Education dystopia #4: the bubble bursts

What are some bad futures for teaching, learning, and campuses? With this post I’m continuing my series of educational dystopias.

4. The Bubble Bursts

This dystopia is more focused on higher education than the previous ones.  It’s about a perfect storm striking colleges and universities, one which forces these institutions into a downhill slide.  Call it “peak higher education”.

To begin with, the demographic problem of declining K-12 population saps enrollment in traditional-age undergraduate populations, hitting hard at tuition-dependent institutions.  Most campuses continue to raise their published tuition in response, driving away debt-panicked learners.  Said campuses also lack the flexibility to respond to this challenge, since so many expenses are in the form of sunk costs: tenured faculty, extant buildings and grounds, staff mandated by regulations.  On top of these problems, American state governments continue their practice of reducing funding for public colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, educational alternatives are on the rise, especially as education’s reputation declines.  Homeschooling experiences a boom.  Many consider informal learning to be on par with classwork.  Much research has migrated to the corporate and governmental sectors.


Campuses experience many changes in this environment.  There are fewer of them, and those that survive are less crowded than they once were.  Their student body is much more international than it once was, as schools seek students from abroad to make up for domestic shortfalls.  (But campus leaders worry that this strategy might peter out, as other nations continue developing their own academic capacities)

Some colleges and universities offer low-cost programs, such as the famous or notorious $10,000 BA.  Tenure is quite rare, since money is scarce for new or replacement tenure lines. Scholars publish less research as a result of this, plus the decline in professional development funding.  Information services (IT, library) are largely outsourced as cost-saving measures.

Beloit mindset list

What does it mean to be an eighteen-year-old in the age after higher education’s peak?

Vocational tech classes are widespread in K-12.  These high school graduates often look forward to apprenticeships, which are now accepted in career paths.  And they perceive campuses as intensely transnational places.

(I’ve written about this dystopia in Inside Higher Ed.  The idea sprang from a blog post here in 2013.)


This ends my dystopia series.  That has included the triumph of the silos, the cyberpunk world, the new gilded age, and this post’s gloomy vision of a burst bubble.

What do you make of these?  Which one seems most likely to occur?  And how can educators avoid them?

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7 Responses to Education dystopia #4: the bubble bursts

  1. Sherman says:

    None of the dystopias are likely to happen in their full “glory,” but minor versions of them (dystopettes?) are already here, and the primary challenge for faculty and staff are managing them within a college–and for administrators, managing the consequences for an entire institution. For example, demographic change will challenge tuition-dependent schools in the Northeast that currently draw from young adults in the region. That won’t affect large state universities in many parts of the country, so that’s why I think of demographic change as a dystopette rather than a dystopia.

    • Greetings, Sherman. Excellent point about administrators working on the early forms of these.

      “minor versions of them (dystopettes?) are already here” – indeed, these are drawn from current trends.

      Demographics may impact large state schools as they settle in. The K-12 drop is hitting the midwest as well as the northeast; many southern and western states aren’t doing that well, either.

  2. John says:

    I was down in Newport RI recently on a weekend with my wife. While walking around we ended up strolling through part of Salve Regina’s campus while site seeing. Perhaps it was the unusually luxurious settings of that campus with all its Victorian mansions but it spurred the thought of an odd future of higher ed. Assuming that higher ed is increasingly trending towards online environments and platforms – but a major draw for college students is living the on campus experience (mostly for non-academic reasons) learning to live with strangers, social interactions, ‘going it alone’ for the first time (sort of). The 4 year campus life is still seen as a bit of transition stage from dependent child to independent adult.

    While discussing these 2 seemingly conflicting aspects of college an odd notion struck me, what if the future is students living on campuses (who wouldn’t as most campuses are lovely places to be) but all the coursework is done online? It seemed so ridiculous at first thought but when looking at the trend of online and the demand still existing for the guided transition aspect and pleasantries of campus life is it really that far out??

    I say ‘guided transition’ because it is a step wise approach to full independence, your housing is selected and provided for you, your meals are prepared and provided for you, you will likely have room mates that you did not choose, etc. These aspects are not what one would encounter if going straight from high school to the ‘real world’.

    Would this address some aspects of the dystopias? Suddenly the cost of office space goes away, lower compensation (slightly) could be justified if faculty now don’t need to commute and the transaction costs associated with that (wear and tear, gas, parking), faculty would now enjoy an extremely flexible schedule with asynchronous platforms, faculty could also be expected to take on a higher course load as technology absorbs much of the ‘work’ aspect of teaching (automatically graded assessments, plagiarism detection software, far less recounting of material as lectures are replaced with readings or recordings that can be played over each semester).

    Just some unrefined thoughts, glad this post came up as it reminded me of these ideas.

    • That’s a fascinating vision, John.
      That could work for the traditional-age institutions. It emphasizes the maturation aspect, but decouples the academics. Perhaps that will be more appealing for those worried about a rising generation’s delayed adulthood.

  3. Pingback: A week of educational dystopias | Bryan Alexander

  4. Laura Pasquini says:

    The discourse in US post-secondary and the growing bubble (rising tuition, tenured faculty challenges/changes, resources allocation, etc.) is fascinating. A number of degree programs and institutions in this country are packed in silos, and often do not consider the interplay between the 4-year degree, vocational/technical career education, and research driven agendas. It would be great to see coherent ideas and needs addressed in higher education, which could include workforce trends, sustainability development, and other socio-economic needs. Perhaps, I live in a dream world — as this also would involve institutional players and edu administrative leaders (etc.) to drop their egos and dig in for this type of PSE review approach.

    • It’s a good dream, but a hard one, as you say.
      American higher education is extremely diverse and decentralized, especially for the roughly one-third of private institutions. We compete fiercely, and collaborate rarely.

      Perhaps cooperative developments like the SUNY “systemness” project are signs of your dream starting to be realized.

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