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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Free College or Bust

The only way forward if we care about maintaining access to post-secondary education.

September 28, 2018

Writing at The Washington Post, Jeffrey Selingo identifies three ways that the “Great Recession changed higher ed forever.”

1. The financial underpinning of students paying “ever-higher tuition using their parents’ home equity lines as a bank…ended with the housing bust.”

2. Students, concerned about jobs and future economic prospects have chosen “practical majors in business and health care[1]” while moving away from English, history, philosophy, and other humanities-related fields.

3. Conditions on the ground have “led college presidents and their boards to focus on short-term issues rather than the long-term sustainability of their institutions.” Selingo believes institutions are looking for a quick fix, adopting a quarterly-results mindset, rather than trying to forge a new path which may prove resilient and enduring.

Where I would quibble with Selingo is whether or not the recession truly “changed” higher ed or if it merely pulled the lid back on existing problems, which were ignored as long as there was enough money to keep things lurching along, but suddenly became crises.

Adjunctification, increasing textbook costs, increasing costs of academic materials and databases to institutions, high levels of bond debt, decreasing state funding, were all present before the big meltdown. The recession made them impossible to ignore.

Personally, I find Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them highly persuasive when it comes to thoroughly understanding the conditions and decisions which led to so many public higher ed institutions so poorly positioned to weather the storms of the recession. 

Essentially, public universities were subsumed by thinking rooted in market-based policies – competition, innovation, etc – and the costs of following that ideology far outstripped any benefits. As it turns out, in the least surprising finding ever, public goods cannot be effectively operated in the manner of corporations. They are two different beasts.

While the Great Recession revealed some existing problems threatening higher ed, what I’ll call the “Unequal Recovery” is now doing the same in the inverse, and it’s becoming clear that some of the proposed paths out of the wilderness and back into the light are cul-d-sacs back to the same problems.

The “Great Disruptors” thought we could obviate traditional higher ed via technological innovation. The theory was this: post-secondary credentialing is necessary, but it is also expensive and inefficient, technology will make education more efficient, ergo, technology will transform education and disrupt legacy institutions.

MOOC providers promised to revolutionize college instruction, and their boosters like Clayton Christensen (The Innovative University), Kevin Carey (The Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere), and even Jeffrey Selingo (College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students) painted a possible future of credentials flowing through the marketplace, students selecting freely from any number of post-secondary education providers designed to match student with education and employer need.

Because legacy higher ed institutions were either unwilling or incapable of responding to the demands of the market, they would have to go.

This was perhaps best embodied by Clayton Christensen’s prediction first expressed in 2013 that in 15 years, “half of US universities may be in bankruptcy,” a prediction he continues to make in 2018

But disruption went bust. While MOOCs serve some specific niches, it has become apparent to nearly all what was apparent to many of us from the get-go, education and content delivery are not the same thing, and efficiency isn’t a value we associate with learning.

Meanwhile, short-term, kick-the-can fixes at legacy post-secondary institutions don’t work when the post-recession rebound in state funding is best described as “anemic,” with an average 1.6% increase nationwide in 2018, and a full 19 states with either flat or declining funding. 

So here we are. Higher ed is going to have to change. The status quo is unsustainable. Students are already overwhelmed by debt (65% of graduates have debt which averages more than $28,000) and demographic changes will relatively soon result in fewer traditional college-age students.

More importantly, it’s looking less and less like the economic recovery will result in spreading the wealth broadly enough for middle class households to even put a college education on the proverbial credit card. The richest 10% of Americans own 84% of the stocks and wages aren’t increasing even as corporate profits reach record highs. There won't even be enough students who can afford an education for institutions to bother competing over.

Add in the fact that the student debt crisis is “worse than we think” and threatens to be a cause of the next recession, and we’re clearly in a moment where something big, and only something must be done. 

With the exception of Christensen, most of the disruptor crowd is more on the “innovation” tip, believing technology utilized by legacy institutions to open “new markets” for the “lifelong learning” crowd will work, and as much as I’m for the opportunity for old dogs to earn new credentials, the need for traditional post-secondary education isn’t going away.

Five years ago “free college” would’ve been a fantasy along the lines of “Chicago Cubs winning the World Series” territory, but strange things happen.

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and suddenly free college is hitting the mainstream

For the “free college isn’t free” crowd (and you are delightfully consistent and pedantic on this front), yes, “free college” means government-funded post-secondary education or training provided at no (or let’s say low) cost to the student, and if you look at the state of things today and what looms on the horizon, it’s the only path towards a stable and sustainable system of post-secondary education.

What this looks like in the specific I can’t say, but lots of different experiments are happening at the state level and those experiments are already bearing fruit in terms of improved outcomes (see: Tennessee Promise) and knowledge which can be applied elsewhere.

As Matt Reed points out, states will be important, but there better be some Federal money, lots of Federal money involved so that when the next recession inevitably occurs, an entity that can run deficits is standing behind the operations. 

We’re going to pay for it by taxing people who have lots of money and maybe even doing a little Robin Hood action on well-heeled private institutions like Harvard, as was suggested by a group of Harvard students just this week. 

We’re not picking winners so much as creating a world where some of the current “winners” will win a little less, but not to the point where they will ever be “losers.” I am confident of this.

Clayton Christensen’s prediction about bankrupt institutions presumes those institutions will go bankrupt because something better came along to replace them, but we are not on that trajectory.

If we believe post-secondary education is a necessary part of providing personal and economic opportunities to our citizenry, we’ll need to invest in it. Better to do it now than before it’s too late.



[1] I could go on a long rant about how English, history, philosophy are the practical majors when it comes to a world of shifting employment and reshuffling priorites, but it’s a discussion for another day.


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