A Theory of Higher Ed Worry

What do you worry about?

May 23, 2018

Regarding the future of the industry in which they work, journalists are the only people more pessimistic than academics.

Most higher ed people have trouble seeing a future for higher ed.  There is nothing a higher ed person likes to do more than look backwards to a golden age, and look forward to years of decline, debasement, and eventual collapse.

I have a theory of higher ed worry.  I think that our existential angst is both well-founded and misplaced.  We are correct to worry about our own place in higher ed, but wrong to worry about the future of higher education.

All of us trying to build a career in higher education are intimately aware of the problems faced by our industry.

We have a system that concentrates wealth and status amongst a few institutions, schools that serve a shockingly small proportion of the overall number of learners.

The colleges and universities that serve as the greatest bridge to a middle class life, our public institutions, are increasingly starved of resources.  Public disinvestment has diminished access to a high quality college education just when it is needed most, by driving up student costs and student debt.

Colleges and universities operate in an environment of challenging economic and demographic headwinds.  The costs to run a quality institution able to attract and retain tuition paying students continues to grow, just as the supply of potential applicants is plateauing (and then declining) in regions where many smaller nonprofits are located.

Despite all these very real challenges to the future of higher education - and there are many - it is also the case that a postsecondary degree has never been more valuable to individuals and to employers.

How often do you hear people say that they “wish they had gotten less education”?  How many of you regret the time and costs (direct and opportunity)  invested in your own postsecondary experience?

I’ve never taken the “too many people go to college” argument all that seriously, as the people making this argument all seem to have multiple degrees.  The day when the anti-college pundits stop sending their own children to college is the day that I’ll engage with that crowd.

The future will be one of more postsecondary education, not less.  The idea of the segmented life - one defined by dedicated periods for education / work / retirement - is an ideal that is quickly losing appeal.  Longer healthy lifespans require that all of us are lifelong learners.  The life course of 21st century will be blended.  We will combine school and work, and work and school, in ways that require a new postsecondary infrastructure.

So if demand for higher education is likely to only increase in the decades to come, then why are all of us academics so miserable?

Mostly, we are miserable because we are logical rational actors.  Just because the future of higher ed (as a whole) is relatively bright, does not mean that the prospects of those currently employed in the sector are particularly appealing.

If you are lucky enough to work in higher ed today, you are likely to be navigating in an environment of permanent scarcity.  There is likely more work to do than there are people to do it.  How many of you are doing jobs that really should be done by two?  And I’m using the wordy “lucky” with great intention, as many of our colleagues in higher education are faced with insecure employment and inadequate levels of compensation.

Those of us who work in higher ed are worried because we should be worried.  Our jobs are hard.  And they might not exist tomorrow.  Moreover, it is not like our skills transfer particularly well to other industries.  We got into higher ed because we believe in the mission of improving lives through education, and of creating knowledge through discovery.  Doing something else with our lives is a scary prospect, particularly after all the years we have invested in learning how to do our higher ed jobs well.

What is required, I think, is a way to be (reasonably) optimistic about the future of higher education (as whole), while (appropriately) pessimistic about our own higher ed futures.  It may be that the best way to keep working in higher ed, and to make our jobs and the jobs of our colleagues better, is to together work towards a more positive vision of a future higher education.

We need to be fearless in discarding outdated university models, while at the same time fierce in defending the culture and traditions (such as academic freedom and shared governance) that have contributed to the resilience and positive impact of our institutions.  We should fight those who wish to “disrupt” higher education, offering an alternative model that builds on our strengths as mission driven organizations.  Places that are dedicated to improving the lives of our students,  and to bolstering the health of our communities.  And at every opportunity higher education leaders should advocate for greater levels of investment in our public colleges and universities.

Worry about public disinvestment.  Worry about structural under-staffing and permanent scarcity.  Worry about demographic trends.  Worry about the erosion of tenure track positions and the challenges faced by adjunct faculty.  Worry about the rising costs of college, and about student debt.  Worry that an intensive and campus-based liberal arts education is morphing into a luxury good, accessible to only an ever smaller segment of privileged (or talented and lucky) emerging adults.  Worry about any idea of education that replaces educators with algorithms, and professors with platforms.  Worry about shortsighted efforts to hollow out the humanities.  Worry about overemphasizing training for the first job after graduation, as opposed to investing in areas that emphasize the acquisition of the skills and habits necessary for a lifetime of learning.  Worry about all these things and more.

What we should not worry about is the future of higher education.

What do you worry about?


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top