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Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got ‘til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

“Big Yellow Taxi” – Joni Mitchell


I was neither the first nor best at noting that the election o f Donald Trump signaled we now live in a post-institution age, or that Donald Trump seemed to have little interest in embodying the institutional aspects of the presidency. 

I also believed and continue to believe we’re going to need our institutions, and not to be a doomsayer, I’m not convinced that our institutions are going to survive, or that even if they do survive, they may be permanently damaged.

Higher education is one of the institutions that is perhaps most vulnerable because the threats are myriad and diverse.

As has been widely reported, for the first time in the history of its survey, Gallup reports that a majority of Republicans feel colleges and universities are having a negative impact on the country. 

When a significant percentage of the public loses faith in an institution it is difficult for the institution to survive.

I also believe many four-year colleges and universities are on economically unsustainable paths. Today, more than three-quarters of graduates have debt that averages almost $30,000.

How much higher can tuition go, particularly as we have yet to see significant increases in wages?

While 33 states increased higher ed funding last year, it declined in 17 others, and this is following many years of sustained economic growth. 

We’re already seeing signs of a “discounting death spiral” at non-flagship public institutions. 

In states like Illinois and Louisiana, persistent political dysfunction and neglect has damaged public higher ed in ways that will resonate for generations.

Small private colleges without large endowments or the protection of high prestige are also in financial peril. The discount rate for first-time, full-time students at private institutions has continued to increase every year since 2005, and is now just under 50%

The larger problem is simple demographics. The coming generation is simply smaller than the previous. Until the millennials (now the largest single generation) start to have children (something they’re likely to push back until they’re older), the supply of traditional college-aged adults will shrink.

There are some green shoots, an experiment in “last dollar” scholarships in Tennessee that’s increased post-secondary enrollment by 10% while keeping overall expenditures flat, a far kludgier and possibly less progressive version in New York is in the works.

But overall, as is, we’re on an unsustainable path in post-secondary education, and have been for quite some time.[1]

We’ve already reached and surpassed crisis-level in the teaching profession, where the combination of low salaries and high debt means choosing to be a teacher is to accept a life of penury. 

What’s happened to teachers is a microcosm for what may face many more graduates and also illustrates the limits of institutions themselves to respond. Higher ed institutions can’t magically change federal policy towards student loan debt. They also have no influence on the far more important factor of wages, for teachers or anyone else.

There’s no reinvention for colleges and universities that alters the macroeconomic landscape in which they operate.

Personally, I think it’s up in the air as to whether or not we make it through with something resembling even the status quo. I expect barriers to meaningful post-secondary education will increase, not decrease. This, at a time, where there seems to be a general consensus that we need more opportunities for post-secondary education, not fewer.

Given all this, as one of my regular commenters (Glen_S-McGhee_FHEAP) asked last week, what’s next? As he says, “Without the education-workplace hinge, the economy will have to reinvent itself, perhaps even society would have to reinvent itself.”

Good question, and point taken.

I don’t know what’s next. I’m confident that allowing higher education institutions to collapse will have a negative effect. There isn’t a replacement that fulfills the same purposes of the current system.

The “University of Everywhere” where the “roaming autodidacts”[2] of the world get credentials of varying kinds (degrees, badges, micro-credentials, mini-micro-crendentials, nano-credentials)[3] for drastically reduced costs doesn’t seem to be a likely savior, as many of these “revolutionary” disruptions have already, to one degree or another, either crapped out or shifted strategies.

For example, the Kaplan-owned Dev Bootcamp, once viewed as among the best in show among short course software programming instruction providers will shutter not because of lack of quality in their instruction, but because they can’t find a “sustainable business model.” 

Education is indeed a very bad business. It’s complicated, inefficient, and expensive. There’s a reason we created public institutions to mitigate some of those risks and provide opportunities for access.

If a collapse happens, part of the answer to “what’s next?” is that it doesn’t matter. We’ll have lots of other pressing problems that aren’t going to be solved by more education.

If I had to guess – and that’s all this is – we’ll be looking at one of two scenarios, either some kind of libertarian dream version of a universal basic income that’s sufficient to at least sustain those without access to upward mobility, or we’re in an even worse dystopia, where the wealthy simply wall themselves off from everyone else a la The Capitol v. the Districts in The Hunger Games.[4]

Neither sounds good to me, though the second is obviously worse. Whether the worst happens is not a factor of education, but whether or not we’ll continue to live in a representative republic where the votes of the legislators are at least nominally in the interests of those they’re meant to represent.

Lest we think those tensions aren’t already apparent, look no further than the current strife over the Senate health care bill, which could quite possibly come down to the single vote of Republican senator from Nevada, Dean Heller.

By all available objective information, the bill will be demonstrably bad for the citizens of his state, as coverage available through the expansion of Medicaid will be phased out on one timeline or another.[5] The state’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, is against the new legislation, even as he vetoed further expansion of Medicaid at the state level.

The law is also historically unpopular among voters, including those in Nevada. Heller came out against the original Senate draft, and yet he remains publicly undecided on the latest iteration.

As judged by service to a majority of his constituents, it’s a no-brainer, but there’s a rub. If Heller kills the Republican chance to repeal Obamacare, he will lose the support of his “prime benefactors,” casino magnates Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson,[6] who have the power to end Heller’s political career forevermore by bankrolling a primary opponent.

Of course if Heller votes yes on the legislation and it is as bad as predicted, he’ll be voted out, even if he makes it past the primary.[7] Though, that path also has the benefit of keeping people like Wynn and Adelson happy, people who have the wealth and influence to find some kind of cushy landing spot for an ex-Senator.

What’s public servant to do? I suppose it comes down to which part of the public one intends to serve.

I argued last year that we’re going to need our institutions as protection from these scenarios. 

My worry now is that barring a sudden shift in attitudes, we’re relatively powerless to preserve those institutions, even in their weakened states. The longer we wait to act, the more expensive they’ll be to rebuild.

Hope I’m wrong.





[1] See Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed for more insight into how this is playing out at the community college level

[2] Credit to Prof. Tressie McMillian Cottom for this designation.

[3] It’s possible I made some of those up.

[4] A sociologist/demographer could probably make the case that this is already happening as wealth increasingly concentrates in urban, coastal areas.

[5] Over 200,000 Nevadans received coverage through the Medicaid expansion. 

[6] Adelson alone spent $200 million in political donations last cycle. 

[7] The more likely path is that he simply doesn’t run for re-election.

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