As a (relatively) young professor, I hope to have another +/- 30 years in the ivory tower ahead of me. In order to make that happen, I don’t look much like the caricature of the lazy academic; I’m constantly working on research, teaching, and service. And I don’t see that letting up much even after I get tenure since I enjoy the kinds of things I get to do as a professor.
But will there be a market for my services in the not-so-distant future? Or more precisely, will I have the kind of job (and tenure) that my older colleagues in higher education have enjoyed throughout their careers?
To be honest, I’m worried that the answer might very well be no. Of course, I’m not entitled to anything but what the market (if that word can even be used in higher ed given how skewed it is by government intervention) tells me I’m due (through freely agreed upon contracts). And if that market disappears, I’m pretty sure that you won’t hear me saying the world owes me something special.
But I’m still worried. Higher education is structured in such a way that individuals assume a lot of the upfront cost of entering the labor force with most of the (non-educational) benefits coming later and often in the form of greater job security rather than pay. Therefore, a lot of folks like me have spent many good earning years without pay (excluding tuition remission, etc) or with little pay in order to build the human capital necessary to enter the professoriate. If the university system as we know it disappears, many young academics will be left having paid the cost but without reaping the expected benefits. The prospect of that happening should deter many people from entering the realm altogether. And I frequently warn young students that the future in all likelihood isn’t going to look like the past.
But where does that leave people like me in the trenches already and looking towards what many paint as a bleak future? Worried at the least – because it is hard to read conservative, libertarian, and even more mainstream outlets without hearing bad news about our profession and the imminent demise of higher education as we know it, perhaps even led by those within the sacred temples themselves at Stanford and MIT.
Creative destruction is often a force that occurs very quickly once it starts. And naturally there will be benefits (and costs) from such changes. But is it really going to happen in higher education anytime soon? My eyes may be deceiving me, but I’m not so sure. Here’s why:
1. At universities in states like Texas and Massachusetts, new construction and new hiring are occurring on a regular basis. Enrollments are also booming at many places – which suggests that as long as the public keeps willing to underwrite higher education, the students will keep coming. This is more so if college attendance is a signalling device without peer (see Caplan) or a mixed product (signalling + assortive mating market + human capital provider + subsidized vacation [by Mom/Dad or the state] + transition to adulthood protection pod) that can’t be easily replicated.
2. What is the evidence that the public doesn’t want to keep the higher ed welfare coming? According to Pew, only 11% of the public want to see a decrease in public spending on education while 62% want it to increase. Respondents may have been thinking of primary or secondary schooling, but other reports suggest spending on all levels remains popular.
3. Public spending has declined during the recession, but generally what the middle class in America wants from the government it will get. And as private schools continue to charge astronomical prices, there will be pressure from Mr and Mrs Smith to keep providing a subsidized alternative with most of the same bells and whistles (or should I say, rock climbing walls and coffee shops). This will only come easier once public coffers start filling up again after the recession/jobless recovery ends – which it certainly will unless you think we are headed for Japan 1990’s territory.
4. People still think that higher education is necessary to get ahead. According to one industry paper: “perception does not fully comport with reality — at least in a way that has been widely documented. Recent public opinion polls show solid support for higher education, albeit with some caveats. More than half of the respondents to a poll conducted for Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education that was released last year said they see higher education as essential to achieving success.”
5. Alternative models of higher education are still flawed. Without massive technological innovations (that may be pretty impossible given the complexity of competitors – namely the human brain), most of what professors do is labor intensive and education cannot benefit greatly from economies of scale like other products. Moreover, the world is pretty dynamic and those archived MIT courses and other on-line offerings are going to get pretty stale real quickly in many subjects (probably not languages or basic statistics, but certainly most others). And even if lectures are offered over the web by superstar professors, who is going to grade papers and exams, advise students, and write letters of recommendation? Of course, these are trite observations noted by many – but have these problems really been confronted by Higher Ed 2.0 innovators?
6. Universities still provide a lot of good learning outcomes, especially for motivated students (though one could ask, at what cost?). As the Chrony recently noted about the book Academically Adrift, “Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.”
Ok, to be honest, I’m still worried. But like Americans in dying or dead industries, I’ll survive as long as I keep my skills sharp and regularly increase my human capital. And I might have to if McArdle’s post-campus America scenario turns out to be reality.