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You’ve no doubt seen the headlines:

  • Majority of Americans lack confidence in value of four-year degree
  • Over 40 percent of college students considered dropping out in past six months
  • From Tenured Professor to Lumpenproletariat: The State of Higher Ed Faculty in America
  • ‘It’s about damn time’: College workers organize amid nationwide labor unrest
  • The college-age population is about to crash. It will change higher education forever.

Eroding public confidence in higher education. Grave threats to tenure. Campuses as America’s next union battleground. Universities bracing for enrollment about to fall off a demographic cliff. Community colleges failing to fulfill their mission. Accreditors facing political heat. Academic freedom under attack. Campuses struggling with a student mental health crisis.

It’s enough to make one shake.

As I read the higher ed press, I try to find the trend line. Is it that higher education is reeling, that past failures are coming home to roost and the long-anticipated day of reckoning has at last arrived?

Or are concerns publicized by a sensationalist press overblown, consisting of relatively isolated issues that are far less general than we think?

Let’s go through a number of the key sources of concern one by one.

1. Tenure
I wholeheartedly agree with one headline: “Tenure threatened in U.S. more by universities than politicians.”

As the AAUP puts it, “U.S. faculty are steadily losing the rights of tenure, but far less from bombastic politicians weakening their protections than from universities quietly refusing to grant them.” Although the AAUP is highly concerned about posttenure-review programs that could lead to faculty members’ termination, it is even more concerned about the replacement of tenured with contingent positions, said the organization’s senior researcher.

Within the Cal State system, the share of faculty who are in tenured or tenure track positions fell from 66.6 percent in 2004 to 54.4 percent in 2021.

2. Unionization
With Princeton and Stanford next on the graduate student unionization front, it’s clear that universities have become the hotbed of labor organizing. Many faculty members worry that if graduate school is viewed as essentially a workplace, then research institutions will become less and less educational and professors will increasingly treat their graduate students truly like staff, with no obligations to mentor or advise.

That’s a clear and present danger, but I suspect that unionization campaigns are best understood as a product of a shift that has already taken place. The older bargain—that if doctoral students play by the traditional rules, they will get an academic job—has broken down. Many doctoral candidates feel with reason that they aren’t treated with the dignity and fairness that they deserve—and this belief helps fuel unionization drives.

3. Mental Health
In an essay entitled “Fear, Rage and Anguish on America’s Happiest Campus,” the novelist Mary Gaitskill observes that for all the talk about safe spaces, trigger warnings, inclusion and belonging, a noticeable number of students exhibit severe signs of depression, despair and rage. In her creative writing courses, many students are writing about self-harm, suicide, violent rape and necrophilia.

Gaitskill attributes this, in part, to a toxic cultural and social environment that fuels a sense of hopelessness. College students, like all too many older adults, find themselves enmeshed in a Durkheimian nightmare: without a “sense of common bond or shared identity, a void of powerful values, lives of bleak consumerism. Anomie writ large. No friends, no community, no ceremony, no shared rituals … no presumption of common cause.”

As one commentator puts it, in an environment marked by school shootings, climate change and official acts of brutality and violence, students “are looking for a sense of safety by fixating on problems they can control, such as offensive words, gender ideology and toxic masculinity, even though the apparatus built around solving those problems offers no safety.”

We ignore students’ disaffection, alienation, disengagement and pent-up frustration and anger at our peril.

4. Community Colleges
The Hechinger Report, a higher ed news source not given to hyperbole or scare headlines, recently posted an alarming article entitled “‘The reckoning is here’: More than a third of community college students have vanished. Among those who do enroll, red tape and a lack of support are crushing their ambitions.”

Despite their low tuition, which averages $3,860, versus $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities, students are abandoning these institutions in droves. Not only has enrollment declined 37 percent since 2010, but the figures would be much worse were it not for high school students who now make up a fifth of all community college students.

What’s especially worrisome is the fact that while four of five community college students want to get a bachelor’s degree, only one in six does. The awful fact is that a student who starts out at a community college is much less likely to earn a bachelor’s than one who starts at a four-year institution. Indeed, the figure has declined by 15 percent since 2020.

As Jon Marcus, a leading observer of the higher education science, notes, “Because of an ‘underinvestment’ in advising, for example, community college students in California who transfer to four-year universities end up taking an average of 26 more credits than they need.”

If we fail to fix the community college attrition and transfer problems, we must face up to a cruel fact: For too many students, a two-year institution is a path to nowhere. We can’t let this stand.

5. Accreditors and DEI
At UC Berkeley, 2.4 percent of the students are Black and 16 percent Latino. The faculty is 7 percent Black and about 15 percent Latino. At California Lutheran, the student body is 40 percent Latino and 4 percent Black; nearly 30 percent of its faculty are of color.

Which institution received a notice of concern (in 2021) that it wasn’t “truly inclusive”? That’s right Cal Lutheran.

As five of the six major accreditors begin to assess colleges’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, it’s hard not to wonder what’s going on. Are equity standards being applied evenhandedly or are prestigious institutions being given a free pass?

