifices (and more) are sometimes the strategies of recently-hired leaders, like David Chard, who arrived a couple of months ago.  And things are getting even more competitive in the American northeast.

My sympathies go to Wheelock’s faculty, staff, and students.

Posted in research topics | Tagged | 1 Comment

Reading _Lower Ed_: Where Credit Is Due

We continue our reading of Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (publisher; Amazon). Here we’ll discuss Chapter 5, “Where Credit Is Due.”

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.  As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Chapter 5, “Where Credit Is Due”

This section concerns transfer credit, “not a sexy-sounding topic” but crucial to understanding for-profits’ relationship with the rest of higher education.

The Transfer

The gist: people taking classes with for-profits have a harder time transferring credits to other institutions than students in any other post-secondary sector.

Cottom sets this up by pointing out that American higher education is unusually “porous”.  That is, people can leave our education system, then return to it later in life.  Moreover, we can – in theory, and rarely in practice – move between strata within the overall ecosystem (144-5).  For-profits are supposed to partake of that porosity, however “that ideology does not match the empirical reality” (145).

It turns out that students taking classes at for-profits are best equipped to ship credits to community colleges, and not too well at that (147).  One reason for this is the status of actual credit-accepting protocols: “Most of the action in cross-sector articulation agreements has happened between for-profits and community colleges.” (149)

Cottom reminds us that their greater a campus’ reputation, the less likely it is to accept transfer credits, especially if they are private institutions (150).

Two personal stories anchor this short chapter.  We begin with Kevin Golembiewski, who started his higher ed experience at a community college and ended up with a Harvard Law degree (141ff).  The other tale is of “Raley’s mother”, an adult learner toiling through a for-profit university and running out of aid money (154-6).  We also return to London, a student we met in chapter three.  Golembiewski’s story shows how students *can* cut across the diversity of American higher education institutions, aided by a mentor, skin color, and gender.  Raley’s mother’s story reveals how learners can get trapped with debt and no degree, unable to transfer to a better institution.


  1. If you work at a college or university, what’s the credit transfer situation?
  2. How important is it that for-profits have a weak record in transferring their credit to other institutions?
  3. If a college or university has a close relationship with local high schools, could that boost their chances of expanding credit agreements with other post-secondary schools?

Next Monday, June 19, we move on to chapter 6, “Credentials, Jobs, and the New Economy.”  With that and the epilogue we approach the book’s end.

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3; chapter 4.

(transfer photo by Alan Levine)

Posted in readings | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Which majors are growing and which are shrinking: new data

What are students getting undergraduate degrees in?

The latest data is out from Humanities Indicators, and many familiar trends continue therein.

The short version: engineering, the health and medical sciences, and the natural sciences are growing.  Humanities, education, and business are declining.

Let’s dive in:
degrees by major to 2015

The humanities continue their post-financial-collapse slide: “The 212,512 humanities degrees conferred in 2015 was 5% below the previous year and 9.5% below the recent high-water mark of 234,737 degrees in 2012…”  Put another way,

After 10 consecutive years of declines, the humanities’ share of all new bachelor’s degrees fell below 12% in 2015 for the first time since a complete accounting of humanities degree completions became possible in 1987…

Business is declining, but still remains the most popular major by far.

Health care continues to grow, although few discuss its full range (think allied health, med tech, hospital administration, etc.) and impact in higher ed.  We’re on course for my Health Care Nation scenario.

The social sciences keep on trucking.

Meanwhile, among the humanities there are some interesting differences:

humanities degrees by major to 2015

Several disciplines are hit especially hard: “English language and literature [my field!], history, languages and literatures other than English, linguistics, classical studies, and philosophy”.  For example, history: “Degrees conferred by disciplines among the historical categories fell in 2015 to approximately 5% of all bachelor’s degree completions—the lowest level in records extending back to 1949.”

There is one single bright spot among the humanities departments: communication, which broke into the lead for the first time, capping decades of growth.

