Sunday, October 13, 2013

College & Wishful Thinking

Here's a prediction for you:
In the future, higher education will be very different from what it is today.
This seems almost trivially true, if only because the words future and different are left undefined. Certainly, by the year 2100, changes in technology, the economy, finances, and demographics will render higher education unrecognizable by today's academics.

Of course, by then we'll all be dead, so who cares.

For me, I'm 62, and I am emotionally invested in disrupting higher ed. It's got to happen quick--I certainly won't be around much more than 20 years and I want to see how it's all going to turn out. So in my heart I make the following prediction:
Over the next ten years, existing colleges and universities will lose their ability to control the curriculum. Instead, students will choose what they study and how they do it. Faculty will more and more be in competition with each other for students' patronage and attention. The very best faculty will earn an excellent living, but median salaries will decline and job security will disappear. By and large, faculty will be reduced to adjunct status.
That's much more specific, and so hardly a slam-dunk prediction. There are two parts: the outcome itself, and the time frame in which it is supposed to happen. I'm pretty confident about the outcome, and much less certain on the ten years. I favor the outcome because it has much greater social utility than what we have now--students will get a better education at a significantly cheaper price. Of course, I'll be retired before it really hits the fan--it will have little or no impact on my career.

Not so for my colleague, Joe. He, about 40 years old, just got tenure, and accordingly is promised a 25 year future on our campus. My prediction renders that promise empty--it says he will rarely if ever get a raise, and tenured job security won't be what it's cracked up to be. Still, Joe might agree with my prediction. He'd just argue about the time frame--such dramatic change simply won't happen over a mere decade.

I want to out-live higher ed. Joe wants to live out his career in higher ed. What you think depends on where you sit.

There are people who share my judgement about the lack of social utility, but not my optimism. I'm thinking of Bryan Caplan, who like me, advocates taking tax dollars out of higher education. His view is that college is disproportionately a signaling phenomena. Students go to college to demonstrate to future employers that they are diligent, can follow directions, and have invested more in their careers than other people. There is relatively little human capital appreciation through college--it is mostly a zero-sum signaling game. Students pay a very high cost, investing years and tens of thousands of dollars just to show that their signal is better than some other students. Students and society are losers, while colleges and employers reap the benefits. (I think Tyler Cowan effectively rebuts the argument here.)

Closer to my view is Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit. He keeps talking about the higher education bubble, though it's not immediately clear what that means. It sounds like college is a house of cards, ready to fall apart. But the revolutionary zeal is largely absent from his book, which mostly suggests some rather modest changes around the edges--certainly nothing as dramatic or on as short a time frame as I have proposed.

Mr. Caplan's pessimistic conclusion is that higher ed, however dysfunctional, is nevertheless stable and will not change quickly. We're stuck with the girl that brung us. Thus he disagrees with all the bubble/crisis talk, and won't find my ten-year deadline credible. He'd say I live in the land of wishful thinking.

Other futurologists suffer from wishful thinking. Famously, the climate science crowd fell for a typographical error. A prediction had it that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2350--well beyond my lifespan--but this was copied into an IPCC report as 2035. The new catastrophe was eagerly accepted by climatologists around the world--it took the Indian government to point out the obvious mistake.

Back when I was an 18-year-old Trotskyist, in response to questions about the timing of the world revolution, we answered "maybe twenty years from now." For me that was more than a lifetime--a very long time away. Our thesis was that, because of new technology, history was speeding up--we could expect change faster than before. Today it seems hopelessly unrealistic--if anything, now forty years later, the revolution is even further away than it ever was.

So I could be a wishful thinker, but I'll stick to my ten-year prediction for these reasons. First, colleges are already under significant stress, with increasing pressure to lower prices and costs. Second, however relevant the curriculum may have been in the 1990s and before, it is much less useful today. I'm thinking of the general chemistry class I teach--it made students employable back then, but much less so today. And third, there simply is more competition than before. Students just have more choices.

When do these incremental changes reach a tipping point and disrupt the whole system? Will MOOCs be the straw that breaks the camel's back? Will it result from the unbundling implicit in the accreditation of individual courses? I don't know. Tipping points are notoriously hard to predict.

But here I stand: college will tip over sometime within the next nine years, eleven months, and 29 days. And good riddance!

Further Reading:

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