The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age

Interest in using the internet to slash the price of higher education is being driven in part by hope for new methods of teaching, but also by frustration with the existing system. The biggest threat those of us working in colleges and universities face isn’t video lectures or online tests. It’s the fact that we live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists.

In the first half of the 20th century, higher education was a luxury and a rarity in the U.S. Only 5% or so of adults, overwhelmingly drawn from well-off families, had attended college. That changed with the end of WWII. Waves of discharged soldiers subsidized by the GI Bill, joined by the children of the expanding middle class, wanted or needed a college degree. From 1945 to 1975, the number of undergraduates increased five-fold, and graduate students nine-fold. PhDs graduating one year got jobs teaching the ever-larger cohort of freshman arriving the next.

This growth was enthusiastically subsidized. Between 1960 and 1975, states more than doubled their rate of appropriations for higher education, from four dollars per thousand in state revenue to ten. Post-secondary education extended its previous mission—liberal arts education for elites—to include both more basic research from faculty and more job-specific training for students. Federal research grants quadrupled; at the same time, a Bachelor’s degree became an entry-level certificate for an increasing number of jobs.

This expansion created tensions among the goals of open-ended exploration, training for the workplace, and research, but these tensions were masked by new income. Decades of rising revenue meant we could simultaneously become the research arm of government and industry, the training ground for a rapidly professionalizing workforce, and the preservers of the liberal arts tradition. Even better, we could do all of this while increasing faculty ranks and reducing the time senior professors spent in the classroom. This was the Golden Age of American academia.

As long as the income was incoming, we were happy to trade funding our institutions with our money (tuition and endowment) for funding it with other people’s money (loans and grants.) And so long as college remained a source of cheap and effective job credentials, our new sources of support—students with loans, governments with research agendas—were happy to let us regard ourselves as priests instead of service workers.

Then the 1970s happened. The Vietnam war ended, removing “not getting shot at” as a reason to enroll. The draft ended too, reducing the ranks of future GIs, while the GI bill was altered to shift new costs onto former soldiers. During the oil shock and subsequent recession, demand for education shrank for the first time since 1945, and states began persistently reducing the proportion of tax dollars going to higher education, eventually cutting the previous increase in half. Rising costs and falling subsidies have driven average tuition up over 1000% since the 1970s.

Golden Age economics ended. Golden Age assumptions did not. For 30 wonderful years, we had been unusually flush, and we got used to it, re-designing our institutions to assume unending increases in subsidized demand. This did not happen. The year it started not happening was 1975. Every year since, we tweaked our finances, hiking tuition a bit, taking in a few more students, making large lectures a little larger, hiring a few more adjuncts.

Each of these changes looked small and reversible at the time. Over the decades, though, we’ve behaved like an embezzler who starts by taking only what he means to replace, but ends up extracting so much that embezzlement becomes the system. There is no longer enough income to support a full-time faculty and provide students a reasonably priced education of acceptable quality at most colleges or universities in this country.

Our current difficulties are not the result of current problems. They are the bill coming due for 40 years of trying to preserve a set of practices that have outlived the economics that made them possible.

* * *

Part of the reason this change is so disorienting is that the public conversation focuses, obsessively, on a few elite institutions. The persistent identification of higher education with institutions like Swarthmore and Stanford creates a collective delusion about the realities of education after high school; the collapse of Antioch College in 2008 was more widely reported than the threatened loss of accreditation for the Community College of San Francisco last year, even though CCSF has 85,000 students, and Antioch had fewer than 400 when it lost accreditation. Those 400, though, were attractive and well-off young people living together, which made for the better story. Life in the college dorm and on the grassy quad are rarities discussed as norms.

The students enrolled in places like CCSF (or Houston Community College, or Miami Dade) are sometimes called non-traditional, but this label is itself a holdover from another era, when residential colleges for teenage learners were still the norm. After the massive expansion of higher education into job training, the promising 18-year-old who goes straight to a residential college is now the odd one out.

Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million—the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility—are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Though the landscape of higher education in the U.S., spread across forty-six hundred institutions, hosts considerable variation, a few commonalities emerge: the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older, enrolled at a community or commuter school, and working towards a degree they will take too long to complete. One in three won’t complete, ever. Of the rest, two in three will leave in debt. The median member of this new student majority is just keeping her head above water financially. The bottom quintile is drowning.

One obvious way to improve life for the new student majority is to raise the quality of the education without raising the price. This is clearly the ideal, whose principal obstacle is not conceptual but practical: no one knows how. The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.

