HIGHER EDUCATION: THE COMING IMPLOSION, AND AFTER
December 5, 2015
American academia is on its way to implosion. The only unknown is not if, but when. Academic institutions face three huge and highly visible problems — problems not resolvable within the rules and parameters currently in place. Their eventual resolution will prove very disruptive.
The first is skyrocketing tuition which forces the majority of students to take on enormous debt loads to get a college education. These will be unrepayable if they cannot find decent-paying jobs when they finish, or if the student drops out before finishing. The student loan default rate is at record highs.
The second is the mental assault of political correctness, about which I wrote last month. We have now reached the point where, at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, anyway, the phrase political correctness itself is a “microaggression.” Activist students now have demands available — as if they were qualified to run institutions.
The third major problem is the “adjunctification” of faculty: adjunct instructors teaching courses part-time at multiple campuses and paid so little (usually between $2,500 and $3,000 per course) that they qualify for food stamps. They typically work, therefore, under stressful conditions that preclude offering their best, typically without benefits, job security, or even office space to meet privately with students.
These problems are systemic. Anyone with a functioning brain can see that higher education cannot stay on its present course. In fact, higher education is in one of the present economy’s largest bubbles. A bubble is an overvalued asset. Bubbles eventually and inevitably burst.
One of the reasons enrollment figures stay high is the value of a college degree in the workplace. Employers want to see that college degree on your resume. But will that value continue? Employers often complain that they cannot find workers who can do what they want done. Colleges and universities have become havens for illiteracy: cultural and economic. Graduates know all about the latest gadgets, but lack maturity and self-discipline. New hires expect to be coddled as they were in school.
Employers are bound to notice what happens when well-positioned student activists try to articulate what passes for their thinking on national television. They embarrass themselves. They try to defend “free education,” cancellation of student loan debt, and a $15/hour minimum wage, but go to pieces when asked an obvious question like, “How are we going to pay for all this?” They misrepresent themselves, declaring themselves impoverished when coming from “one percenter” families. Of the present generation of student activists, honesty is not their strong suit.
Two things are thus propping up traditional classroom based higher education: the ready availability of student loans, and the value of a degree in the job market. Should either one change for any reason, institutions will have to slash tuition to under ten percent of what it is now, or face massive attrition. If they slash tuition, they will have to lay off huge numbers of staff. It will probably be adjuncts who go, because laying off overpaid bureaucrats in bloated administrations is probably beyond decision makers’ imaginative powers. Since between 70% and 75% of all undergraduate teaching is now done by adjuncts, this would paralyze most institutions. Remaining “full-time” faculty will have to teach five or even six or more sections instead of their usual two or three. Otherwise students won’t be able to get the classes they need to graduate. If the student loan debt bubble bursts, this could trigger the impending implosion.
The more forward looking employers, moreover, will take a long look at what is going on in academia right now and reconsider their demand for a college degree. Google is already doing this. Others will follow. This will involve more than noting that several of the past generation’s leading entrepreneurs — Bill Gates and Steve Jobs among them — were college dropouts. It will note that alternatives to a four-year degree are already available. Much of the content students are paying through the nose to obtain in physical classrooms is online for free (on sites like Khan Academy), or at least, on platforms making quality instruction affordable (Udemy.com, Udacity.com, UseFedora.com, Coursera.com, etc.). This will be true of technology occupations in particular. Millennials grew up with technology. They knew more about it as prepubescents than us “oldsters” ever will. They also know how to be creative with it if they put their minds to it. Why do they need four years of college? It’s an understandable question.
The Ivory Tower is therefore tottering, like a building without proper reinforcements facing a major earthquake. What will replace it? There are many possibilities. We just saw some of them. Writers such as Kevin Carey (author of this year’s The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere) believe that online learning is the wave of the future, and will bury the traditional classroom within a decade or so. Some instruction, however, will still be best delivered through person-to-person contact.
There are as many possibilities as there are entrepreneurs with visions and the will to carry them forward. What replaces presently dysfunctional institutions might be a vast array of smaller endeavors of various sorts: online platforms with course content able to offer certificates of completion; short courses many of which may be appendages of forward-looking companies willing to invest in their futures, or just in the next generation; apprenticeships (as nearly all legal education once was); extended workshops or “boot camps” along the lines of what these guys (and gals) offer; and doubtless others difficult to pigeonhole.
Some of these may offer programs of one or two years; others may be much shorter and more intensive (all-day workshops lasting two or three weeks, for example). They will have more hands-on training and far greater flexibility. Think of schools without bureaucrats.
One of the ideas to be thrown out — and it should be thrown out — is the one-size-fits-all model that has been the governing premise of all public education for the past century. This model has brought about all the mischief we’ve seen: the dumbing down, the political correctness (which is impossible to force on ten thousand independent endeavors, but easy to impose through highly centralized school systems), mass illiteracy. This model places students of different backgrounds, motivations, and abilities side by side beginning in childhood where conformity to the herd is more important than independent development of innate talent. The most intelligent quickly grow bored. In college, they end up in auditorium-sized “classrooms,” lectured by an adjunct they cannot find because the person is on her way to her next job. They sink or swam.
While there are things everyone in U.S. society should know, such as the basics of English, basic math, Constitutionally grounded history and civics, the difference between right and wrong, etc., if these things are not internalized by the time one is a teenager — long before college — very possibly they will not be internalized at all. It is therefore the job of whatever replaces public secondary schools to teach such things. At the moment, the best options are homeschooling and private Christian schools. In government schools they are more likely to get “sex, socialism, and self-esteem,” and therein lies the problems.
