Daenerys Stormborn, Jon Snow and the Real Enemy of Higher Education

Public disinvestment is our Army of the Dead.

August 3, 2017

There was a moment while watching Daenerys Stormborn and Jon Snow’s first meeting in the latest episode of Game of Thrones that reminded me of attending higher education conferences.

Daenerys is pushing Snow to bend the knee, and become her loyal subject in the fight against Cersei.  Jon Snow’s reaction is that Cersei might be evil, but in reality the Seven Kingdoms have much bigger problems.  Snow informs Daenerys that it doesn’t matter who sits on the Iron Throne, as unless the Night King’s Army of the Dead is defeated, she will " be ruling over a graveyard.”

Those of us who work in higher ed have a similar challenge to The Mother of Dragons and the King of the North.  We need to  understand who our real enemies are, and which battles we should be fighting.  In our world, the Army of the Dead that we should be unifying against is the ongoing state level disinvestment in public higher education.

No enemy is as potentially dangerous to the existence of a functional, equitable, and affordable system of postsecondary education as is the decision of state governments to cutback on funding for their public colleges and universities.

Adjusting for the growth in students attending public institutions, state support per FTE has declined by 37 percent between 2000 and 2012.  In inflation adjusted dollars, this is a decline of an average of $7,000 in per-student state support in 2000 to $4,400 in 2012.

While federal support grow in this time period, from $3,800 to $5,100 per student, this has not been enough to makeup for the state shortfall.

The result, predictably enough, has been dramatic increases in tuition (and student debt). 

Another result of public disinvestment in higher education has been the widening gap in available resources between a select few private schools (and well-endowed public institutions), and the public colleges and universities where most students attend.  Public disinvestment in higher education is exacerbating trends around inequality.  We are moving towards a two-tiered postsecondary system, where only the affluent will enjoy the benefits of a high quality - and in particular a liberal arts - college education.

Why the threat of public disinvestment in public education is not the big topic of every higher education conference is a mystery.

This is particularly true of my world of educational technology and online learning.

It is not that our work to leverage technology to improve learning is unimportant - it is very important and always interesting.

We should be calibrating our work, however, to follow the wisdom of Jon Snow.  We should be fighting our true enemy - and that enemy is the decline of investment in public higher education.

The reason that higher ed people, including edtech people, continue to focus on everything in higher ed except public disinvestment can understood by how Tyrion Lannister explains the world.  The Hand of the Queen tells Jon Snow that, "People's minds aren't made for problems that large. White walkers, the Night King, Army of the Dead... it's almost a relief to confront a comfortable, familiar monster like my sister.”

Like Ser Davos, I fear for higher education that, "If we don't put aside our enmities and band together, we will die. And then it doesn't matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.”

Winter is here.


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