Over the past week I enjoyed numerous conversations with faculty and staff from more than one hundred colleges, universities, museums, and libraries, a good number from countries other than the US. I also: facilitated several discussions, both online and in person; led a half-day workshop on automation and creativity; chatted with a Virtually Connecting group; gave three presentations, including one keynote.
By the end, I was suffused with a sense of… mingled outrage, frustration, and doom. Despite my enthusiasm for educational possibilities and delight at learning from colleagues and friends, I nevertheless felt like a wrathful fire and brimstone preacher, one part Jonathan Edwards and one part Solomon Kane.
I didn’t feel much like Cassandra, since people were sometimes actually listening to me, and even followed up with me after each event, but I did have the sense of saying things people either didn’t know (hey, a good thing for a speaker) but really should, or that they just didn’t want to face.
Longtime readers – heck, casual readers – know that I’ve been long been pointing to trends that will have or are already having a negative impact on American higher education. I’m not a full-time doomsayer, since I also present on positive, neutral, or simply strange trends as well. But this season is giving me a stronger scary vibe than I’ve felt since 2008.
Here are some recent stories to help explain why.
ITEM: a US Circuit Court ruled that a university could ax a tenured professor, because said university was merging with another campus, and the prof’s position was now redundant.
Why does this matter? As enrollments decline and financial pressures mount, mergers are one strategic option that appeals to some institution. One financial and administrative reason is to reduce costs – and that includes faculty members.
ITEM: institutional inequality continues to grow. As Jeff Selingo reports,
Combined, the 20 wealthiest private universities in the United States hold about $250 billion in assets. That accounts for a staggering 70 percent of the all the wealth of private colleges and universities, according to a new study by Moody’s Investors Services.
Twenty universities: that’s around 0.4% of the total number of American colleges and universities. We’ve left the 1% proportion behind, and are heading to the 1% of the 1%. The difference between that elite and everyone else is growing, too:
That wealth is likely only to grow as the richest colleges raise money at a faster clip than anyone else. Among colleges that collected more than $100 million in donations in 2016, fundraising has jumped by 22 percent over the last four years. Among those that raised less than $10 million, donations went up just 4 percent.
And notice the contrast with a far larger chunk of academia:
Nearly one third of small colleges operated with a budget deficit last year, according to Moody’s, up from 20 percent three years ago…
Many small colleges are caught in a death spiral that gets worse with each passing year. About 40 percent of colleges enroll 1,000 or fewer students. Since 2010, those institutions have been shedding the most enrollment, a decline of 5 percent.
My shorthand for this is “Hogwarts versus community colleges”. That’s too optimistic, it turns out. Jeff pairs the superrich with those in a death spiral. See what I mean about gloom?
ITEM: flagship public universities are continuing their transformation into something like national, private institutions. A new Jack Kent Cooke Foundation study finds (pdf) that these campuses are shifting away from their home state population, in pursuit of out of state dollars and ranking:
Many public flagship universities today are prioritizing affluent out-of-state students, who are charged higher tuition, over the moderate- and low-income state residents who they were created to serve…
We can see this in first-year class enrollment:
Why is this happening? Dear reader, you already know: declining state appropriations for public higher education, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.
Note that tuition rise. It doubled. While most American families saw their incomes stagnate or decline.
Thus we’re seeing the rise of what the Cooke report dubs out-of-state state institutions.
Amazingly, at 24 public flagship universities out-of-state students represent at least 40% of freshman enrollment. At 11 public flagships, out-of-state students account for more than half of all freshmen. These so-called “state” universities are misnamed and are increasingly not at all representative of their states. (emphases added)
Here’s a side effect that connects with increasing economic inequality overall: “social mobility is a declining priority for flagship universities in an increasing number of states…” In an age when higher education is obsessed with crafting and refining mission statements, our influential and wide-ranging public institutions are moving directly away from a key feature of their original purpose for being.
Let’s combine these stories. Inter-institutional inequality and family income inequality are connecting synergistically with each other, reinforcing a widening class divide. A handful of institutions are accelerating from the rest, with some state institutions turning national and private in their wake. Meanwhile, other colleges and universities are straining to cut their way to survival.
These are dark trends. What opposed them? Is there a counterforce?
(thanks to Jeff Selingo for the links)