The only large humanities discipline to experience an increase in the number of degrees from 2012 to 2015 was communication, which increased 8% (even after excluding professional degrees in the discipline). The humanistic side of communication surpassed English in the conferral of bachelor’s degrees for the first time on record in 2014, and the gap continued to grow in 2015. In the most recent three years, the number of degrees in communication rose by 3,770, while the number of English degrees fell by 8,755.

I’d hazard a guess that communication’s engagement with the digital world plays a role in its robust growth.  (Compare with the humanities.)

I wonder about breaking this out further.  Where does computer science stand?  Can we track digital humanities majors?

More broadly, what does this data mean for the future of higher education?

In terms of disciplines, it’s possible that we’re seeing another turn in the humanities’ cyclical popularity.  If so, we should expect to work through this trough for a while, then watch literature and history lead the way in a rebound.

Alternatively, this could be a long-term shift.  Many forces would power this: the continued power and expansion of digital technologies, the American health care financial and access crisis (a/k/a, a boom in monies and jobs), the cultural perception of employment as fragile and risky, the humanities’ continuing to fail in offering popular public intellectuals.

Here’s a third option.  Matt Reed notes that humanities enrollments are up in one sector, community colleges.  And for one key reason:

enrollments in the humanities are on a steady upward path. Much of that is due to gen ed requirements for vertical transfer…

Perhaps what we’re seeing is a collapse in majors and upper-level humanities courses, while general education courses remain robust.  Imagine a future where Romantic poetry and Spinoza seminars are scarce, but everyone still takes composition 101 and intro to American history.  The humanities shift to becoming largely service departments.

Maybe I should generate a scenario set about this.  Which of these three seems most likely to you?

(via Inside Higher Ed)

Posted in trends | 5 Comments

Four years in: under the hood of my consulting firm

Four years ago I launched Bryan Alexander Consulting. BAC is how I translate my future of higher education work into real-world impacts.  This post is one of the regular updates I’ve shared, in interests of transparency: so you can learn about the project, and so I can learn from you.

tl;dr – things are good.  There are some challenges we need to deal with, and a range of interesting options to consider for the next twelve months.

First I’ll describe the overall picture, then the good things, then challenges, and end with some possibilities for the upcoming year.  I’ve added more data in this post than in previous entries, including financials.  This is a very rare amount of under-the-hood presentation for a consulting outfit or futurist.

Vint Cerf and Bryan

Meeting Vint Cerf.


BAC is technically a consulting firm (hence the “C”), but acts in many ways like a think tank.  I give a lot of talks, both online and virtually, as I have done, and also produce a growing amount of media (books, videos, blog posts, etc).

It’s a very social enterprise.  Every step of the way involves conversations with and input from medium to large numbers of people, from crowdsourcing feedback to networking clients to facilitating meetings and webinars.

Good things

The number of international clients and gigs is rising.  During the past nine months I’ve worked in Iceland, Finland, Malta, Mexico, and Spain, and with an interesting range of organizations spanning multiple nations.

The number of clients is rising, approaching 100.

Revenue continues to stream in.   Speaking engagements are by far the largest income source, followed by consulting assignments (which vary: research reports; workshops; meeting facilitation), then by media creation.  The Patreon experiment is off to a good start.  Sponsors for FTTE have grown to two.

Facilitation has emerged as a major service, and also something increasingly important to me, ethically and personally.  That is separate from our main mission, the future of higher education.

Digital storytelling is another service, which sometimes engages me as a presenter, workshop leader, or content creator (i.e., writing a book).

And digital literacy has surfaced as another competency people want to tap.

Bryan addresses MSU Denvr_taykendesign

Photo by aykendesign.

Speaking of which, I made more stuff in 2016-2017 than before.  The New Digital Storytelling, Revised Edition is due out this fall.  My next book project proposal is before a fine publisher.  FTTE continues to appear, growing to 1770 subscribers.  The Forum keeps running in its second year, with more than 1499 people having participated.  I blog (250-750 hits/day) and work in other social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, podcasts).  I’ve been interviewed in various media.  Possibly I’ll add more next year (see below).


