Time for a New Book

I haven’t posted here in over a year. It’s time.

With that as introduction, Bob Archibald and I happily announce that we have been contracted by Oxford University Press to write another book. We have tentatively titled it Turbulent Waters — The Future of America’s Colleges and Universities.

Much of the discussion of higher education today is apocalyptic. Hyperbole is indeed eye-catching, and it may sell books and magazines. But is it fair to say that the next twenty years will see the landscape of higher education transformed and disrupted? Will that landscape be littered by the rotting bankrupt corpses of over half the existing set of institutions? Yes, I too can write dramatic sentences! But this is a fair summary of what many prognosticators think will happen to the American higher education system. Technological change supposedly will unbundle the traditional residential approach to education, leading to massive disruption in the sector as low cost online training displaces high cost and high touch face-to-face education. Bob and I beg to differ.

The American higher education system is astonishingly diverse. If we look just at schools offering four-year degrees, John Doe can earn a practical degree in hotel management or study to become a physician’s assistant at a relatively low cost branch campus of East State U. On the other extreme, his sister Jane might opt for a small liberal arts college and earn a B.A. in philosophy or literature at an elite institution whose price tag is quite a bit higher. Generalizing about this system is perilous.

Our book will offer a clear look at the stresses the American higher education system currently faces. We will break those stresses into three overlapping spheres: internal threats, environmental threats, and technological challenges. All typologies are imperfect, but we think this division is a defensible way to understand the forces affecting higher education today.

Internal threats arise from continuing to use the traditional model to produce a college education.  Our previous book demonstrated how this model produces cost increases that tend to exceed the inflation rate.  Cost increases alone need not undermine the industry if broad based economic growth is pushing up most people’s income.  But in concert with other challenges, if this process continues unabated it could indeed threaten the health of at least some parts of the industry.  Environmental threats are changes in the world outside of higher education that make the current financial model for colleges and universities more difficult to maintain.  The stagnation of real income for the vast majority of the population, the fall in state support for higher education, and reductions in federal research funding are all examples of environmental threats.  Finally, technological threats include new techniques for delivering content that could revolutionize the way colleges and universities operate, or in the extreme view make them irrelevant.  These three categories are clearly interconnected, and we will not pretend that they are analytically distinct. Cost disease, for instance, is an internal challenge. But it acquires more virulence when combined with stagnating family income or changing state spending priorities.

Revolution or evolution? We come down on the side of evolutionary change. Our forecast is that if you come back in twenty to thirty years you will recognize college education. The “campus” will not be gone. Face-to-face will remain the most important mode of education. There will be much that is different, and technology will increasingly saturate the delivery of information and the way that students use it. But the residential experience will not have been thoroughly unbundled, and most of the institutions that currently operate likely will be there in the future. To substantiate this claim, we will dig into what a college or university actually produces, explore the real (and usually undiscussed) value in this bundled service, and discuss the ways that higher education institutions actually can adapt.

We may be taking a bigger risk than those who predict radical change. First, writing about shocking destruction is a lot easier than making a case for non-collapse, especially when some of the basic facts about higher education are indeed disquieting. It’s fairly easy to spice those facts with judiciously selected anecdotes and wrap the narrative in an easy-to-read journalistic style. This is one reason why university dysfunction and system collapse have become the current conventional wisdom. Doom and gloom also tends to sell well, as a casual listing of recent titles would demonstrate. And yet predictions of catastrophe or radical change are all too easily forgotten if the worst fails to materialize. But those who predict that the clouds might lift lose all credibility if the hurricane does indeed strike. The incentives favor predictions of woe.

Despite those incentives, we’ll stick to our forecast. The higher education system is likely to adapt gradually to the pressures and opportunities of the current environment. Rapid and chaotic disruption is highly unlikely. The supposed benefits of new technology are oversold, the value and resilience of the existing system are under appreciated, and the very diversity of the system is a strength.