Starting my new book project: Peak Higher Education

Greetings from somewhere over the United States.  I’m flying from DC to LA, and will take this lofty moment to announce my next book project.

I introduced the peak higher education concept way back in 2013.  It was a scenario describing one path for colleges and universities.  Since then I’ve developed the model in presentations, articles, a book chapter, and workshops.  Meanwhile, the past decade largely embodied what I projected, with enrollments declining along with a steady stream of institutional cuts, closures, and mergers.

Now I’d like to announce a full length, scholarly book project developing the model even further.  I just signed a contract with Johns Hopkins University Press to produce Peak Higher Ed: How to Survive the Emerging Academic Crisis.


One of Midjourney’s visualizations of the idea.

What I hope to do in this book is to trace out the peak model first as it played out historically, examining the causes and contours of how American academia reached, then passed a certain height.  Second, and to greater length, I plan to extend this model forward in time as a scenario.  I’ll do that by some trend analysis, identifying the forces which drove the post-secondary sector into and past peak, then extrapolating them forward. Next I broaden the picture to address three grand and emerging challenges to higher ed: automation, climate change, and a deep division about how we consider the future.  The book concludes by recommending some ways institutions and individuals can best survive and thrive through the scenario.  Readers will be familiar with my thoughts on some of these topics.

In some more detail, here’s the current table of contents, with some details attached to each chapter:

  1. Introduction – The story of how the peak model came to be. Methodology (scenario, trends analysis) and scope (to 2045, primarily the entirety of United States academia).  Relationship to two previous Hopkins books, Academia Next and Universities on Fire.  Hails the audience and what this book might do for them.
  2. Peak higher ed, the first decade – Analysis of enrollment changes in the late 20th and 21st centuries, with historical and demographic contexts. Program cuts, queen sacrifices, mergers, and closures. Broken down by disciplines, campus numbers, and institutional types. Rising financial stresses on many institutions, including state funding declines, rising discount rates, rising costs. The important shift to online classes. Potential early signs of peak scholarship.  Comparison to the bubble model.
  3. Forces pushing academia further downslope – How the forces which drove peak’s first decade may continue to operate. The stark demographic data and projections. After Nathan Grawe’s cliff.  Challenges to academic wage and wealth premiums.  COVID-19 effects.   Challenges to scholarship (productivity, discovery, citation struggling; replication crisis).
  4. After the consensus shattered – The rise and fall of college for all, looking back to the 1970s and ahead to 2045. Declining faith in higher education: partisan and bipartisan. Governments and businesses fighting the paper ceiling; attitudes against credentialism.  Do we believe  retraining works? Anxiety about education’s economics. The Turchin argument: higher education as contributor to political instability.
  5. Automation comes for the campus – Quick introduction to emerging AI. Colleges and universities use or compete with digital tutors.  Campuses respond with new career and life preparation curriculum and pedagogy to several ways AI might transform the labor market: a surge in new, post-AI jobs; “cyborg” jobs, where AI is intertwined with every position; a more competitive market thanks to AI-driven underemployment.  AI depresses higher education’s value or makes it more valuable. A possibility for the humanities to rebound.
  6. The Anthropocene is here, ready or not – The climate crisis increasingly impacts higher education across the multiple domains outlined in Universities on Fire. Some institutions fail to respond to global warming and suffer damages and costs, losing students and reputation.  Roiling social and political crises, involving and to some extent accentuated by the climate crisis, reduce support for higher education.  Academic responses to global warming can elicit off campus opposition; these responses can involve teaching, research, a campus physical grounds, and community relations.  Academics may perceive climate action as competing for scarce and shrinking resources.
  7. Academia and one giant argument over humanity’s future – Two competing models for the next 200 years which are now emerging around the world and how they can impact higher education. Model 1: we accept shrinkage, shifting institutional strategies from an emphasis on student quantity to quality of experience, reducing the number and size of campuses.  Academics contribute to the development of new political economy systems, such as donut economics and no-growth, as well as to projects of social healing and repair.  Model 2: we double down on accelerating innovation, emphasizing growth in knowledge, economy, civilization, technology.  Academic footprint does not grow but transforms towards the posthuman.
  8. The next colleges and universities – What might higher education look like after it adjusts to being overbuilt? Two decades after peak we may see a ratcheted-down sector with fewer campuses, students, faculty, and staff.  Major political possibilities: resurgence in the public good; expanded state support in some areas; rise or fall of international students as part of immigration. Declining rural towns and ghost campuses.
  9. Controlled descent – what can academics do to mitigate decline or try to reverse peak?  This chapter includes: expanded international student recruitment; launching new institutions; state universities increasing recruiting out of state students; growing online teaching; current events curricula; expanded recruitment of older students; cuts, closures, mergers; relocation. Economic strategies: new pricing forms, subsidized tuition and fees; differential prices; faculty, staff, student labor organizing; sharing services. Improving student experience.  And more.