The other way to help these students would be to dramatically reduce the price or time required to get an education of acceptable quality (and for acceptable read “enabling the student to get a better job”, their commonest goal.) This is a worse option in every respect except one, which is that it may be possible.

* * *

Running parallel to the obsession with elite institutions and students is the hollowing out of the academic job market. When the economic support from the Golden Age began to crack, we tenured faculty couldn’t be forced to share much of the pain. Our jobs were secure, so rather than forgo raises or return to our old teaching loads, we either allowed or encouraged those short-term fixes—rising tuition, larger student bodies, huge introductory lectures.

All that was minor, though, compared to our willingness to rely on contingent hires, including our own graduate students, ideal cheap labor. The proportion of part-time and non-tenure track teachers went from less than half of total faculty, before 1975, to over two-thirds now. In the same period, the proportion of jobs that might someday lead to tenure collapsed, from one in five to one in ten. The result is the bifurcation we have today: People who have tenure can’t lose it. People who don’t mostly can’t get it. The faculty has stopped being a guild, divided into junior and senior members, and become a caste system, divided into haves and have-nots.

Caste systems are notoriously hard to change. Though tenured professors often imagine we could somehow pay our non-tenured colleagues more, charge our students less, and keep our own salaries and benefits the same, the economics of our institutions remain as they have always been: our major expense is compensation (much of it for healthcare and pensions) distributed unequally between tenured and contingent faculty, and our major income is tuition.

I recently saw this pattern in my home institution. Last fall, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors proposed reducing senior administrative salaries by 25%, alongside a ‘steady conversion’ of non-tenure-track jobs to tenure-track ones ‘at every NYU location’. The former move would save us about $5 million a year. The latter would cost us $250 million.

Now NYU is relatively well off, but we do not have a spare quarter of a billion dollars per annum, not even for a good cause, not even if we sold the mineral rights under Greenwich Village. As at most institutions, even savage cuts in administrative compensation would not allow for hiring contingent faculty full time while also preserving tenured faculty’s benefits. (After these two proposals, the AAUP also advocated reducing ‘the student debt burden by expanding needs‐based financial aid’. No new sources of revenue were suggested.)

* * *

Many of my colleagues believe that if we just explain our plight clearly enough, legislators will come to their senses and give us enough money to save us from painful restructuring. I’ve never seen anyone explain why this argument will be persuasive, and we are nearing the 40th year in which similar pleas have failed, but “Someday the government will give us lots of money” remains in circulation, largely because contemplating our future without that faith is so bleak. If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

It will also require us to abandon any hope of restoring the Golden Age. It was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back. It’s been gone ten years more than it lasted, in fact, and in the time since it ended, we’ve done more damage to our institutions, and our students, and our junior colleagues, by trying to preserve it than we would have by trying to adapt. Arguing that we need to keep the current system going just long enough to get the subsidy the world owes us is really just a way of preserving an arrangement that works well for elites—tenured professors, rich students, endowed institutions—but increasingly badly for everyone else.

83 Responses to “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age”

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  13. Perez Ehrich Says:

    What were the teaching loads in the WWII era compared to what they are today? Doesn’t the shift provide a better education? Where do you think teaching loads should be?

    Reply:

    Peter, sorry for the delay in posting this. Classroom time prior to WWII was roughly double what it is today. I don’t have any absolute metric for what they should be, except that, given our financial circumstances and the impoverished lives of many people teaching our students, I think tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more classes, so that we can reduce our reliance on adjuncts while improving the lot of the ones who remain.

    At NYU, we could reduce adjunct headcount by ~15% (and offer the remaining adjuncts a 15% raise) if tenured and tenure-track faculty each taught one additional class every other year.

    -clay

  14. Clay Shirky on The End of Higher Ed's Golden Age Says:

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  15. isomorphismes Says:

    Argh. Sorry I didn’t keep these thoughts together.

    I think what I’d really love to hear you argue against is the following:

    —US students are enrolling in higher ed. to get jobs, although they don’t know exactly what they want to do (with their lives or in work) or how higher-ed is supposed to help them get there
    —US academics prepare students for jobs in industries the academics themselves have never worked in and potentially wouldn’t do well at themselves
    —US companies hire college graduates for reasons they couldn’t quite articulate. They’re “smarter”, “more talented”, “better” … but how, exactly, is vague.