Let me be clear: I believe that institutions should be held to account for equity. But that should mean all institutions, including the most eminent.

6. The Future of English Departments
Faced with sharply falling numbers of majors, many English departments are downplaying the traditional canon and pre-1800 (and sometimes pre-1900) literature and instead emphasizing creative writing, communication, media studies, global English language literature and non-Western literature. Those latter subjects are important, but it’s not clear that they are best conducted within English departments.

Then there’s the AI text generator threat: how to teach writing when ChatGPT and its counterparts can craft acceptable essays with very limited student effort.

Then, too, there’s a broader issue: that many, perhaps most, students consume writing and media in new ways. Many of my own students regard reading a book as too much of an effort. Majors that rest upon that premise become less and less attractive.

7. Staffing
Does Stanford have more administrators than undergrads? Yep. Former U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos’s claim is true.

Writes higher ed economist Richard Vedder, Stanford should “give each student a paid concierge—an academic butler, if you will.” Vedder recently retired from Miami University, which had approximately the same number of students as Stanford—but Stanford has 10 times as many employees, even excluding its medical school.

To the claim that Stanford, as a private institution, can spend its money as it wishes, Vedder replies, “In what sense is Stanford more ‘private’ than nearby California State University, East Bay? Which university receives more taxpayer dollars from the federal government per student?” The answer: almost certainly Stanford, which receives significantly more funding via federal grants, tax breaks for donors and forgone taxes on the institution’s endowment.

To be sure, as Robert Kelchen, an expert on higher ed finance and head of the University of Tennessee’s Education Leadership and Policy Studies department, notes, “undergraduate education is only a part of what” even public flagships do. “There’s a lot of graduate education and a lot of research and that’s where a lot of the staff and administrators are.”

Still, what we are witnessing is a deepening divide. Following the 2008 Great Recession, lesser-funded institutions all across the country cleaned house. Staff and expenses were reduced to painful levels. Operational efficiencies were put into place. Even after the pandemic’s peak, the situation remains in a “pause” with limited hiring and many unfilled open positions.

It appears that Stanford, like Yale, resembles a tech company … clinging on to an old way of operating despite new economic realities. Their wealth so insulates the elite schools that they have no way to account for their staffing—or the way they fund units is utterly decentralized and not subject to central oversight. Consider that Twitter, Google and others can lay off tens of thousands of employees without much impact to their operations.

For everyone else, however, there’s another sobering trend: a hard time filling staff roles. In the past, working for higher education, while not as exciting as joining a tech giant or start-up, was an attractive job, with security, impressive benefits and reasonable work-life balance.

But today, many younger workers look at higher ed with a sense of disdain. Salaries haven’t kept up with the cost of living and many colleges are way behind in technology and modern ways of working. Worse yet, there’s no obvious staff career ladder for most roles. There are better options for overqualified multidegree holders.

8. Campus Free Speech
Just when one hoped that the rancor over academic freedom and free speech seemed to be dying down, we’ve had a series of ruckuses—at Stanford Law School, following Hamline and Macalester—that reinforce the sense that resistance to the idea of the campus as an oasis for dialogue and openness remains a big problem.

The defenses of the Stanford law student protests by a number of prominent faculty members—who say they share the students’ concerns, if not their methods—add to anxieties about whether campuses, especially the most elite, will defend free speech.

This reminds me of the political correctness wars in the ’90s. Will this too blow over? It does make for juicy headlines. That said, students at campuses like Stanford have been told they are the best of the best … and some of them use the campus as a kind of experimental playground, with no obligations or consequences for their actions. It’s fun to shout speakers down, to protest and rage against the machine.

Since there’s no Vietnam and no real existential threat (other than climate change, which might be too great to fathom)—many focus on other issues. But not the ones that most concern me: the extreme stratification and inequities across the higher ed landscape and the incomparable benefits that students at elite institutions have in getting well-paid or well-connected jobs.

I wouldn’t say that higher education faces a reckoning. But we mustn’t put our head in the sand and pretend that all is well. It isn’t. The trend lines aren’t good. The problems that most colleges and universities face aren’t going away: affordability, degree attainment, broken business models, dramatic shifts in student interests and profound inequalities in access and outcomes.

We can feign ignorance and muddle along, under the assumption that everything will work out. But much as a troubled couple shouldn’t avoid or delay difficult conversations, campuses shouldn’t wait, either.

Does your campus have a forward-looking plan for a post–affirmative action world? About how to bring more diverse students to success in especially challenging, high-demand fields that require advanced mathematics? Or to facilitate students’ entry into the workforce?

Higher ed has become an easy scapegoat for all the problems of late-stage American capitalism, including this country’s ability to tackle pressing problems in an efficient, cost-effective manner.

More students and parents question the value of higher ed, but for social and economic mobility, there is no genuine alternative. Certainly not this country’s profoundly flawed trade school network.

That said, if we don’t address our sector’s problems, others will. If our institutions need a jolt, I can assure you, it’s coming.

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