I’ve started writing and hope to turn the whole thing into my long-suffering publisher a year from now.  I hope to share the process here.

A few caveats: yes, after writing one book about global higher ed I’m returning to focus on the US. That’s because American higher ed is not only globally important, but also very different from the rest of the world and benefits from distinct treatment.  Also, this book is about a scenario, which means one possible future.  I hope American academics and, well, Americans as a whole are able to respond in such a way that we avoid sliding further downslope.  It’s possible factors I haven’t foreseen will make that happen; I’ll try my best to anticipate them in this volume.

Any requests for topics I should address?  Any campus stories you’d like me to share, either openly or pseudonymously?

Here’s hoping the airplane’s WiFi will successfully transmit these bits.  <-the 21st century version of Chaucer’s “Go litel boke!”

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7 Responses to Starting my new book project: Peak Higher Education

  1. Michael Galvin says:

    Hey Bryan,
    Michael at George Mason here. Looking forward to your new book; sounds amazing, a reality check perhaps. We all need help rising out of our delusions. You invited topic suggestions. I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest this. I’m concerned with the erasure of staff and programs that offer students a smart take on DEIA. For some students in my orbit these programs are the only reasons they become mindful of their racial identities.
    What does this portend o oracle?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great point, Michael (and hello, neighbor!). I’m including anti-DEI under several headers now: polarized politics, demographic changes, and institutional strategies to boost enrollment.

  2. Forgive me if this has been covered already within your outline but consider documenting the entire landscape of learning (in broad strokes) from prior to the Internet Age to now. For example, it is theoretically possible today to conveniently educate oneself entirely from open source material and online resources without a formal classroom or institutional environment. Prior to this threshold, there had been an advantageous scarcity (for higher education) in opportunities to learn. The paradox here is that, today, while higher education is declining, there has never been more learning going on now than ever before in human history (given a broad interpretation of “learning”). I feel this is an important contextual factor in both the perception of higher education as a relevant product and in its evolution as a system within a changing landscape.

    I have brought this up in prior discussions as a reflection of what had happened to the film/video post-production industry from the early 1990s through the DV Revolution in the mid-2000s. All of this led to the utter collapse of the post-production industry as several factors changed:

    – Easy / inexpensive access to the hardware, software, and the means to single-handedly produce one’s own content flattened the elite scarcity of post-production services. (The AVID Media Composer cost $40,000 – $80,000 in 1997; by 2003, a Mac Pro and a few PCI cards could replace an AVID for about $8,000)
    – Disk drives for media storage became cheaper and had larger capacity; computers for editing were cheaper, faster, and user-configurable. (Let’s not mention the flood of bootleg software than anyone could access through P2P sharing!)
    – With the success of YouTube, streaming media, and expansion of broadband, there was no longer a need for post-production professionals to create content that was SMPTE compliant. None of these online systems cared whether the user-generated content met SMPTE industry standards for color balance or sound levels.
    – The perception of expertise collapsed when “the masses” no longer needed elite professionals to perform voodoo to produce video content.
    – The means to measure direct consumer engagement for online media surpassed the value of statistical estimates from legacy Nielsen ratings, etc. Marketing budgets pivoted to online media at the expense of broadcast.