    If that’s the true state of affairs, then what does the world look like if all the teachers quit higher ed. and go home? Well, then there’s no more art, no more mathematics, no more archaeology, no more science research–we don’t want that.

  16. isomorphismes Says:

    oops, one more comment to add.

    The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

    Books are still one of the best ways to get deep knowledge (the kind offered by higher ed). Those have been around for a long time. In fact the purpose of publicly funded libraries, open to the public, is fuelled by the same noble impulse that makes people shout for free education.

    Video lectures by great professors have been available for almost half a century and increase in number every decade. (Include videos like KC Clark’s Civilisation: the supply of that stuff continues to increase.)

    So what’s new with the internet? Cheaper delivery, and quicker checking-up on what’s good in a subject area. Also offhanded comments from teachers and non-teachers (eg http://qr.ae/hEXHG).

    The ability of motivated individuals to make free time and sit in a library for months has probably not increased drastically in the last 10 years.

    So whom is massive, cheap, online higher ed supposed to serve? And how will it do so? What is it that these students need that it can provide? (coda: my first comment)

  17. isomorphismes Says:

    This expansion created tensions among the goals of open-ended exploration, training for the workplace, and research, but these tensions were masked by new income.

    I’m sure if I lived in a world where these things were not combined, I’d wish for a world where they were. Doesn’t it sound fantastic to have training, creativity, and expertise felicitously bumping up against one another?

    There is no longer enough income to support a full-time faculty and provide students a reasonably priced education of acceptable quality at most colleges or universities in this country.

    So how was it working originally (before loan-cash infusion) then? Fewer universities, higher prices, fewer professors as well?

    Our current difficulties are not the result of current problems. They are the bill coming due for 40 years of trying to preserve a set of practices that have outlived the economics that made them possible.

    So [a] how could they persist so long past their due date? [b] if they persisted that long, what’s to stop them persisting longer?

    Last fall, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors proposed reducing senior administrative salaries by 25%, alongside a ‘steady conversion’ of non-tenure-track jobs to tenure-track ones ‘at every NYU location’. The former move would save us about $5 million a year. The latter would cost us $250 million.

    “Someday the government will give us lots of money” remains in circulation…. If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.

    Most compelling part of your essay, imho.

    But who says you need to keep raising costs for students? You could just maintain the university at its present size, plus inflation.

    * * * * *

    A couple things I hope you’ll address if you revisit the topic of this essay later:

    — Any time a customer buys something and it doesn’t do what they expect, they’re rightfully angry.
    — Locking people up for (eg, 4) years so they can’t work will depress output.
    — Giving pensions and salaries to nonproductive brahmins has a cost.
    — A human-capital investment which doubles remunerable output is worth taking a loan to obtain.

    Let’s pretend that college degrees do not improve the students who attain them and do not signal anything real about employability—that it’s just a superstition. Then all that would need to change is that people realise the truth of the matter. How hard could that be? Maybe bachelors’ degrees persist because they really do what it says on the tin. (sort people into good-employee and bad-employee, not that liberal personal growth stuff) Look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_in_the_United_States#Statistic and see the differential in wealth of some college /vs/ finished college. On the other hand, theoretically if someone sticks with their employer for four years that’s an even better signal of the same thing, than finishing an undergrad diploma. So maybe the college /vs/ some-college premium is due to connections? Or maybe the personal-growth stuff actually does have currency?

    What I keep wondering is: do we really know where the value is at? If we know what’s valuable and what’s not then the valuable choices probably follow.

    Reply:

    To answer this:

    “So [a] how could they persist so long past their due date? [b] if they persisted that long, what’s to stop them persisting longer?”

    The basic observation is a version of the old observation from economics: things that can’t last don’t.

    Any system that has a lot of slack in it can continue for some time after it’s internal logic breaks down (viz. the Soviet Union from the early 1970s: http://www.aei.org/issue/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/europe/the-soviet-collapse/.) So it’s been with us.

    Now I may be calling the end too early, but if we keep going the way we are going, a 4 year degree will cost something like two million dollars by 2050 for tuition alone. I submit to you that this is an unlikely outcome, and I am betting that the forces that will produce some alternate outcome will come in the next 10 years, rather than in the 2040s.

    And to answer this:

    “But who says you need to keep raising costs for students? You could just maintain the university at its present size, plus inflation.”

