The Wonderful Thing About Peak Higher Ed

Thinking about a thought experiment.

April 9, 2014

First, before we tackle Bryan’s excellent essay Has Higher Ed Peaked?I just want to let loose an an idea into the wild that Bryan Alexander should receive a MacArthur Genius Award.   

Do you know anyone (save perhaps Barbara Fister or Audrey Watters) who would better use this money/platform more to change our ideas about higher education? Just saying.

In Has Higher Ed Peaked? Bryan provides us with the outlines of a grim thought experiment where higher ed, due to large set of mostly exogenous structural forces, will inevitably face a future of decline and struggle.   

These forces include demographic pressures (the leveling off of the teen population - particularly in the Northeast and Midwest),  as well as economic pressures (high institution costs and concatenate student debt in the face of declining graduate employment prospects and stagnating family incomes).   

My read is that Bryan’s thought experiment is right about the forces challenging higher ed, but wrong about the implications of these forces.

I expect that the outcomes of higher education, the impact that colleges and universities have on both creating new opportunities for people and new knowledge for society, will only improve in the years to come.

At the same time, I expect that much of our higher ed status quo will change.  That we will see a (perhaps rapid) realignment within and amongst incumbent players.  And that this realignment will bolster some (both institutions and individuals) and present insurmountable challenges to others.

I’d turn Bryan’s thought experiment around so that we have a good and positive future for learning and knowledge production, and a more difficult future for many institutions and people who currently work in teaching and research.

This conclusion comes back to how we understand the idea of “peak oil”, the place where the description of “peak” anything originates.

There is little doubt that at some point, either today or in the future, we will reach peak oil. Oil is not a renewable resources, and even with unconventional drilling and other new technologies the amount of oil that can be extracted will ultimately be finite.  The question is always when, not if, we will get to peak oil - and how long new technologies and techniques can keep extending that date.

A future of peak oil, however, does not mean a future of no energy. Peak oil may be a challenge to existing ways of doing things, but peak oil will not mean that all the things that we do with energy (or the importance of energy) will go away.  What happens, and what is going on in the energy sector, is that new players and new techniques emerge to fill the gap.  As oil gets more scarce, and gas gets more expensive, alternative transportation fuels (from natural gas to wind/solar created electricity), become much more attractive.  

In much the same way, peak higher ed could be a very good thing for the people that higher ed is set up to serve.

Peak higher ed will, and is, causing us to change.

Peak higher ed will force us to experiment, to try new models, and to examine long held orthodoxies.

Peak higher ed will enable new players to come into the market to challenge the status and perquisites of the incumbents.

Some existing institutions will be able to adapt and thrive in this new environment. Some will not. Change will be exciting to some, scary for others.

Where I think that we are all trying to figure out is where that change is taking us.

On that score, I align with John Warner that places that will thrive in the face of challenges that Bryan lays out in his thought experiment will be those that privilege educator / student relationships above all else.

John writes about this in a column called An Open Letter to Parents and Prospective Students Re: Your College Choice.  

The only two things that will really matter to you in the decades that following graduation, according to John, are "your relationships with your friends, and the experiences and encounters you have with faculty”.  

I’d say John has this exactly right, with the only extension being the relationships with all the educators on campus (including librarians).

Peak higher ed will force higher ed to focus on building, sustaining, and supporting the relationships between learners and educators.

What this should mean is that higher ed will invest in those relationships, which means an investment in educators.  

The technology that we bring to campus should be about, to the extent possible (as digital infrastructure spending will not go away), be about supporting educator / student relationships.

Strategies to meet the economic and demographic challenges of peak higher education that are based on an austerity model will ultimately be self-defeating.  

Failing to support educators, at a time when the role that educators can play is one of the few areas of differentiation and added value that an institution can offer, is as shortsighted as it is self-destructive.

What do you make of Bryan’s peak higher ed thought experiment?


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