I’m participating in Cathy Davidson’s Coursera course on the History and Future of Higher Ed. It’s just week one, so we’ll see how it turns out; the introductory material was, well, introductory. She covers a lot of history (beginning with the invention of writing) to establish our current moment as revolutionary in terms of media/information. There was nothing really surprising there, and it sets up the primary task of the course which is to imagine a future for higher education. In related news, Clay Shirky has a post on “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age, which also makes a familiar argument: that the public funding of higher education has been on decline since the 1970s (and really takes off after the end of the Cold War). Since then we have had a series of rearguard actions trying to preserve a state that cannot work: “Our current difficulties are not the result of current problems. They are the bill coming due for 40 years of trying to preserve a set of practices that have outlived the economics that made them possible.”
In short, it’s a brave new world out there, which we already knew. One might expect Shirky to applaud technological solutions, but he takes a different rhetoric tack: “The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.” I would take this back a step further. Why are all these people going to college? Let’s, for the moment, agree with the premise that we have left behind the “golden age” (and there’s plenty of evidence for that claim). Then we also must leave behind “golden age” values and ambitions (which were only ever fantasies anyway, ubi sunt). In particular, we should leave behind the claims that higher education supports democracy, creates citizens, or otherwise strengthens society by educating better humans. First of all, does anyone actually believe that ever happened in any consistent way? And even if it did, it has only primarily happened for a very small, white, male, and wealthy portion of America. And we all know what great leaders they’ve been of late.
Obviously most students go to college to get a job. Most people view the function of higher education as preparing students for a career. But higher education isn’t really about career preparation, or at best that’s only a small part of what we do. So maybe the answer is that the future of higher education is the expansion of institutions that are willing to respond to the consumer need for job preparation and the shrinking of institutions that will continue to provide a different kind of education that leads toward graduate and professional degrees. Maybe the same university will contain both kinds of institutions as separate colleges. The technical-vocational degree would probably be a kind of terminal certification. It would give you the basic skills needed to get that entry-level college job. Maybe that kind of training is done without much faculty, but with more modestly trained support staff and tutors, along with some masters level faculty. It would be more like a community college but without the community college’s mission of providing entry into 4-year colleges. These institutions could partner with corporations to provide specific kinds of training needed by those businesses. The corporations would underwrite some of the educational costs. In turn, qualified students could go to work for those corporations upon graduation to pay off some of their student debts, like a kind of indentured servitude, but really not that different from paying off student loans today and there’d be job security (only slaves have better job security than indentured servants).
Maybe that modest proposal isn’t to your liking though. I guess the question one has to ask is whether or not students really want to define their education in terms of the job they will get at the end. Because if they do then what they are really doing is defining their education in terms of what corporations want. And my sense of what corporations want is that they want students weeded out and sorted. We can say that higher education underserves many American students, as Shirky claims, but if want they want are jobs, if what they want is what corporate America wants for them, then we aren’t underserving them. They are getting exactly what they want; they are just not happy with the result because they ended up on the sharp end of the stick. Shirky talks about higher education’s desire to stretch out a golden age long after it stopped working. Maybe we are doing the same thing with higher education. When 30% of Americans have four-year degrees then it becomes a pathway to job security and better income. If 50 or 60% of Americans get four-year degrees, do we really think the degree will have the same value? Or will college degrees stop leading to jobs? Or lead to less desirable jobs? The same job you would have had 20 years ago with just a HS diploma.
If you believe that higher education should be a democratizing force that offers opportunity to people, then I agree with you. If you believe that we should offer that opportunity to more people by getting more people into and through college, then I agree with that too. However, I think we have to realize that increasing the number of people who can compete for the opportunities a college education provides will also increase the number of people who lose out on that competition. The future of higher education is that a four-year degree will be less and less valuable every year while simultaneously becoming more expensive because of the increased demand for the degree. I suppose that if you imagine that marketplaces are rational that at some point these things will all even out, though I’m not sure why we need to bring in rationality at this late point.
Shirky believes there is no point in trying to convince governments to increase their funding of higher education, and he points to 40 years of failure in this effort. Maybe he’s right. It does seem to be the case that voters don’t want to make funding higher education an issue. Everyone thinks its important but no one wants to pay for it.
I wish I was more optimistic, as Davidson’s class seems to be. I just can’t get myself there. I see a future with more costly, junk degrees and an increased divide between elite education and what everyone else gets. I think that if you’re in the top 10-20% of first world students, you’ll probably still be able to get a great education at a cost that is reasonable long-term in relation to what you might earn as a future professional. Those are the folks that will go on (for the most part) to do research, run corporations, serve in government, and perform other key professional roles. As for the rest of the population, as long as education is tied to short-term job needs and corporate whims, as long as no one is particularly interested in supporting that education, I don’t see anything great happening. Maybe this Coursera MOOC will change my mind (heh).