Is this Time Different?

Putting today’s higher ed challenges in historical perspective

April 8, 2019

Higher education has always been in crisis. Virtually every decade over the past century has seen the publication of books and articles on American colleges and universities with the word “crisis” in the title.

Just as the Great Recession-fueled crises over access, affordability, attainment, and marketable skills cooled, a new set of crises has emerged: Over sexual assault, free speech, fraternity hazing, binge drinking, and other abuses, the gaming of admissions tests, anti-Asian bias in admissions, and various backdoors and side doors for the wealthy.

We might ask ourselves: Is this time different? 

Are today’s crises more worrisome than those in the past? Will public outrage translate into shifts in policy and practice?

These are questions that the economist Irwin Feller addressed in a 2016 essay “This Time It May Really Be Different.

In 2010, in their classic study of financial crises, This Time is Different, economists Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff issued a warning that bears repeating: Every time someone claims that a new situation bears little resemblance to the past and that old rules no longer apply, they are proven wrong.  

And certainly some sectors of higher education are thriving: The best resourced, most highly selective institutions, the technology leaders (Cal Tech, MIT, Georgia Tech, among others) the mega online non-profit universities (including Southern New Hampshire and WGU), and certain other emerging research universities, which, by virtue of location, skilled and visionary leadership, local investment, and mounting student demand are raising their national profile (for example, Arizona State, Central Florida, and the University of Houston).

But the troubles that beset higher education as a sector go well beyond those highlighted in the popular media, or even those that worry campus insiders, like the Northeastern and Midwestern demographic decline, the decrease in the number of international students; stagnating state and federal support, and the increasing reliance on adjuncts, post-docs, teaching assistants, and undergraduate learning assistants.

Let me spell out those deeper concerns:

The bifurcation of higher education
Higher education is bifurcating along multiple lines. These include not only financial resources, but students’ college readiness, their academic preparation in high school, and institutional spending on instruction and student services.

Increasingly, this bifurcation is making itself felt in the academic experience itself: In the range of courses, programs, and majors offered and access to experiential learning opportunities and co-curricular and extra-curricular experiences.

A broken business model
Higher education’s cost disease is not easing. Indeed, the financial pressures upon colleges and universities continue to intensify, fueled, in part, by escalating demand for financial aid, high-cost services, including mental health services, compliance, research, technology, and the need to invest in data analytics, marketing, online programming, and expensive areas of student and employer demand, including computer science, data science, and neuroscience.

The initial efforts at cost savings – course redesign, consolidating of smaller departments, and increased reliance on adjuncts – and revenue generation – aggressive fundraising, introduction of professional master’s programs, and investments designed to expand funded research – appear to have reached their limits. The next steps – layoffs, program elimination, and in a few notable instances, closures and mergers – are especially upsetting, given that these are taking place in the midst of one of the nation’s longest periods of economic expansion. 

Mounting competition

Irwin Feller worried less about Clayton Christensen’s nightmare vision of mass college closures than a gradual deterioration in academic quality, as a growing number of institutions became “chronic invalids,” lacking sufficient resources to invest in emerging programs, technology, and improved support services. 

Competitive pressures Intensify the challenge facing many institutions. In recent years, students – especially those who are more affluent or who are better prepared for college – have grown more willing to enroll a greater distance from their parental home. At the same time, the mega online providers gradually acquire students who might otherwise enroll in a neighboring university. Even if the number of students is relatively small, this can spell the difference between a balanced and an unbalanced budget.

So far, non-traditional providers, including the short-term skills boot camps, haven’t made much of a dent in enrollment. But as community colleges launch applied bachelor’s programs and as brand name institutions move aggressively into the professional master’s and certificate market, the pressures on many urban institutions and regional comprehensives are likely to intensify.

Irwin Feller quite rightly worried that this time may really be different, and I’d agree. Not all institutions are threatened, but we should fear for the future not only of very small institutions located in rural areas, but for quality of the much larger regionals. So far, state legislatures have proven more willing to fund regional comprehensives than flagships, but whether this pattern will continue remains to be seen, especially given the political clout of flagship and land grant campuses.

We must hope that T.S. Eliot’s grim prophecy, that the end will involve a whimper, in this case the erosion of quality among the institutions that serve the most vulnerable students, will proves untrue.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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