08 September 2009

Universities: Doomed

How’s that for a post title in the first week of class?

The internet is changing things. This is known. But how many industries have ignored this and died? And will mine be one of them? This article in Washington Monthly says I’m the academic equivalent of an auto worker at General Motors.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

For me, it’s very easy to envision a scenario like this playing out over the next decade.

  • Costs of a university education will continue to rise above the average inflation rate.
  • Universities pretend nothing is wrong.
  • Some politician decides to start making political hay about the cost of undergraduate university education, and how limited access is harming the nation’s economic potential. (This will be easier in America, for various cultural reasons.)
  • New online educational organizations, unable to be accredited to offer undergraduate degrees, offer other forms of certification, and offer basic undergrad classes that traditional universities accept the course credit.
  • The accreditation system will get a grilling like banks and Wall Street recently did. Traditional universities will fight tooth and nail to save it, and by extension themselves, but lose the public relations war in the process.
  • Online organizations see growth in offering certificates, while traditional undergraduate degrees become less popular.
  • A lot of universities close up shop, which really does a number on the nation’s long term research prospects.

Note that all of this concerns undergraduate education, which is only one of a university’s roles. I do not see other institutions and internet as changing universities’ roles as research centers, graduate training centers, and so on, as strongly as it will be changing undergraduate education.

But undergraduate education is important. It’s an open question how universities could survive if undergrad enrollment catastrophically declined.

Want me to make it worse? I’ll make it worse. To keep competitive in research and graduate training and some of the other things that universities do, they need good people. This article says universities aren’t going to get those people. The academic hazing process to job security, from post-docs who have poor wages and less security to the draconian process of getting tenure, is so unfriendly to starting and having a family that a lot of potential academics are chucking in the towel.

Evolve or die. Unfortunately, from my vantage point in the thick of it all, I seriously wonder how much universities will let themselves change.

Additional: Here’s a related article on university costs that also feeds into my gloomy mood.

Earlier this year, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities announced... that the average increase in tuition and fees at private institutions this school year would be... just a little higher than inflation.

Is this where we are supposed to stand up and cheer?

1 comment:

Steven Newton said...

Interesting and scary article. I've felt for some time, standing in front of college audiences, that the model we've been following just isn't working, at least not to educate such un-inquisitive, incurious students.

This poses an even greater threat...it's hard to imagine a world without universities. But GM workers probably felt that same way 30 years ago too. :|