This is the End

Today I’ll be joining a couple hundred fellow Bethel professors for the first day of our annual pre-semester retreat. We’ll hear inspiring words from our leaders, take part in thought-provoking discussions, bask in the late summer sun, and generally enjoy renewing friendships put on pause during our break. All in all, a great way to gear up for the start of classes next Monday.

Little do we realize that our idyllic world is about to come crashing down:

Tenure won’t save us from a higher education collapse. Start making alternative career contingency plans now because this collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.

James D. MillerSo says Smith College economist James D. Miller in what I’m going to hope is a satirical essay for Inside Higher Ed — either that or one of the commenters is being kind in assessing Miller’s piece as being “a bit thin on argument and thick on hysteria.”

Miller rattles through a list of phenomena that—if not separately, in conjunction with each other—could cause the collapse of the American higher education system as we know it:

  • A diminution of the stigma attached (by employers, among others) to not having a college degree: “…as this stigma fell, fewer people would pay for college, which would cause the stigma of not going to college to fall further, which in turn would reduce the percentage of highly capable people who went to college which would…. In a world in which college functioned purely as a signal of quality of the graduate, the percentage of people who attend college could quickly plunge”
  • The rise of “computing power” in general and artificial intelligence in particular: “If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create” Halo.
  • State fiscal crises combined with the rise of online education and the real or perceived domination of the academy by the political left wing would yield the replacement of expensive tenured faculty at state universities: “…many Republican governors would undoubtedly take joy in decimating the traditional higher education market.”
  • Continuing concerns about the state of the economy and declining desire to gamble on accumulating debt to gain a degree: “Our current economic difficulties, however, are making Americans pessimistic about the long-term fate of our economy, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many parents are no longer willing to let their kids load up on debt. That is especially true if the parents have sent another child to college only to see him moving back home after graduation and taking a job that didn’t require a college degree.”

    Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
    Albrecht Dürer, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1498) - from left to right: Employers, Video Game Programmers, GOP Governors, and Parents

“But I have tenure. I’m untouchable,” I naturally thought to myself. Not so fast, Dr. Gehrz!

If you have tenure and therefore think that your college would never get rid of you, consider what would happen if most of your school’s peer institutions replaced expensive tenured faculty with cheap online courses and used the savings to cut tuition by 50 percent. Even if your school has a healthy endowment, many members of your Board of Trustees or Regents probably have business backgrounds and would consider it financial malfeasance for the school to bear costs that the majority of its competitors had shed.

Judgment Day Billboard
Billboard from the Camping camp - Creative Commons (O'Dea)

Now, it’s the second-easiest thing in the world to predict the end of the world. The only thing easier is to make such a prediction, but disclaim any certitude. Like so: “I’m far from certain that the higher education market will disintegrate,” but there’s a “reasonable chance that it might.” At least Harold Camping is willing to sound like the fool that he no doubt is; James Miller still needs to sound like a tenured professor, even as he warns of that position’s impending obsolescence.

But that rhetorical critique aside, I will admit that Miller’s warning (aimed as it was to “young and middle-aged professors” like myself) got me thinking about three points:

1. The present is not the same as the past, or the future

As a historian, I find my students often falling into two common fallacies. One is to assume that things are as they always (or long) have been. A semi-serious version of the fallacy frames most of the items on the Beloit College “mindset list” that gives professors a glimpse into the minds of our newest students: (from the just-released Class of 2015 list)

  • “There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway.”
  • “There have always been at least two women on the Supreme Court, and women have always commanded U.S. Navy ships.”
  • “They’ve always gone to school with Mohammed and Jesus.”
  • “Music has always been available via free downloads.”
  • “Public schools have always made space available for advertising.”

