In 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.” We shifted from tenure to adjuncts, boosted tuition and ballooned debts. Shirky is quite acidic on this score.
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.