Coming Attractions

This is the third in a four-part series on the future of higher education in the USA. The first two installments are here and here.

The essay below was written by a chief academic officer at a small private university in the Midwest:

PreviewI am increasingly convinced that higher education is at the front of a massive paradigm shift that is going to leave perhaps only a half of the currently operating, relatively traditional institutions of higher education standing in recognizably their current form in the next twenty years or so.  As an example, look at what’s happening in Georgia with the merger of Augusta State University and the Medical College of Georgia, and of Macon State College and Middle Georgia College.  The merger of Macon and Middle Georgia is relatively appropriate, as they share a basic mission and are fundamentally similar institutions (essentially two-year colleges with, in Macon’s case, some selected baccalaureate programs) but the merger of Augusta State and the Medical College is a laughable abomination—a high-powered medical school merging with a virtually open-access, master’s granting comprehensive university:  how can this possibly make sense?  One of these institutions is going to lose, no doubt.  Similar things are going to happen elsewhere—I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen, for example, in other states that have a lot of small public institutions relatively close together (Wisconsin, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, I’m looking at YOU).

On the private side, schools that can’t make a case on quality and value, and that don’t have big name recognition and/or a huge endowment, are going to go out of business by the dozens.  Several such institutions that I am familiar with are in that predicament already, and some, like Dana College in Nebraska, Lambuth University in Tennessee, and the former College of Santa Fe, are already gone.  At my own institution, which is financially sound and has a relatively good endowment and a reasonable debt profile, our overall budget, net of aid, is about 8.5 percent below where it was five years ago, about half of which is enrollment challenges and the other half reduced endowment income.  Yet until very recently, our faculty have chosen to believe that there’s nothing wrong, that I am making up the argument that our sector is in terrible trouble, and that “we’ve been through tough times before and came out fine and we will again.”

Under the current system, students at relatively obscure and nonselective institutions that still do a good job with undergraduate education have opportunities to broaden their worlds in very significant ways, and have their talents and passions ignited by the happenstance of a great experience in a class they encountered sort of by accident (this is the optimum outcome of a good, intentionally designed general education program, I think).

I know this is true because I work at such a place.  We routinely see students who have, for example, never been on an airplane, emerge after four years as reasonably sophisticated and confident young people who have the tools to do something really good with their lives that they hadn’t even imagined when they got to college. This is the opportunity that is most at peril in the current crisis in higher education in the United States. If you relegate such students to “training,” they’re not going to have nearly so much chance to have that happen.

Remember, the elite colleges for the most part serve the children of the upper-middle class and higher.  These students have already had plenty of opportunity, which is I think why some studies show that “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” if you sample only from highly prepared undergraduates.  They’re going to be fine no matter where they go, and there’s a real argument to be made that in terms of “value added,” elite institutions actually don’t do as well as less-selective places, aside, of course, from the incredible elitist networking you get from those schools.  (I know this, too, because I went to one of them.)

So while I absolutely agree that we’ve gotten ourselves into a mess with the idea that “everyone needs to go to college,” going backwards on that idea without very careful planning and execution is going to take us back to a situation that even more thoroughly instantiates the self-perpetuating elite that for a long time was the characteristic of higher education, particularly in England though certainly to a lesser extent in the United States as well.

All you need to do is read President Obama’s recent proposals carefully to realize that if anything even remotely like them comes true, things are going to become an order of magnitude worse than they are already.  There are many, many issues at play but if you listen carefully to Obama’s rhetoric about job preparation and graduate salaries, what you’re actually hearing is the sound of the old apprentice system where the elite went to Oxbridge, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and everyone else learned to shoe horses being reimagined for the 21st century.  Obama should know better, but I am convinced neither he nor anyone in his administration has even the slightest idea of how education actually works.  The only consolation is that his opponents actually HATE education, which I don’t think he does—he just doesn’t get it.

I don’t know the administration at readers’ colleges and universities, of course, but I probably have some idea of what’s going on in your state, and I think it’s at least plausible to imagine that your administration in trying to find a way to get you all into a position where you can postpone or prevent truly terrible coming attractions in your sector, whether regional public or non-elite private.  They may not be articulating that argument very well, but unless they’re complete idiots, they are seeing things in the future that they are perhaps trying to prevent—that’s certainly what I’m trying to do here, and I would be greatly appreciative of more help from the faculty.

I feel like I am standing very close to the writing on the wall and may be the only person on the academic side of our operation who can actually read it.  It contains a scary message.  Things are going to change, and they’re going to be worse. Those of us—faculty and administrators—who actually know what we’re talking about need to get together to take as much control of the process as possible, but one thing I can absolutely guarantee is that standing still and resisting based on established traditions and business models is the surest way to imperil an institution’s survival.