Certainly, higher education as it currently exists differs in significant ways from the way it was, even in living memory. Among other phenomena, one might note: college coming to be seen as the expected, unremarkable next step from high school, at least among the middle classes; women not only gaining access to institutions of higher learning, but as of 1988, becoming the majority of the student population; to a lesser degree, the increasing number of Asian, black, and Latino students, with whites now accounting for just over 60% of the entire undergraduate population; the growing professionalization and specialization of faculty (well into the 1970s, my employer did not even require its professors to earn a terminal degree in order to gain tenure); the rise of business and other professional programs at liberal arts colleges; the sheer quality of facilities, especially those designed primarily to enhance students’ quality of life… (I’m trying to rattle a few off the top of my head to illustrate how significant the changes have been. Please feel free to suggest others in the Comments section.)

Amazon logoThe obvious complement to this fallacy is the one that goes, “Things will remain the way they are.” Back to the Beloit list, as modified to represent this kind of thinking:

  • Amazon will never be just a river in South America.
  • Women will never be too old to have children.
  • Charter schools will always be an alternative.

There are more serious versions of the error: “America will always be the most powerful country in the world,” say.

So as a general principle, we should guard against assuming that American colleges and universities will long remain as they currently are, and perhaps, therefore, give warnings like Miler’s a minute’s more thought than we’d prefer.

Now, Miller is obviously exaggerating the scope of the changes already being experienced. Among other obvious rejoinders: far from declining, the percentage of 18-24 year old Americans enrolled in college grew from 36% in 1999 to 41% in 2009 (all statistics in this post from the Department of Education). And if not in precisely the same forms that it currently takes, something recognizably like the university is nearly a millennium old. Or click here for a more complete rebuttal.

But it is certainly easy to imagine students taking more and more classes online, even those seeking degrees on brick-and-mortar campuses. Just as it takes no stretch of the imagination to see continuing state budget crises leading to declining faculty salaries or even layoffs. Whether because they are structured in ways that they make their costs prohibitive and/or because they no longer provide sufficient benefit in the eyes of young adults, the parents and lenders who help them pay tuition and expenses, and the employers who ultimately decide whether or not to hire them, American colleges and universities might very well change in dramatic ways.

2. Mission and identity

All of which makes it all the more important that schools define their mission and identity clearly. Let me save that point for a future post, since it will lead me back to my research on Pietism and Christian higher education.

But for the sake of segueing to my third thought and finishing this post, let’s just assume that the kinds of dire circumstances suggested by Miller have escalated to the point that higher education needs to retrench, with the shedding of faculty at most schools and/or the closure of a substantial percentage of the nation’s 4000+ two- and four-year colleges. And let’s say that my employer is forced to lock its doors because it has failed to effectively define and articulate a distinctive mission and identity, with the result that it looks just like many other small universities, but, for whatever reason, is less desirable than them and so comes out on the losing end of this educational variety of natural selection. Assuming all that to be a possibility, then Miller would have me ask…

3. What if I lost my job?

Here’s why I’m hoping that Miller is really pulling our legs. Because from near the start of his essay, Miller urges the reader to “Start making alternative career contingency plans now because this collapse [of higher education] could be sudden and catastrophic.” And not plans for a career utilizing similar skills (e.g., high school teaching, editing); those spots will be snatched up quickly. No, drastic alternatives must be considered.

Lest we succumb to despair, he closes with these words of advice:

Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students [seriously – I’m not misquoting here], especially those who would make good bosses.

Should I rethink my grading standards for the fall? I wouldn’t want my future manager to hold a grudge…

Fortunately, I have no need to curry favor with future alumni/Facebook friends/employers. Even setting aside my rather impressive résumé as a voice actor, rapper-songwriter, and talk radio host, I’ve long had an understanding with my colleague Stacey that if Bethel goes under, she’ll buy a bed and breakfast and employ me as chef.

And if that comes to pass, well, your basil tomato egg white omelette is on me, James D. Miller.

Fellow professors out there: do you have a worst-case scenario job plan? What is it?

3 thoughts on “This is the End

  1. I so want to steal that Four Horseman picture for future blog use, because you just know we’re going to be reading more of this “sky is falling” stuff any minute now.

    1. Thanks for the mention, Jonathan. I’m afraid you’re right, and I’ll have occasion to use all sorts of apocalyptic images as more and more dire predictions demand comment. 🙂

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