Forecast: Iridescent Drops of Nothingness

Peter Wood

This article was originally published by NAS president Peter Wood in his capacity as a blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

What does the midterm election foretell for higher education? It foretells the closing off of a dream of escape from the financial realities of contemporary higher education. The higher-ed establishment has been feasting on that dream since February 2009, when President Obama announced his plan to make the United States the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world—by 2020! To accomplish that, we would have to more than double the number of college students in the United States, and steeply ramp up the graduation rate. And the very attempt would require billions of dollars in new “investment” in higher education.

Meanwhile, the American public has been expressing more and more disenchantment with the higher-education status quo. My fellow Innovations blogger, Richard Vedder, never fails to irritate CHE readers when he points to the plain realities of the situation. Millions of students who finish college with undergraduate degrees in hand find themselves underemployed, unemployed, or even unemployable. Millions more don’t finish at all but still have to trudge through years and years of payments on student loans. Increasingly, Americans are exploring other options: community college, online courses pursued concurrently with full-time employment, enlistment in the armed forces, etc.

The new Republican majority in the House will almost certainly have no interest in continuing the foolishness of trying to prop up a foundering system by stuffing it with students who lack the talent, the ambition, and the interest to succeed—and who are getting wise to the reality that student loans are often a poor bargain.

Apart from the relative handful of colleges and universities that have endowments big enough to insulate them, most of our institutions of higher education meet a crucial portion of their budget via dollars that students have borrowed. If students pull back from that borrowing, the bubble bursts. The only reply that the higher-education establishment has to this prospect is that it hasn’t happened. Yet. Students are still borrowing, and still enrolling, in sufficient numbers that colleges and universities were even able to get away with substantial tuition increases this year.

Those who find comfort in that fact are welcome to it. A bubble can look like the Rock of Ages until the day it vanishes into iridescent drops of nothingness.

The governor-elect of California, Jerry Brown, is promising a restoration of that state’s glory days in higher education. He has announced a “major overhaul of many components of the postsecondary system.” He has promised a new master plan, focusing on defunding prisons, increasing support for community colleges, and keeping regulation to a minimum. Brown, who was endorsed by both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, also seems to be moving in a direction I predicted (facetiously at the time) a year ago: offer free college education to all “whether documented or not” to attend California state universities but use online courses to deliver on the promise.

I hope and expect that Governor-elect Brown will deliver on that promise. In doing so, he may well set the pattern for the nation: a pattern whereby states can successfully maneuver out of the increasingly unsupportable burden of funding their public university systems while maintaining the pretense that they favor college for everyone.

The truth is that high-quality online courses are far more difficult for students than traditional classrooms. Students who enroll in these courses have to be tremendously self-motivated; those who aren’t quickly fall behind and the dropout rate for online courses among undergraduate students is far higher than that for courses taught in traditional classrooms. I am all in favor of making online education a standard feature of American college instruction. It has numerous advantages of scale, timing, and flexibility for students who are disciplined enough to pursue it. But that’s a relatively small cohort. The obvious alternative is to offer online college courses that are “college” in name only.

Either way, California gets bragging rights and students get an empty promise.

That’s what it looks like when a bubble bursts. California is just a little ahead in showing the nation what is going to come of President Obama’s promise of making the U.S. first in the world in percentage of college graduates. We can reach that goal, provided we are willing to define “college” down to the level of a video game. But if we are lingering over the idea of a fairly serious, intellectually-demanding exercise that takes several years of concentrated study…well, no.

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