As my readers know, digital infrastructure is a major issue here in Vermont.  The state and our ISP’s failures to provide sufficient broadband have driven us to move, a process that’s quite tedious and under way.  Connectivity is also an issue when I travel, since airplanes, airports, hotels, trains, cars etc. either lack internet or provision it badly.  Hopefully relocation will address the former.  The latter worries me, given how ill fares US infrastructure.

Bryan interviewed INTEDThis ties into some problems involved with media production.  Obviously having lame “broadband” makes it more difficult to host videoconferences, not to mention downloading and uploading media.  Our upload speeds are often ten times what’s available for download.

Two other problems have cropped up on this score.  First, the sheer amount of time required for content production (don’t forget commuting hours, to reach a physical site capable of working in the 21st century); second, the problem of content sprawl.  I now make reports, videos, blog posts, the occasional podcast, Twitter chats – it’s all too dis-integrated.

Income stream variability can also be a major challenge.  Indeed, at times it looms largest.  On the one hand, we have months when payments roar in; on the other, serious dearths.  We wrestled with one client for promised payment for three months this year.

Here’s an example of revenue variability, using actual data from 2016 and this year through May (again, being transparent):

BAC income 2016-2017

So there’s $15,500 coming in one month, then $3,000 in another.  $11,000 in January, then barely $2,000 in February.  That’s serious variability.

This becomes a growing challenge as our costs increase.  Current plans to roll back the Affordable Care Act could boost our medical insurance costs.  As Ceredwyn and I age, we are statistically likely to consume more health care.  Our children are progressing through higher education (one graduated from university this year!), meaning our debt payments are rising (I’m still paying down mine).  Moreover, since I passed 50 years of age, at some point I will be less able to work 70 hour weeks.  So we’ll need to stabilize revenue somehow, either by smoothing out the monthly variations or accumulating a thick enough fiscal cushion to painlessly protect us during the trough months.

Possibilities for 2017-2018

Here are some strategic and tactical options we’re considering.  They are numbered arbitrarily:

  1. Hosting a face to face event.  This could be a one-day conference, unconference, or workshop.  Maybe 2-3 days.  The topic: the future of education.  I’d love to try out some novel approaches to make an in-person gathering especially worthwhile and meaningful.
  2. Producing a podcast series on the future of education.  It could be reacting to current trends, like a version of FTTE, or an analysis of trends, one per show.
  3. ” ” video series.  Like #2, but with visual components.
  4. Setting up a new web site to organize all the things.
  5. Helping build a future of education tabletop game.
  6. Seeking an institutional affiliation along the lines of a fellowship.
  7. International growth could stall or reverse, depending on Trump’s actions and the world’s reactions.
  8. Hiring more people.  Some could be on-demand, part time, for specific purposes.  Others could help full time with growing demand.
  9. What should I do with facilitation?
  10. Increasing fees.  Currently I charge $7500 for a keynote speech and $2500/day for consulting, plus expenses.  Business logic suggests these should rise.  That would yield either fewer engagements but about the same total revenue (good for my health), or the same (or greater) number and higher revenue (good for revenue variability).
  11. Setting up a retainer system.  I would like to establish such an on-call relationship with a client – or formalize what nearly exists informally with some current ones.

What do you make of this update, friends?

Posted in personal, presentations and talks | 9 Comments

Reading _Lower Ed_: When Higher Education Makes Cents

We continue our reading of Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (publisher; Amazon). Here we’ll discuss chapter four, “When Higher Education Makes Cents”.

I’ll begin with a short summary, followed by questions.

As a quick reminder, you can find all posts in this reading right here.

Before we get started, one quick note.  Tressie McMillan Cottom was a guest on the Future Trends Forum last week.  We’ll have a video recording up later this month.  In the meantime, here’s a Storify of our extensive Twitter conversation.

