Peak Higher Ed and the Age of Diminished Expectations

Bryan Alexander has a good post up on the idea of peak higher ed, a trend/theory that encompasses peak demographics, declining public support, ballooning debt, and the increasingly conventional public opinion that college is no longer as sure a route to a good job.

I’d point out that a lot of what Bryan looks at can be seen as “Peak United States” as much as Peak H.E. The phrase that always pops to mind when looking at such things is Paul Krugman’s 1990s book title “The Age of Diminished Expectations.” For all of the light and heat generated in the current edtech buzz, what lies beneath it all is more a resignation than a positive vision of the future. Just as we’ve accepted that we can do nothing to reduce unemployment, or avert global warming, the grand rhetorical play of current edtech is that we can’t really do more or better, but we can make doing it inexpensively suck less.  That’s just the price of entry into public discourse in 2013; you have to start by embracing the myth that there’s no free lunch, that anything done to improve one sector comes at a cost to another. Even the idea that MOOCs could lead to better learning outcomes is only made plausible to the public when paired with the Greek drama of higher education’s implosion. To make progress believable you must invoke suffering.

So we suffer more from a limiting perspective than real constraints. And reflecting that, when I look at the figures that Bryan cites, I see in them more malaise than fundamentals.

  • Those skyrocketing tuitions? Due in part to the fact the economics of going to college have never been stronger. Colleges charge a lot because they can charge a lot, because investment in a college degree outperforms the stock market 3-to-1.
  • Declining demographics? They could (in a rational world) be seen as an opportunity to spend more resources per capita on students.
  • The lack of jobs for recent graduates? It actually decreases the opportunity cost of education for them, making further post-secondary study more palatable. (Heck, that’s why I went to grad school in 1994).
  • Adjunctification? If recent research is to be believed, adjunctification might not be wholly bad, as professionals that primarily teach for a living become better teachers (yes, insert 1000 caveats on ed research here). Given that teachers cost less than researchers, this is hardly a bad thing.
  • The increasing “irrelevance” of a degree in the marketplace is also the result of huge gains in degree attainment. As we educate more people we’re going to find that a degree makes you stand out from the crowd less. Assuming the degree makes you a better worker (and everything seems to indicate it does), who cares? Are we supposed to be sad about the decline of white male privilege? Or can we celebrate that more students than ever before are graduating college? Does anyone despair that a high school degree doesn’t give them a leg up anymore? (Besides Richard Vedder, of course…).

As a thought experiment, imagine that we followed the advice of many and made community college free for all, apart from some small fees to build commitment. Imagine that we saw it as as much an educational right as high school. What do these indicators of decline look like then?

  • As mentioned above, declining demographics are good — it costs us less, which means we can spend more per capita on students.
  • Debt disappears, and in a surprising “free lunch” scenario, it costs less to run the community colleges than we spent on our current byzantine system of federal higher education funding.
  • Questions of whether “College is worth it”, at the community college level become almost as senseless as asking whether high school is worth it — if you aren’t doing anything else, and it gets you closer to your career goals, yes it’s worth it.  (And if it’s not, it’s not — do something else!)
  • Adjunctification becomes just the messy lead-in to the professionalization of the discipline of teaching in higher education.  Adjuncts become full-time employees, and education costs less.

So maybe we are seeing peak higher ed. But maybe we’re also witnessing a transitional state. Maybe the problem is that we see “higher ed” as higher. Maybe the end of higher ed is the expansion of lower ed or the evolution of lifelong ed.

Or maybe something else is happening entirely. Matt Reed, who I respect quite a bit, sees the free community college idea as a trap. Sherman Dorn embraces a middle ground. (And frankly, I believe in the long run the real question will be about how to divvy up the GDP produced by our robot overlords, but that’s another post).

The point is not that this solution is *the* solution. Rather, it’s how different the fundamentals look if you assume universal education is an expectation we shouldn’t diminish. The same markers that spell decline point a path to ubiquity, if we want it. Do we?

3 thoughts on “Peak Higher Ed and the Age of Diminished Expectations

  1. Excellent post, Mike: thoughtful, concise, passionate, wide-ranging.

    I like your (1970s-era) malaise model, but fear it will take a long time for its positive end state to appear. The states and feds are very ill-disposed to *maintain* current (lowered) funding, much less spend more (even per pupil; ask me about Vermont). Colleges and universities still have huge faculty and staff compensation costs on the books, which are only growing – medical costs are killers, and tenured faculty, as few as they are, rarely get cheaper over time.
    Moreover, I fear that college degrees matter less and less to an economy devoted to service jobs. Unless instead of college degrees (BA, BS) we’re talking associates’ degrees, or a certificate from some classes. *That* I can see growing.

    My same negative economics apply to your glorious idea of free tuition.

    I’m still thinking about the path forward. I fear it’ll look like travel agencies at worst, or music at best.

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