    Most of these trends can be matched against their counterpart in higher education. In short, “I’ve seen this all before.”

  3. Joe says:

    Bryan, though your focus in US for the book, I wonder if you might not address The Tiger in the Room: could China’s rising influence alongside America’s political disfunction lead students globally to enroll in Chinese (or other foreign) institutions before coming here for work in STEM and business?

    If, say, China beats the US to the Moon and begins mining and settlement there, or if China were to deploy fusion power first, how might the perception of China as an innovation powerhouse hurt the reputation and enrollment of US institutions? How might US higher ed respond to win back global students?

    I doubt that Chinese universities are ready to be world leaders or ready to take on hundreds of thousands of foreign students. I also doubt that many students from democratic nations would choose Chinese higher ed unless they had compelling reasons to do so. That said, The UAE’s universities have courted Westerners with some success; China might try that model too.

  4. Caleb Clark says:

    I can’t wait to read it. Here’s a topic to consider. What is the next peak? Perhaps college for all isn’t dead; it just needs rebranding and evolution. Most people agree that some sort of training after high school is needed to get a good job. Maybe we can bring vocational training (master electrician, CAD, etc.) and apprenticeships into the “college” umbrella? Or if we’re being less self-centered, merge the two with equal respect.

    The word college is after is usually defined as “an educational institution or establishment, in particular, one providing higher education or specialized professional or vocational training.”

    I’ve worked in colleges and currently work in a public middle school on a campus with a high school and career center. The division between the career center and high school is shocking to me. Straight out of the 1950s to this day. They have separate buildings, cultures, and stigmas. But they both feel like colleges to anyone uncorrupted by history. Both have classrooms, libraries, and project work spilling into the hallways. The high school wouldn’t surprise most of you, but the career center probably would! There’s an entire three-bedroom house for the master electrician track. A tiny house is built yearly, and you can bring your car to be fixed by the mechanics under teacher supervision. They have lots of computers, 3D printers, and machines like lathes, and yet they also teach culinary arts, and early childhood ed with college credit with our local community college. And they have an impressive budget since we are so short of tradespeople.

    What if college could come to mean both worlds? Or maybe a new name? What if you could get a BA while you became a master electrician? First, electrician basics to get you into a paid apprenticeship, which takes years, during which you finish a BA? What if liberal arts included a construction course with a summer (well-paid BTW) apprenticeship on a road crew?

    Anyway, the proposed title brought out this idea because I like to think there will be many more peaks in higher ed. The subtitle made me think that by the time the book is published, maybe the crisis will be past “emerging?”

    Again, can’t wait to read it.

  5. sibyledu says:

    What a great idea for a book. The expanded table of contents shows that you are covering the right kinds of things.

    If I had a suggestion for something to add, it would be the changing relationship of the workplace to higher education. As Bill Readings pointed out decades ago, the purpose of higher education shifted to workforce development in the 1990s. But corporate America decided to slash its own workforce development efforts instead of leveraging them with the assistance of a redirected higher education. Then it took to complaining that college graduates lacked skills, without considering the impact of the low relative wages they were offering, and without any efforts to articulate the desired skills or partner with higher ed. In short, they expected higher education to produce the workers they wanted without offering any input. In the last few years, some large companies have started to offer some skill development opportunities to their own employees — but these are for highly specific skills, and do not develop the broad skill base and retrainability that marks employees who can rise to management and/or create innovation.

    If there’s a triad in workforce development between the state, the academy, and the workplace, the workplace has not lived up to its role. And the academy is catching most of the blame for the failure of the other two legs.

    • I agree with this proposal. HE and the workforce are symbiotic. With more employers eliminating degree requirements (nevermind whether they actually hire anyone without a degree!), I imagine this will be a continuing trend if the outcome of hiring non-degree candidates produces the equivalent effect.

      In essence, once employers trivialize a degree, then the value proposition of higher education diminishes.

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