The Collapse of Higher Education

Changes have been coming for higher education for some decades. It’s naive to think that higher ed in the mid-21st century will be the same as the late 20th century. The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of the 20th century and that way of thinking about the world. We now have students entering college who were born after 9/11, yet university administrators proudly tout their recent strategic plans at creating a 21st century education. For our students, it always has been the 21st century.

What does an education at an elite liberal arts college get you? It buys you membership in an exclusive alumni club.

As the graduate of such a college and as faculty in such a college, we like to espouse the benefits of a small, residential liberal arts college and how it prepares you for lifelong learning and handling the complexities of a changing world.

But we don’t know the counterfactual.

How different would my life have been if I had gone to a second-rank state university? Might I not have ended up in the very same job as I have now? The only real difference I can discern is that I would have had a different set of friends. But my very dear friends from college are mainly just Facebook friends now as we live all across the country. Over the years, we all have developed many other friends. Wherever anyone goes to college, or even if one doesn’t attend college, friendships will be created, some will fade, some will endure.

A perspective I’ve heard from fellow faculty is that college prepares you for life, for work and community. Is college the only way? Does not actual work prepare you better for the workplace?

I’ve been fairly successful in my career, but I truly know that success has come from the early work experiences in my career and not from college or graduate school. All I got from the latter were the credentials that legitimated access to the profession.

Do 18 year olds really know what they want to do with their lives? Or are they doing what they think their parents want them to do? Why do I meet so many teenagers who want to go into investment banking, wealth management, or law? Really, kids? Your life goal is to help people with more money than you make even more money?

In a way, I understand that. It’s not just parental pressure. A long-held American ideal was that each generation would do better than their parents. But if your parents are pulling down $600k/year, then you have limited choices of careers for doing better than that.

A value of the liberal arts is found in expanding the proverbial horizon of opportunity: highlighting that there’s more to life than just making money. And, if you do well financially, you’ll have the broad awareness of cultural and societal issues towards which you can contribute your excess wealth.

But I do understand those kids interested in finance. In high school, I remember reading an article in Forbes, which in the 1980s was a much better magazine than the website of the same name is now. The article profiled a research analyst in an investment banking firm. That was my first awareness that such a job existed. It sounded appealing. I had barely escaped poverty in small town Tennessee and wanted so much more.

The liberal arts provided a glorious distraction. Astonishing myself, I chose English as my major even though it wasn’t my best subject. I liked the idea of reading all those great works of literature, which I knew even then at age 20 that I would be unlikely to ever get around to reading on my own. Besides, I always thought that I would go straight to grad school and obtain my professional skills then. I got derailed for various reasons. Grad school got put on hold for a few years, and I got rejected from job after job because I “had no skills”. Finally, I got it all together and became a librarian while I figured out what I really wanted to do. 28 years later, still a librarian though librarianship has changed a lot.

These days, I’m all about helping younger generations learn about career possibilities that they’ve never thought about. And helping them learn about ways of working, particularly distributed work (to use the term preferred by Matt Mullenweg).

Between 2005 – 2013, I lived in Buenos Aires and worked remotely for clients in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. I never saw the faces of most of those clients. I never heard the voices of most of those clients. The best work is done through writing, not talking. Organizational dysfunction almost always stem from miscommunications and fostered through workplace chatter.

In the English-speaking expat community of Buenos Aires, I started meeting a variety of people who had extremely different educational backgrounds. Some never went to college and had very successful careers in their chosen endeavors. Most never went to an “elite” college, yet had done extremely well in life. It forced me to question the value of my undergraduate days at a residential liberal arts college. I loved those days as a student but I cannot say with any certainty that I am any better for that. (I can say with certainty that I amassed a lot of debt and suffered financial problems for years as I struggled to repay student loans.)

There will still be a place for the elite liberal arts college since many will want to buy their way into those alumni networks. And that’s fine. That serves a purpose. But we’re fooling ourselves if we really think that such an environment is the only way a smart person can get an outstanding education.

Increasingly, I’m more and more interested in exploring how do you bring those qualities of a residential liberal arts college into a distributed, online learning environment that engages people throughout a lifetime of learning.

Learning doesn’t stop at age 22. You’re just getting started.

But the traditional structure of higher education makes it difficult and expensive to pursue study later in life while also working full-time and raising a family. Many universities and also for-profit enterprises have established non-traditional structures, mostly online.

Most residential colleges will survive this coronavirus pandemic of 2020. But what if pandemics become the new normal, every few years? What if pandemics, buttressed by climate change, form the defining characteristics of the 21st century?

The USA started the century with a messy presidential election. Twenty years later we’re still entangled in even messier elections. At the start of the century, terrorism redefined so much with 9/11. Nearly twenty years later, we’re still stuck in a way on terrorism. We try to ignore the science of climate change. Why are we willing to bet that this pandemic is a one-off event?

It’s time to get busy educating the generation that will define the 21st century in a way that prepares them to handle the complex problems of the coming decades.

That last sentence leaves a lot of questions hanging as to what that looks like. More on that soon…