Clay Shirky sees the peak of higher education

ImageIn a recent blog post Clay Shirky argues that higher education’s economic model has broken.  Shirky offers the title “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age”, describing a fine past (roughly 1950-1975) and its decline by degrees (1975-2004).

I made a similar argument last year, but let’s dig into his piece before returning to mine.

First, Shirky analyzes the average, mainstream students, not the elite.  Which is unusual, unfortunately:

The students enrolled in places like CCSF (or Houston Community College, or Miami Dade) are sometimes called non-traditional, but this label is itself a holdover from another era, when residential colleges for teenage learners were still the norm. After the massive expansion of higher education into job training, the promising 18-year-old who goes straight to a residential college is now the odd one out.

Institutions were once able to support these students, plus the old-school ones.  How?  Shirky sees a fine past fueled by economic growth and political support  Both of those were then shocked by the 1970s:

The Vietnam war ended, removing “not getting shot at” as a reason to enroll. The draft ended too, reducing the ranks of future GIs, while the GI bill was altered to shift new costs onto former soldiers. During the oil shock and subsequent recession, demand for education shrank for the first time since 1945, and states began persistently reducing the proportion of tax dollars going to higher education, eventually cutting the previous increase in half. Rising costs and falling subsidies have driven average tuition up over 1000% since the 1970s.

And how did academia respond?  “Golden Age economics ended. Golden Age assumptions did not.

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”  We shifted from tenure to adjuncts, boosted tuition and ballooned debts.

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 Shirky is quite acidic on this score.

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Meanwhile, “The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.”  But this isn’t a bubble, according to Shirky, because demand remains high: “It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.”

What is to be done?  Again, Shirky is bleak, starting with tax support – this is worth reading in full:

Many of my colleagues believe that if we just explain our plight clearly enough, legislators will come to their senses and give us enough money to save us from painful restructuring. I’ve never seen anyone explain why this argument will be persuasive, and we are nearing the 40th year in which similar pleas have failed, but “Someday the government will give us lots of money” remains in circulation, largely because contemplating our future without that faith is so bleak.

Ouch.  In fact, Shirky does not offer an option – importantly, he doesn’t talk up MOOCs.  He concludes instead by urging academics – well, tenured faculty and administrators – to “abandon any hope of restoring the Golden Age.”  It’s time for a new mode of higher ed.

This argument feels very familiar to me. Last fall I made a related argument, floating the idea that we had just passed peak higher education.

My point is related, but different. I also hit the college finance problem, the crisis over education’s value, the change from tenure to adjuncthood.   I dove more deeply into the social context, drawing out demographics and other economic factors.  I also pulled out some details of college reactions, from recruitment to finance details.

All of which is to say: maybe there’s a rising model, maybe heading to consensus. that higher ed has reached a major crisis point.  If so, we have to start futuring in earnest.

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(photo by Joi Ito via Wikipedia)

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2 Responses to Clay Shirky sees the peak of higher education

  1. lindaleea says:

    Why it is a great idea to try to get academia to understand that higher education is not sustainable, this is like trying to get the 1% to give up their money. Most are clueless about what is going on and even if they have some idea, they do not know the extent. And I do not think they care to know. Someone asked if this is a “self-imposed” isolation and I am beginning to think it is. At least on the research side. As for the university, there are two sides — the traditional classes which is on the poor side and the research areas which is on the rich side. Even the professors differential this.

    I work at a university and my department has mostly research professors. One third should of retired a long time ago, but as long as they are bring in money no one cares. And even if they do not bring in money they are tenued. There is a small subset that bring in very little and never have. One is the wife of a “distinguished” professor and she has one publication since she has been there – 30 years. Most of the doctoral students still think they will get a job in academia. Their dream is to be a college professor. The post-docs and research staff just seem to hang in there grateful that they have a job. A few are beginning to see that it is harder and harder to get money for their research, but they do not see it as a long-term problem.

    Even the staff – which I am a part of is increasing by two jobs – one is mine. Yes, I know what is going on, but I have had three part-time jobs in the last three years. Yes, I am grateful that I will soon have a full-time job with benefits. I do feel guilty, that I am part of the problem, but I also need to eat. When I try to discuss these issues, no one wants to hear it. I have tried to get administration to do more with businesses in the areas, so that students can see there are other places to work. But no one is listening.

  2. Pingback: Peak higher education, 4 years later | Bryan Alexander

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