Lower Ed being heldChapter Four: When Higher Education Makes Cents

This chapter continues the previous chapter’s exploration of student decision-making when choosing to attend a for-profit, with an emphasis on institutions’ recruitment strategies and tactics.  The first part follows the author’s experiences as she experimented in signing up with nine for-profit institutions (117).  The second section traces what professor Cottom learned in spending time with an online support group for women studying at for-profits (131-141).

Cottom deduces several key points about how lower ed wins students:

  • For profits save time.  ‘Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige.” (115) Cottom describes one school where students can go from first contact to actually taking classes in eighteen days (118).
  • Since for-profits are disconnected from high schools, prep schools, and transfer agreements with post-secondary institutions, they have to go to great lengths to connect with relatively isolated students (124).
  • Face to face and telephone are hugely important for for-profit recruiting.  Online?  Not so much at all (127). 
  • For-profit enrollment officers (EOs) used a “pain funnel” approach, a series of questions addressing “pain points” in a way designed to draw the prospect in, even in unethical ways (129, 214n10).
  • Those EOs often positioned themselves as strong mother figures (129).  (Nice comparison to tiger mothers)
  • Pricing is clear and untweakable, “absolute”, in comparison to the rest of higher ed’s flexibility (think tuition discounts) (130-1).
  • Students tended not to see their educational experience in terms of race or gender (137).  Instead, they were likely to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, ready to start their own businesses (138).


  1. Why do for-profits downplay digital communication with prospective students?
  2. Why do these students avoid discussing their situation in terms of race, class, or gender?
  3. Should higher ed compete with lower in terms of speed and efficiency of recruiting?

Next Monday, June 12, we move on to Chapter 5, “Where Credit Is Due.”

Our reading so far: the plan; introduction; chapter 1; chapter 2; chapter 3.

Posted in readings | Tagged , | 3 Comments

What fake news is doing to digital literacy

Yesterday I keynoted a virtual conference on digital literacy and fake news.  Actually, I helped organize an opening panel, then took notes on sessions, then offered a closing presentation.

Here are my notes, with a couple of the slides.  The whole slidedeck is on Slideshare, and embedded right here:

I’d like to begin by thanking Sandy Hirsh and Steve Hargadon for organizing this rich event.

Summing up from today’s discussions, here are some themes that really stood out for me:

  • The importance of a civic role of digital literacy learners and teachers
  • The emergence of new technologies and practices
  • That there are multiple forms and responses to fake news
  • Curation: libraries curate, but also teach users (or patrons) to curate content
  • The importance of teaching critical thinking
  • “ “ “ adding other information forms beyond text document: images, data, infographics

I’ll weave some of that into these remarks, and perhaps we can touch on them in the subsequent Q+A.

So where does digital literacy stand now?  You can see some widely understood principles. There is a shared genealogy of Media literacy leading to information literacy which grows into digital literacy.  There is a shared understanding that digital literacy involves a mixture of technical, social, and personal capacities.  And there is a rising awareness that digital literacy means learners are social, participatory makers.

This last point is vital and still not fully grasped.  Learners use digital tools to both consume information and make and share new stuff, which isn’t the universal way we think of how schools, libraries, and museums operate.  Students are prosumers, in Alvin Toffler’s formulation.  They are also, increasingly, digital storytellers, which reframes their relationship to content.

So where do we go from here?

When we think of digital literacy in 2017, we cannot escape what happened in 2016.  Last year’s events have made us all conscious of the deep connection between digital literacy and politics.  Yes, some observers have been making this argument for years – I’m thinking of leaders like Doug Belshaw, Helen Beetham, and Ellen Helsper, among others – but the watershed British and American votes, with their international implications, have forced everyone to rethink the political grounding of information, media, and the digital world.  Hence our focus on fake news.

