The Next Wave in Higher Education

The beauty of pessimism is that it is usually vindicated in the short-term.  The next best thing about pessimism is that if things turn out well you can take credit for having sounded the alarm, thus enabling a course change.

For some time I have been pessimistic about the future of higher education.  On this blog I wrote in December about a looming higher education bubble.  That piece was itself adapted from something I wrote in the Syracuse Post-Standard a few months prior.  Last month an article by Stuart Butler in National Affairs echoed my predictions.

Butler essentially advanced my argument that a baccalaureate degree costs too much, and provides too little value to a struggling middle class.  As the economy has tottered, middle America is being squeezed in a way that will ultimately force dramatic changes at colleges and universities across the country.

Butler offers three facts that encapsulate the problems.  Over the past 25 years the inflation adjusted cost of a college education has risen 300 percent.  During the same time the adjusted median family income has increased only 10 percent.  Meanwhile a full 75 percent of adults said that higher education failed to provide good value.  With declining home values, lost investments, and a stagnant job market it does not take a seer to read the omens.

Now that Cassandra has spoken will our leaders act, or does Apollo’s curse still doom her to powerlessness?  The just released 2012 Inside Higher Education Survey of College and University Presidents gives us our first hint.  Despite the title, the survey includes provosts, CFOs, and other top administrators along with presidents.

Understandably, yet disappointingly, the survey lists money as the top concern of these leaders.  Their top fears are cuts in federal aid, cuts in state aid, and budget shortfalls.  They are nearly unanimous in the belief that funding is not likely to increase over the next few years.

With public and private institutions fully aware of the continuing budget crunch, the publics outshine the privates in lighting a new path.  By about 20 percentage points (give or take a little depending on the particular question) the publics claimed leadership in exploring new collaborative models to deliver programs, a willingness to eliminate underperforming programs, and efforts to reorganize and streamline administrative processes.

This is great news in that it indicates a willingness to find efficiencies to protect quality and access, rather than an approach that merely commits to cuts without reforming the underlying problems.   The timing could not be better.   According to the survey, budget difficulties thus far have not done major damage to programmatic quality or campus operations.  So far, the biggest impact of recent budget cuts – according to presidents, provosts, and CFOs – has been staff morale.

While I doubt that many Americans will lose sleep over the morale problems among tenured faculty and ivory towered elites, all should celebrate the campus leaders who seem willing to protect the core mission of their institutions and avoid the pessimistic scenarios of us doomsayers.

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3 thoughts on “The Next Wave in Higher Education

  1. I don’t really expect the presidents/provosts to behave as responsibly as you and I might wish, or vigorously enough to respond at a scale proportionate to the actual challenge. Sadly, there are too many who will protect their own salaries first and select the expedient options that make them look good for a semester or two, or until the next job offer shows up. In general, boards of trustees have been uncritical and even supine. I’m curious (not a loaded question): how did you evaluate the elimination of several foreign-language programs at UAlbany? Responsible or not, and why? By the way, I’m a big supporter of the major changes Gov. Christie has proposed at Rutgers. His plan is the right thing to do, but may actually cost *more* in the short term, was not taken as far as it could have been in Newark, and is under heavy attack in South Jersey for mostly sentimental reasons.

  2. I share your hope to see administrators responding more forcefully to change, but I also think any attempt is welcome – if only because my expectations are so low.

    I have not followed what Christie is doing at Rutgers. Will have to look into it.

    The elimination of some language programs is a somewhat personal matter. I did my undergrad work at UAlbany, and have a strong desire to see the school rise in prominence. So my initial reaction to the program cuts was disappointment. Today I am still disappointed. I think programmatic cuts are necessary, but there is a lot I would have cut before languages. There are a slew of “victim studies” departments that need to go first.

  3. My perspective may be limited because I teach at a few California community colleges (read: highly dependent on state funding and disproportionately serving disadvantaged students ) and I am an adjunct (read: must work at multiple schools to cobble together a full time wage, few benefits, not a hint of job security). However, I see budget cuts very much affecting students.

    It seems that the way we approach restructuring higher education depends on how we see its purpose. Is it about getting a job? If so, what’s wrong with a technical school – and where’d they all go? My husband works doing technical training for manufacturing at a local CC and bemoans the number of people who think that’s dirty blue collar work – ironically some of his students go on to make more than either of us. (Heck, plumbers, electricians, carpenters – they all make more than I do and I’m about to get my second advanced degree.) There seems to have been a push away from that sort of education towards the “degree.” I think that the general college education – which a bachelor’s degree really is, whatever the major – has an important place (even if it’s hard to assess) and we should ensure that anyone who wants one should be able to get one without going into indentured servant status afterwards, but realistically that’s not what everyone needs or wants.

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