    One of our problems is that we have a version of Baumol’s Cost Disease, where the price human services, when measured by the hour, rise faster than inflation. A UMich education will rise above the price of inflation in 2015 for the same reason a ticket for the Atlanta Braves or the Santa Fe opera will.

    This in turn means that “Keep things the same, except only raise prices by the rate of inflation” is an oxymoron. The one economic constant, in the post-Golden Age, is that we have raised prices faster than inflation. To imagine a system of higher education limited to cost-of-living adjustments is to imagine a system vastly different than todays.

    I’m not saying its a bad idea. I’m saying the existing institutions could not follow your advice without the very restructuring they are desperate to avoid.

    -clay

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  19. Luke Says:

    The only thing I disagree with here is the role of tenured faculty in this problem. At least from where I stand, the only thing separating tenured faculty from non-tenured is job security, and, as valuable as that is, it does not translate into a much greater degree of empowerment. Tenure can be like owning a house that you know you can never afford to sell, because you’ll never be able to afford a new house. You wouldn’t trade with all the adjuncts and temporary faculty, or even the probationary tenure-track faculty, but your power to enact change, particularly the kinds of change advocated here, is negligible. That is because that power lies solely with administrators and boards, who are hardly mentioned in this piece. It is from that level that the push has come to increase grant overhead, to pursue high-achieving students and other measures important to US News rankings, to water down curricula, and to marginalize the very kinds of efforts to improve the quality of education at little cost, including the practice of good teaching. The justification for all of this is that we are engaged in some sort of national Realpolitik in which the principles of those naive and idealistic faculty have no place.

    Reply:

    Academics certainly have less power over life outside the classroom than we used to. As college and especially universities have grown from small institutions largely administered by their faculty to large and complex bureaucracies run by a full complement of managers, we’ve lost the ability to control many aspects of life in our institutions.

    Even given this, though, I’m not ready to tell the story of feckless administrators and virtuous tenured faculty, for two reasons.

    First, much of the growth of non-teaching staff has been on our behalf. Everyone loves to focus on the climbing wall in the gym as a symbol of where the money goes, but the rise of the IT department is a far larger and more persistent cost, and, unlike the climbing wall, is deemed essential by faculty. You simply cannot imagine faculty a) administering IT ourselves or b) having less available computing, storage, and communications infrastructure. The same story goes, mutatis mutandis, for managing health care, student housing, admissions, and so on.

    My colleagues wring their hands over the rise of the administration, but rarely specify how they would cut, say, 10% of the non-faculty headcount without hitting bone. Like the Republicans proposing to shrink government by reducing ‘waste and fraud’, we traffic in a general sense that “the administration” is where the costs go, without copping to the fact that that administration’s current size is driven by several sources, two of which are our demands to work in an environment that runs like a corporation rather than a commune, and our preference to spend our own time in the classroom and the library or lab. The result is that much of the growth in administration was by us outsourcing those jobs.

    The other reason I can’t tell the story of we tenured faculty as righteous victims is evidence from the one area where our control remains significant: what happens in the classroom.

    When the flow of money reversed in the 1970s, we could have said “Faculty are all in this together. In order to preserve new hires’ ability to participate as junior peers, we senior faculty have to forgo increases in salary and benefits, while returning to pre-WWII teaching loads.”

    To take the contemporary example I know best, if tenured and tenure-track faculty at NYU each taught one additional class every other year, we could reduce our adjunct head count by 15%, and given the remaining adjuncts a 15% raise. This will not happen, both because we do not much care about the fate of adjuncts and because we will not tolerate increases in our teaching load.

    I can’t tell the story of feckless administrators and virtuous tenured faculty anymore, because we could have kept the rise of contingent and adjunct faculty at bay by recognizing that the fall in revenue in our institutions was a communal problem, and responded by shouldering more of the burden, rather than pushing it off on untenured faculty, in one direction, and on students, in the other.

    We did not do that when the Golden Age ended, we’re not doing it now, and I’m confident enough that we will not offer to do that in the future to be willing to bet that we’d rather see our own institutions damaged in the long term than forgo some of our benefits in the short term.

    -clay

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  25. Ranting Academic Says:

    “It’s certainly defeatist if you assume our shared goal should be “Preserve the current system.” On that score, I am defeatist, for the reasons laid out above.

    However, if you don’t have that goal (as I no longer do) then other goals are possible, and at least one of them should be “What can we do to make life better for the students using higher education to get a job?” For anyone with that goal, recognizing the ways in which the current system is not doing a good job is just realism.”

