The Future of Higher Education

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.

10 thoughts on “The Future of Higher Education

  1. I believe the gravy train will keep rolling until one of two things happens: The guaranteed student loan program ends. Or one generation of students weighs the benefits of a traditional higher education to the lifetime of debt it entails and chooses to opt out of a traditional higher education. We are already seeing the latter happen as more and more kids consider distance learning, community colleges, vocational ed and coop training.

  2. Great article! I appreciate the links. As someone who is preparing their package for tenure, I too have thought about this. I can easily see the end of HigherEd Inc.

    1. I’m surprised no one mentioned Griggs v. Duke. That is step one. Whether you agree with the Civil Rights Act or not (I do), it is pretty evident that the Roberts Court with one more Scalia/Thomas-esque justice would probably overturn a significant portion of it (likely all of it). Once disparate impact is gone, Griggs falls, hello employer-based testing. HigherEd Inc. loses its statutory signaling/credentialing oligopoly.

    2. MITx, Stanford, Bob’s shack of Electrical Engineering, etc., put well produced content online to teach people various topics for a small fee (or free and charge for assessment).

    3. Biometrics. India is already experimenting here. Imagine a retina scan-based testing and ID system. You show up, scan your retina and take the test. Most of this infrastructure already exists. Employers buy a scanner and pull up your results.

    4. Current universities become large low-cost tutoring centers. Even this is probably not cost effective as tutoring over internet video may be more cost effective.

    I am just hoping this process takes another 20-30 years to cover my career span.

    1. Griggs v Duke does not prohibit employer based testing. It only prohibits job requirements which have little or no bearing on job performance. This can include tests among other things; but tests are allowed if the test relates to job performance. It also merely affirms existing statutory law which no one currently deems unreasonable or contests and is thus unlikely to be overturned.

      1. You are correct in your strict reading of the ruling. I disagree with you on the likelihood of it being overturned. The more important aspect is what major corporate legal and HR departments think. I am pretty confident that if an engineering manager at a major company went into a meeting with their legal and HR rep and said: “I am going to start using the GRE Engineering subject test as opposed to college GPA as my main screening criterion”, they would be pretty roundly shot down.

        That is my main point. If you no longer have to count on school prestige and GPA to get an interview, higher education loses a lot of its appeal; especially to those looking for a bargain as FreeDem notes below.

    2. Good luck with tenure. I’d love to know where and in what field if you are willing to share via e-mail. I’ll keep your identity to myself.

      What do you gather MIT and Stanford are thinking with MITx etc. If it really is an alternative to traditional teaching, aren’t they killing their brands? Planned obsolence? Probably not b/c labs matter a lot at these places so there will always be a market for their in-person classes (and for research funding). But wouldn’t it be foolish for the social sciences to cooperate (if they have a choice, that is)?

      1. Email sent.

        I was at the Institute when Open Course Ware started and I really think that originally it was an altruistic/Noblesse oblige thing. A lot of faculty thought that they were very fortunate to be at this place with so many resources and wanted to share what they produced.

        I have no idea where MITx is going. There are a lot of people who are into disruptive innovation and want to shake up higher education, so they may want to get a first mover advantage. My more cynical nature tells me it is probably a money grab (think Harvard Extension School). We can charge for the assessments and monetize what was originally an altruistic endeavor on the back end.

  3. College attendance will be difficult to replicate, but you’re dealing with a system that right now covers something like 30% of today’s youth, plus 10% in the community college system. In thinking about the spread of distance learning programs like MITX, consider the profile of a likely student. Sure, it’s still affiliated with MIT, but the decision was made to brand it as something a little bit different. There are still strong forces at work favoring a traditional brick and mortar college experience, but primarily for the folks who care about specific colleges for signaling.

    I’d cut today’s college bound youth into two groups. In Group A we have the kids who genuinely face anxiety and difficulty in getting into the college of their choice because they are competing for those small number of slots in an elite institution. In Group B we have the kids who are just going to college, either community college or a standard state institution, because that’s what they are supposed to do to try to get ahead.

    Group A isn’t just going to college, they are trying to send a signal about who they are (Ivy League, elitist, good breeding stock, whatever). Group B is just trying to develop the skills necessary for the 21st century.

    McArdle’s pretty on the nose about the broader trends, but I think she misses the types of people who will be abandoning the brick and mortar system first. It will be the kids who are looking at community college now or a lower cost state institution. They are looking for an education at a bargain, not an expression of their desired lifestyle.

    This is especially true when you look at both the demand side and the supply side. Group B is looking for the bargain. They are primarily looking at state-funded institutions. The more states face a budget crunch (and let’s be honest, they will), the more they’ll want to turn to distance learning and the like as a way of cutting costs.

    What happens when the lower middle and middle middle class are in the post-campus America, and the upper middle and the elites are in the traditional campus America? Group B is getting a quality education at a more affordable price, but isn’t developing the strong social networks from a traditional campus experience. And their degree is going to be branded as post-campus, which allows for the type of college program you’re in to become a new form of signaling.

    What happens when most of the state’s public funding is going to Group B, while most of the student loan program is helping to back up both Group A and B? I could see this opening the door for public institutions in Group A going private instead of facing the cost-cutting demands of their states. I think this scenario could produce cost control for B, but not A, and further separate out the two groups by pricing A’s schools out of reach of Group B.

    Or maybe I’m just biased having just finished “Coming Apart.”

    1. In the workaday world, outside of high finance, the utility of a college education as either a signalling device or for developing strong social networks is vastly over-rated. Most kids, when they apply for that first entry level job in sales, or accounting, or whatever are profoundly shocked when they learn that nobody interviewing cares about their school, their grades, or what clubs they were in. All that employer wants to know is will you be on time? Will you do the task we assign you? Will you work steadily and smartly? Will you fit in to our group? The ironic thing is that the campus experience does not foster or promote these very virtues which most employers are looking for in that entry level employee.

      1. Right, “most kids” find that no one cares where they went to college, and “most kids” can’t depend on the quality and reputation of their college and its alumni networks to carry them forward. I believe “most kids” will be in Group B, drawing heavily from the 10% in community colleges right now and whatever percentage of today’s students at brick and mortar institutions just need a standard college education. Plus the ever growing pool of future generation’s youths going to college for the first time in their family’s history.

        Let’s say 75% of today’s college students are not looking for college as a signalling device or strong social networks. Adding in community colleges and you’re looking at around a third of all college age youths in Group B, and less than 10% in Group A. Maybe Group A should be a bit larger, but I think that tends to represent a fair estimate.

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