Nothing Stays the Same

I have an abiding interest in how things work, or don’t work — and that includes the institution of higher education. I stay in touch with the fortunes of my undergraduate College of Saint Elizabeth, and have been doing some pro bono consulting for a university here in Seattle. All institutions of higher learning seem to be grappling with the same difficult fact set: too many colleges and universities, too few students in the traditional age cohort to enter college at 18, and a mismatch between who could benefit from college and who has the money to pay for it.

When I was in college in the mid-1960’s, people majored in things like English or history or mathematics or biology. The College of Saint Elizabeth had robust departments of tenured faculty to teach such traditional subjects, and those faculty were usually among the most powerful players on campus. There were not many, regardless of position in the administration, who would dare cross Sister Mary Catharine, Chair of the English Department.

These days, if people are going into debt to acquire college credit, they want a degree that will lead to a job that pays something livable. You can spend 6-8 years or more getting a PhD in English at a top university, then be offered nothing more than adjunct gigs, or at best, an entry level professorship that pays less than teaching high school.

Faced with all of this, colleges and universities are adding programs and majors that market research tells them students want — things like “data analytics” — while downgrading their more traditional humanities departments. The problem is twofold: first, and most simply, they’re all doing the same thing. Hard to gain competitive edge when your place is doing what every other place is doing. The other challenge is that the “majors students want” is going to shift every few years with the job market. That means colleges and universities have to be nimble in staffing up and staffing down and changing programs — and the academic environment is not used to speed of decision making or rapid-fire change. Staffing up and staffing down also means the idea of hiring tenured faculty is out, as are the power centers they used to rule.

I think the change is irreversible, and it will be interesting to see what kind of colleges and universities survive. A lot of them won’t. I’m not sure the idea of a broad liberal arts education — with a focus on critical thinking, reading and writing — will survive either. That means that in large measure, the dumbing down of our nation may continue other than in pockets of economic privilege.

We’re all so distracted by the daily chaos in the White House, nobody seems to be focusing on whether we’re educating enough smart people. Hard to convince me that we are.

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