This is a powerful realization, and we’re just in the first stages of grappling with it.  For some, it’s a form of grieving for a lost model of literacy, and they’re working through the first stages of that process: denial and anger.  Bargaining, depression and acceptance are coming up.  But grapple we must, and the new dynamics are complex.

We have to think of the global crisis of sustainability.  Ecologically, climate change is well under way, and our politics have largely failed to address this most enormous fact.  It is naïve to think of keeping digital literacy separate from that this means for civilization.

We have to consider digital literacy in terms of the global crisis in governance.  We live in an age of unrest, from the Arab Spring to Ukraine to Black Lives Matter to Brazil.  In many nations popular discontent with or cynicism towards their political class is rising, fed by revelations like the Panama Papers and unresolved crises, like the 2008 financial collapse.  People increasingly use social media to inform each other and to organize in the face of documented corruption and economic malaise.  Meanwhile that political class grows anxious about governability, skeptical of democracy, and turns increasingly to surveillance, state influence or open control of media, the use of “nudging” to reshape citizen behavior, and even gamified authoritarianism in China.  We cannot consider digital literacy without this context.

What does this mean for digital literacy?  Where is this going?  As a futurist, that’s the question I ask of every trend and problem.  Let me offer some trends, cautions, and hope.

We may expect further political dysfunction, especially as different developments exacerbate each other.  Environmental stresses can trigger social upheaval.  State crackdowns can elicit dissent or insurgency.  Mutual distrust can worsen relations between governors and the governed.  Governments and businesses use digital technology to attempt to influence and control their populations, while those same populations use much of that technology to inform themselves, organize, and resist.  Meanwhile, technological and demographic forces continue to rewrite many aspects of human society.

In the words of excellent novelist, short story writer, and futurist Bruce Sterling:

The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.

How does digital literacy evolve in this context?

People will use digital literacy – by any definition – to organize politically, across the full range of political spectra, from antifa to alt-right, black bloc to pro-government militias.  Those of us who teach or support digital literacy cannot separate ourselves from these uses, and we will have to rethink our practice.

We have to be mindful of the full range of technology complexity.  On the one hand, we obviously need to advance our frameworks and curricula as new platforms emerge and grow.  VR, AR, mixed reality, blockchain-based systems like Ethereum and the internet of things each offer distinct affordances, virtues, and challenges for information and creativity.  Those of us in the digital literacy field have to be ahead of the curve in understanding the implications.

Automation is another technological field we need to observe closely and work critically with.  It has already impacted information, media, and digital literacies, from spambots to AI-generated journalism and software conducting legal document discovery.

Think, for example, of Meta.  This is software designed to automate some aspects of scientific publication and discovery, including identifying promising research before it wins professional attention.  It was recently purchased by the Chan Zuckerberg foundation in their quest to revamp the life sciences.

Should we anticipate similar AI projects for information literacy, for detecting fake news, for helping us decide how to participate in social media, for helping us remix or make new content?

At the same time, while much of the fake news debate focuses on social media, it often ignores the influence of other media, such as television news, which is especially important for older people.  As media literacy teaches us, we cannot neglect the importance of print and broadcast media, which persist even as the attention spotlight moves on.

As David Edgerton reminds us, older technologies often have a long lifespan in actual use.  While we must attend to mixed reality and drone-enabled WiFi, we cannot forget that people still use radio, print books, and television.  Older, 20th-century media habits foregrounding users as consumers rather than producers still persist in the 21st-century’s second decade.

Which brings us to the question of authority.  Concern over fake news has led to two opposed responses.  I have previously named them lower-case-d democrats and neo-gatekeepers.

The democrats argue that people should and can make their own decisions about digital information.  They draw on the heritage of information and media literacies, movements which sought to empower readers (and viewers, and listeners, and browsers, and…).

