Several dark stories and trends for higher education this week

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.


Image from my first slide. To set the mood.

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:

enrollment out of state public re universities_Cooke

Why is this happening?  Dear reader, you already know: declining state appropriations for public higher education, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.

State support and tuition 2003-2015 Cooke

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)

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10 Responses to Several dark stories and trends for higher education this week

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    “Like” is not the appropriate reaction. What about an “appalled” button? What with following you and Ray Schroeder (even longer), I am not surprised though and girding myself to be that Cassandra to colleagues still chasing yesterday’s solutions that may no longer be viable options.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    The general rule of thumb in globalization probably applies here as well: whatever group is at the bottom (most disposable) will take the worst hit.

  3. ted says:

    These trends are apparent in microcosm here in Tuscaloosa. The University of Alabama has a majority of students overall from out of state as well as a majority of freshmen (and according to the NY Times, they even promote the fact that most students aren’t Alabamians on campus tours). Meanwhile, Stillman College, the local private school (and HBCU) was down to 620 students last semester, 100 of whom graduated, and is taking donations from local churches to cover operating expenses. They have reduced tuition in an attempt to get more students and hope to have 800 or 900 students in the fall, but do the math: that requires an incoming class of 60-80% of the existing student population. And to round out the story, the local community college is receiving less money from the state than in 2007 (but can’t raise its own tuition to offset the decline) and has also seen reduced enrollment from the early 2000s. It’s grim, and I don’t see much in the way of opposition here.

    • That’s really useful info, Ted. Thank you. Oh, Stillman.

      Re: ” they even promote the fact that most students aren’t Alabamians on campus tours” – we saw something similar at University of Vermont (70-odd% from out of state), where folks saw this as a sign of diversity. It made my son happy.

      • ted says:

        Yeah, Stillman’s in a tough spot. The mayor has even proposed having the city help keep them afloat because of concerns over what would happen to the campus if the college folds and it sits vacant for any length of time.

  4. Claudia Holland says:

    Any thoughts on what may be driving the increase in giving to the .4% of private institutions, Bryan? What is the comparable situation for “elite” public institutions?

    • Great questions. A few thoughts.
      1) Some donors want to show off their gifts, and the status of the recipient can matter. “I gave to Stanford!”
      2) The richest have the best development wings, I’m thinking.
      3) Gifts can be aimed at legacies.
      4) The classic math of riches begetting riches.

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