What about accreditation? Institutions have pursued and maintained accreditation from national accrediting agencies as a badge of credibility. These, I predict, will fall away as it becomes clear that “unaccredited” endeavors are just as capable of delivering quality as “accredited” ones, and sometimes better! Accreditation, in fact, has been a major means of cartelizing academia, designed to secure and maintain real privilege (i.e., the flow of federal dollars!) while keeping outsiders out. It has also become a tool of the affirmative action / political correctness culture. Institutions not demonstrating sufficient commitment to “diversity” face the ongoing threat of having their accreditation revoked. Thus to those unplugged from the educational “matrix,” accreditation is not a badge of credibility but a sign that the institution is controlled. These agencies should be closed down and those in them sent out to find real jobs. The accreditation empress has no clothes!
What of quality control? What is to prevent every industry, every occupation, from being flooded with unqualified practitioners? What is to prevent unaccredited schools from putting chiropractors and homeopaths on their staffs or even supporting — gasp! — “conspiracy theories” of directed history?
Such worries are naïve. Do we see quality control now? I’m not a George Will fan, but read this recent column. Note the awful writing of people some of whom have Ph.D.s. Note the idiotic dissertation topic of the woman now infamous for having called for “muscle” against a journalist. Note the blindness to leftist ideological bias in academia generally. Then tell me about quality control. This is not to say that scams won’t appear. They already have, among so-called for-profits. Their MO will be evident: taking people’s money, not delivering a product, then lying about it. It will be necessary to shut such entities down. Let the buyer beware both is, and will remain, a sound principle, however. Buyers should do their homework!
Noting the possible existence of alternatives to “scientific” (i.e., materialist) medicine which also already exist (there are chiropractic colleges, after all), and to the suggestion that the consistent drift of modern civilization into globalism and collectivism is something other than a succession of several thousand unrelated coincidences brings to mind the final reason for abandoning existing higher education. It is likely to be the least popular.
In every discipline in mainstream academia, one finds a dominant paradigm or body of assumptions which is dominant not based on a consideration of the full range of evidence but because alternatives have been pushed out of the way. Often, facts that would undermine the dominant idea are suppressed, or simply not mentioned. It isn’t widely known, e.g., that artifacts, objects clearly made by human beings, have been found embedded in solid rock supposedly millions of years old. We aren’t referring to a mere handful of findings. If that was the case, we could dismiss them as mistakes or hoaxes. There are thousands of such cases, however. Beginning in the 1970s physicist and author William R. Corliss began archiving them. Corliss passed away in 2011, but his work remains available to anyone willing to go to the trouble of consulting it.
Scientists have a very scientific way of dealing with anomalies. They lock them in backrooms of museum basements and forget about them. The Internet has made the dissemination of information about scientific anomalies more readily available, however. This creates problems for dominant paradigms in all areas of astronomy, biology, anthropology, archeology. It also creates backlash, as those tied to dominant paradigms will launch online counterattacks to try to discredit alternatives. These will rely primarily on random mixings of different claims of varying validity, sarcasm, namecalling, all disguising the fact that authoritarian gestures have been substituted for actual argument.
I don’t believe we can predict the full range of what emerges after present-day higher education flames out. Nor should anyone attempt some kind of comprehensive plan. That was yesterday’s mistake. What those who wish to remain educators should do is organize their information and develop media for getting it before their target audience, or market. This will apply to many of us Lost Generation thinkers, who obtained our advanced degrees after the infamous collapse of the academic job market in the 1970s; and it surely applies to those who have come up still more recently and are weary of having to walk on eggs around faculty and students anxious to turn the slightest criticism into a “microaggression.” And it surely applies to alternatives to dominant paradigms in history, medicine, or wherever.
So note this, and then move forward tending your own educational garden, while allowing others to tend theirs. Allow a thousand lights to shine! A favorite philosopher of science of mind, Paul K. Feyerabend (1922 – 1992), urged the proliferation of competing ideas, each one forcing the others into greater articulation, as a means of improving the health of science.
Education has never needed this idea more: a proliferation of small, mobile, flexible endeavors meeting various diverse needs: platforms, apprenticeships, workshops, seminars, webinars, and “boot camps,” both on- and off-line, gradually repairing the damage done by the dominance and protection of the big institutions.
Of the latter, I imagine that the Ivy Leagues will continue to function, because their huge endowments will protect them from the coming meltdown. Many “flagship” state institutions will continue as glorified football / basketball factories. But many smaller institutions — private liberal arts colleges, community colleges as they presently exist, branch campuses — will be forced by attrition and declining enrollment to close their doors. Whatever happens, will happen fairly quickly, as did the economic meltdown of fall 2008. My guess is, few will be ready. They will have ignored or dismissed predictions like this as “alarmist” or “fringy.” Reality will blindside them.
� 2015 Steven Yates - All Rights Reserved
Steven Yates has a Ph.D. in philosophy and is the author of Four Cardinal Errors: Reason for the Decline of the American Republic (2011) and Philosophy Is Not Dead: A Vision of the Discipline’s Future (ebook, 2014). He blogs occasionally at WorldPress.com. He lives in Santiago, Chile with his wife and two spoiled cats, and is working on his own online education project, the New Lyceum Academy for Philosophical Studies (website forthcoming).