Critics of this democratic approach point to the flood of fake news, sometimes arguing that it helped shape the Brexit and US presidential votes.  Either users can’t be trusted to know and use digital literacies, or enough of us are illiterate enough to turn the bad stories viral.  Until the population as a whole practices solidly skeptical digital literacy, Macedonian click farms will prey on our understanding.   Hence the need for new authorities, such as having Facebook or Google use humans or AI to vet content.  Hence, too, the call for more support to traditional authorities, like newspapers…

…or librarians, and this is where I’d like to close. Librarians think broadly, incorporating political and technological transformation into their very detailed, practical work of, if I may respectfully repurpose Raganathan, helping connect each prosumer with their information.  Librarian may become our guides to digital making.  Librarians could become our human guides to automated learning and culture.  Librarians, as professionals who have always been committed to their communities, may become the support networks for political insurgencies, either as restored authorities or as advocates for democratic information in a seething digital world.

Librarians are now on the front lines of the future, our best hope for understanding and dealing with these enormous changes.

Thank you.  Now I’ll respond to questions from the chat box.


Posted in digital literacy, libraries, presentations and talks | 4 Comments

Technology trends for mid-2017: Mary Meeker’s latest

Mary Meeker has released her latest technology trends presentation.  As usual, it’s important and rich stuff.

I’ll pull out some highlights for the future of education and technology.

At a meta level, it’s fascinating to see how investors think about technology and society.  There’s an important political stratum that emerges.

The mobile revolution continues.  Americans spend more time on smartphones than with laptops and desktops, and mobile ad spending has reached parity with desktop.  Mobile even impacts enterprise software, as Meeker’s team sees enterprise users demanding interfaces and service as easy as those from mobile apps.  But smartphone growth is slowing down even further, and the number of phones shipped could plateau soon.

The move away from desktops and laptops continues to drive new interface development.  One piece of the mobile scene is rising interest in users interacting via pictures rather than text (search, image recognition, AR).  Related is the growth of voice interfaces (Google Assistant, Alexa).

Meeker turns to gaming this time, and hits some familiar notes (huge size of field, women playing, social, etc.).  esports are booming.  Meeker also discovers gaming for learning.  This could trigger a new round of investment in edugames.

Media: streaming continues to win in music and video.

Generational differences in terms of technology use persist, as I keep reminding educators.  “Chasm increasing” is Meeker’s phrase:

generations by analog and digital media use Meeker 2017

Similarly, age differences in terms of technology and health care:

ages using digital health_Meeker 2017

Cloud computing keeps on growing.  Meeker sees user concerns shifting from security to worries about lock-in and flexibility.

The report focuses attention on three nations for their major impact and future potential.

  • China as global trends exemplar.  Some are familiar to other nations, like the shift from manufacturing to service sector jobs, internet growth, mobile growth, privatization/neoliberalism, gaming, search, streaming, etc.  Then there are unique technology trends, like the huge popularity of WeChat, Weibo, and Tencent, or on-demand bike sharing.
  • In comparison to China, India is also growing, if behind the curve, hobbled in part by mobile costs.  Meeker identifies some unusual Indian features, such as the use of Aadhaar for identification, which increasingly anchors digital access and financial services, and rising interest in short form, on demand (user influenced?) video.  The report also sees digital tutors (on mobile devices) as helping students do better in a too-often overstretched school system.
  • There are some final observations about American political economy that illustrate thoughts among the investor class – i.e., the 1% of the 1%.  The report sees America’s overall finances in trouble, suffering from too much debt and social services spending.  It uses a model of analyzing the nation as a business, “USA Inc.”  And it calls for more immigration – for skilled tech jobs.

The report dwells on health care, seeing it as a digital success story in progress.  Slides emphasize the growing digital collection of and patient access to data, touching on electronic health records, mobile devices (phones, wearables), and analytics.  Weirdly there’s just a glance at life science research problems, without looking into either the publication crisis or the advent of Meta.

I’m struck by how much isn’t in the report. ebooks, blockchain, Trump, drones, AI – this is a sampling with limits.

(thanks to Steven Kaye)

Posted in technology | 3 Comments