    I don’t share that goal. I want to reverse the innovations that have been made in the system of higher ed, which you mischaracterize. From a purely faculty perspective, I can understand how you would say that the changes implemented were patches designed to preserve the semblance of the current system. However, this is incorrect. The policy shifts in higher education — as in the rest of society — have been intended to increase the wealth of elites by shifting tax subsidies to them and by extracting whatever wealth is latent in the system (ie, put there during the period of fairer distribution of resources). We need to confiscate the wealth that has already been stolen and shift future tax streams to reinvest in the broader society’s future. You don’t do that by making the current system appear a fait accompli. All of the ameliorative measures you might propose will ultimately be defeated by the greedy thieves who will extract whatever wealth you manage to generate with the fixes. You’re not dealing with a fact of nature: you’re dealing with intentional theft of resources by well-educated and immoral people.

    The US has certainly seen a shift to income inequality, foisted on us by people happy to see a dualized economy, with a small number of secure and high-paying jobs for a few and contingent labor for everyone else. Where you and I differ is in our view of higher education’s role in that shift.

    Far from fighting that economy, we in the academy have encouraged it. No one did this to us from the outside; when the resources got scarce in the 1970s, we didn’t all pull together and say “Let’s resist dualization.” We separated ourselves into haves and have-nots as fast as we could.

    If you want to critique income inequality, the academy is one of the worst places to do it from, as we are some of its worst perpetrators. We tenured faculty feel little solidarity with our contingent and part-time peers (at NYU, we recently tried to keep anyone without tenure from even _voting_ on university affairs). Not only do I not believe that we could secure enough money to re-inflate our system, I do not believe, even if billions in new funds were to come our way, that we would use them to combat income inequality.

    -clay

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  29. Ranting Academic Says:

    This opinion piece is utterly misguided and defeatist. Our economic system produces pots of wealth. For a brief period, this wealth began to be equitably distributed, and we got the golden age of higher education, when the potential of an education system built on equity became apparent. Then, the wealthy parasites struck back, and the rest of society has been progressively living with the results ever since. The point is that we’re not broke and we don’t have to compromise on education. We need to fight for it, nit give in like wimps.

    It’s certainly defeatist if you assume our shared goal should be “Preserve the current system.” On that score, I am defeatist, for the reasons laid out above.

    However, if you don’t have that goal (as I no longer do) then other goals are possible, and at least one of them should be “What can we do to make life better for the students using higher education to get a job?” For anyone with that goal, recognizing the ways in which the current system is not doing a good job is just realism.

    -clay

  30. Sudhir Desai Says:

    I agree that the institutional designs have not kept up with the changed context. However, i do not agree that if the current design does not meet the expectations, then we should somehow dilute the expectations.

    We need to step back and take a look at the larger picture. The job that higher education needs to do is more complex, not less. The quality and standards of education that the workforce of tomorrow needs are even more stringent. Somehow fulfilling the demand to satisfy hire ability, will eventually hurt us, since the economy of the future is not going to be able to hire such dilution.

    The solution will require all-round change. Education standards need to be higher, the institutions need to change, and the economics needs to be worked out. If our economy can fund politics to the extent it does, it can fund education. It is a matter of priorities.

    This is too much an institution-centric view, even though its analysis of the situation is right on. The solution is not.

    It is of course a matter of priorities, but historical evidence on the subject of those priorities is grim. Averaged across 50 states and 20 electoral cycles, the legislator’s answer to the academics’ question “Can we have a lot more money so we don’t have to re-structure?” has been “No.” You may be able to imagine that if we just keep asking, one day the legislators will answer Yes, and we will re-inflate the existing system through an huge and persistent infusion of cash. I used to believe that too. Now I’ve stopped.

    -clay

  31. Vonnegut has a good quote about this. | Magpie & Whale Says:

    […] The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age, by Clay Shirky, is simply and dispassionately written, but it’s seething with frustration. Its thesis, which seems eminently reasonable? We live in institutions perfectly adapted to an environment that no longer exists. […]

  32. Sweeping HigherEd’s Crystal Stairs** | tressiemc Says:

    […] first was a widely shared piece by Clay Shirky. It’s one of those broad-scope pieces that’s easy to nitpick in plenty of ways, and others have […]

  33. Everything I Wanted to Say About Higher Education & Didn’t Know How to Put | wayitshouldbeblog Says:

    […] Everything I Wanted to Say About Higher Education & Didn’t Know How to Put […]

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