The Death of Higher Education?

When I first started college, at the age of seventeen, it was expected that I would find a job after studying hard, writing papers, and taking exams for four years. In fact, college or university education came with a spoken guarantee that I would find a good paying job with little or no effort.

6 months ago

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Everyone wants to go to heaven, but the gate of heaven isn’t like the gate of hell, which opens with a push. I confused the gate of hell with the gate of heaven. –Wang Xiaofang, The Civil Servant’s Notebook

When I first started college, at the age of seventeen, it was expected that I would find a job after studying hard, writing papers, and taking exams for four years. In fact, college or university education came with a spoken guarantee that I would find a good paying job with little or no effort. Moreover, I would be able to pay off my student loans with relative ease and smart budgeting, inch ever upward toward prosperity, and, one day, I would be a member of America’s shrinking middle-class.

Credit: PEW Research Center

This was about the time of the Great Recession, as misleading as that moniker has become. The Great Recession saw droves of Americans entering college, including young, traditional students and older, non-traditional students. College became a way to escape the harsh realities of the Great Recession’s economic hellscape, where unemployment, wage freezes, mortgage default, and anger and confusion were everywhere. However, the promise that college equaled stable (and worthwhile) employment, one that was touted by politicians in Washington, D.C. and my home state of New Mexico, began to crack under the pressure of the post-Great Recession economic realities. It was a pious fiction, packaged and sold by the country’s leadership. It was a fiction that, for the most part, proved to be true until it wasn’t.

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The problem with myths is that they tend to break apart when the conditions that allow people to believe in them are ripped away. The Great Recession ripped away any notions that the United States’ higher education system could, indeed, all by itself, allow young and older college students enter the country’s shrinking middle-class. Moreover, it destroyed the notion that education leads to prosperity, for some. Although education does indeed bring about prosperity, no one seems to agree that higher education can do exactly that. In other words, the promise that politicians made to many Americans has become nothing more than empty words for many Americans, who are seeking to be a part of the middle-class and seeking to experience some economic prosperity (and stability).

Found on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Website.

This rather bleak view of higher education has had many experts, including futurists, claiming that the death of higher education is upon us, especially in the United States. The data seems to be indicating this: more people are pursuing alternative forms of education, high school graduates aren’t flocking to colleges like they used to, and the earnings for undergraduate degrees appear to be in decline. The number of students enrolling in and attending colleges or universities has been in steady decline since 2011. More students are shunning for-profit and four-year colleges or universities. Furthermore, some data, although I am skeptical of these data, suggest undergraduate degrees, particularly four-year degrees, are seeing a decline in real wages. (For an in-depth analysis, consider reviewing the Congressional Research Service’s updated 2019 report on the matter.)

Like any proclamation, we need to be wary. We need to be vigilant when it comes to promises made by politicians, and we need to be critical of those experts proclaiming the death of higher education. Instead, we need to look deeper, and when we do, we find that higher education, although not dying, per se, is, indeed, a species facing endangerment and, very possibly, extinction. In other words, we mustn’t believe that the death is already here and start planning a funeral and a life afterwards. Higher education in the United States is on a sort of life support or hospice care, depending on the state you live in. We can still take steps to help higher education remain relevant in the twenty-first century. Moreover, we can take action to push institutions to pursue innovative curricula and practices.

In my own state, the state of New Mexico, our last governor had an ax to grind when it came to higher education. Susana Martinez, a republican and fiscal conservative, did the unthinkable when she vetoed a bill funding higher education in the state of New Mexico. This sent panic throughout the state’s institutions of higher learning, and, more importantly, it rekindled the debate concerning the supposed economic value, or lack thereof, of higher education as whole. We even made the national news, and many New Mexicans didn’t appreciate being in the limelight. The state at the time, and this is still the case, has been ranked the lowest in public education, something that has demoralized New Mexico educators, even at the highest levels of our state’s education system.

New Mexico isn’t the only state, where state governments disinvest in their higher education systems. The hostility toward higher education has calmed somewhat in New Mexico; however, more conservative state politicians believe higher education is a waste of money and other precious resources. The for-profit college and university bubble is imploding on itself, creating a rather thorny predicament for the federal government and even accreditation agencies across the nation. Students are left out in the cold, some having to sue in order to have their loans forgiven. Add public and pundit opinions to the mix, it is no wonder that people have such negative outlooks when it comes to the state of higher education in the United States.

The other thing facing higher education institutions happens to be the rise in A.I., better software, cheaper computing hardware, and relatively inexpensive bandwidth. In other words, higher education institutions are facing an existential crisis, particularly those brick ’n’ mortar institutions. For example, my alma mater, which has a beautiful brick ’n’ mortar campus, hasn’t seen a serious increase in on-campus enrollment in years, despite having recording enrollment growth for over a decade. My alma mater has spent a good deal of money upgrading the facilities on campus, but the institution itself has largely ignored (really, neglected) the distance education growth that has allowed the university to thrive at a time of low enrollment. This lag has prevented the university from capitalizing on a rather important opportunity to engage with students in unique and innovative ways.

Between the failure of promises made by politicians and all the other negative baggage associated with higher education, the future of higher ed is in serious trouble. Higher education needs to stop thinking like an industry. When institutions see themselves as being part of an industry, they fail to find why they are doing something. The why is important here. We must remember that without answering the why, higher education will continue to face an existential crisis, and, if left untreated or left to fester, higher education could very well end up like nineteenth-century railroads. In other words, if higher education wants to remain relevant, it needs to look at itself in a deeper, more critical way.

To do this, higher education institutions need to consider the following items:

Answer the why
Explore what it means to be a student in the twenty-first century
Are sports facilities, sports teams, health centers, and the like necessary?
How can colleges/universities solve the gap in skills that employers complain about?
What crucial skills can colleges/universities instill and hone in their student populations?
How can college/university campus engage those growing number of distance education students in unique and innovative ways?
How might colleges/universities serve as centers for the community? For their alumni? For their enrolled students?
How can universities/colleges work with policymakers, business leaders, and community members to keep higher education relevant in the minds of the public?

Although the list above is nowhere near complete or comprehensive, I believe it could help struggling institutions of higher learning overcome their existential crises. Moreover, the questions above might help members of the public reconsider the importance/relevance of higher education in the United States.

Despite what some are saying, higher education isn’t dead yet. I emphasized yet for a reason. In the future, higher education could be replaced with alternative educational systems, systems that may or may not offer students what they need to survive, adapt, and thrive in the twenty-first century. Moreover, if we lose institutions of higher learning, what’s to say that we won’t lose so much more?

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G. Michael Rapp

Published 6 months ago


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