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.

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

  1. Link Digest – February 2, 2014 | zota Says:

    […] » The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age Clay Shirky […]

  2. The Roman Goddess of Wisdom Will be Watching | What's Transforming Teaching and Learning Today? Says:

    […] While for-profit education models have not yet yielded the desired results, even those within the ranks of higher education are starting to see the end of the current higher education paradigm. Just last week, Clay Shirky of New York University published a blog post forecasting “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age.”  […]

  3. Bill Hart-Davidson Says:

    One thing that I almost never hear in this debate is a serious discussion of learning. Among my professional peers who teach in STEM disciplines, nobody I know defends class sizes of 300+ in terms that resolve to: “it’s the best way to learn.” The reason that model evolved has very little to do with what’s best for students.

    I would be that most students & parents who have a choice would select small, interactive, group learning spaces if they could afford them. The thing about co-located learning environments is that they provide opportunities to learn via interaction with peers – with folks whose goals as learners are shared. That is the real value of any “golden-age” model of the university campus. It’s also why community colleges and regional comprehensive schools make sense too.

    I have no interest in defending elitist models of higher education that do not serve a broad and diverse student population. But I am interested in making sure we do not make a fatal mistake of assuming that learning mostly happens in the interactions between faculty and students. Walk into a pottery studio or chemistry lab (not a lecture) or my web-authoring class and you’ll see that students learning from one another is important. Indispensable.

    The missing chapter in the history you’ve sketched here, Clay, is the relatively recent phenomenon regarding a shift in incentives for faculty to chase big prizes in the form of external research dollars (and the large indirect cost recovery that comes with them). That has created an environment where it is ok for many faculty to neglect 60% of their assigned workload (teaching & institutional service) so long as they excel at the other 40% (research, understood to mean Federally-funded research eligible for the full IDC rate of somewhere just North of 50% of direct costs of a project). It has also destroyed learning environments. And it’s done so by massively shifting incentives away from teaching and learning.

    In the Humanities, we’ve done a better job holding the line regarding our commitment to learning and teaching. We have done this because our incentives are more in line with the goals you cite above: delivering a quality learning experience in the classroom. In my field, writing, we often are responsible for teaching the only introductory course (at a large research institution) in which faculty know students individually by name.

    As I noted, this is not a satisfying consequence for my STEM colleagues. By all accounts, they hate this about their teaching lives. They know they are not always doing right by their students.

    Coming to a point here: there are models within the current university that are better than what most on the outside see/understand. They exist in places within the ecosystem where more evolutionary pressure has caused useful adaptations. My field is one of these. We have raised the bar for teaching and learning and it is flat-out unacceptable not to be excellent at 100% of your job. But where there are perverse incentives in other parts of the institution to do less than 100%, that will remain the order of the day.

  4. Chris Brew Says:

    The English and Welsh experience is that science degrees can be completed 3 years after leaving a high school system that encourages specialization in the last couple of years. University-bound students have usually taken 3 or 4 subjects in depth, roughly the same as tough AP classes in the US. They will not have as much breadth as US (or French, or German) students, and they will continue to specialize at university.

    Even in the 70s, there were rumblings that 3 years was not enough for engineering degrees, and I gather that this trend has continued. People who majored in modern languages were already taking four years in my day, because they typically spent a year abroad.

    In Scotland, which has a different structure in secondary school, courses have been four years long.

    One private university (the University of Buckingham, the only one in the UK, as far as I know) offers degrees courses that take only two years, but, heavens, these must be intense.

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  6. Kristi Says:

    Extremely well said. Thank you for compiling the history of academia and the path it took in the U.S. for the rest of us in a concise manner that not only makes sense but speaks volumes. I’d be so interested to know how it compares to the growth and state of higher education in other industrialized countries. The flaming street riots of London over outrageous tuition hikes come to mind.

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  12. D. C. Sessions Says:

    PN NJ:

    The relevant courses for many BA/BS degrees could be easily completed in three years.

    Not in the fields I know (Physics, mathematics, and engineering mostly.) Reducing the distribution requirements would make for somewhat lighter class loads, and I suppose make the subjects more compatible with part-time work. However, the prerequisite chains for programs like electrical engineering are strained by keeping them to a length of eight as is.

    Switching to a quarter system or even finer time granularity (or going full-year) might partly address that, but in the end a modern BS involves a lot of cumulative learning. Four years is probably getting close to the limit for a lot of humans.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t merit in distinguishing between a degree indicating professional competence from one with broader aspects such as the traditional BA. IMHO that would if nothing else recognize the value of the more traditional liberal arts exposure. But in too many fields the time (and to a large extent cost) savings are not going to be large.

  13. Eric Thurman Says:

    “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.”

    So, what would it look like for faculty if we did what was required, as you see it here? In concrete terms?

    Eric, it would look like several different things.

    It would look like full-time faculty doing a lot more teaching. (During the golden years, we reduced the time we spend in the classroom by half. We could reverse that pattern, and dramatically reduce our reliance on adjuncts.)

    It would look like adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty being regarded as peers, and brought into the faculty governance, rather than only letting tenured faculty have a say in university affairs.

    It would mean reducing the size of graduate departments so as to be less abusive to the students. If the world does not have many jobs for English PhDs, the obvious response is to graduate fewer English PhDs.

    It would mean a general preference for Open Access journals and open teaching resources.

    It would mean hiring and promotion committees would take good teaching more seriously as grounds for hiring decisions.

    It would mean not allowing bad teachers to remain in the classroom, even if they are good researchers.

    And lots more, but the general bias would be arranging our affairs to live up to our mission of educating society rather than preserving our existing institutional norms.

    -clay

  14. Steve Tuckner Says:

    I know that you think that there is no one coming to the rescue of higher ed, but just for arguments sake, what would it cost on a federal level to make higher ed free? Checkout: http://strikedebt.org/how-far-to-free/. It make not be politically possible, but considering the size of the federal budget (and especially the “defense” portion), it may only be a matter of will. That we can’t “afford it”, is the biggest lie around.

    Steve, I never said we can’t afford it. I said no one is coming to save us. The essential thing about the numbers you point to is not that the US is a rich economy — something no one disputes — but that that money is not OUR money. It’s someone else’s money, and those someones are legislators.

    The persistent fantasy among my faculty peers is that we just haven’t explained ourselves clearly enough, that if we just get the relevant legislators to see how essential and deserving we are, the money train will roll again.

    Meanwhile, across 50 states and 20 election cycles, the consensus has been that we have most of the money we’re going to get, and that in the rare instances where there are increases, they are far smaller than anything that would look like salvation.

    So when you say “it may be politically impossible”, that is just another way of saying “its impossible.” Which is what I believe too.

    -clay

  15. Why is Higher Ed Reform Inevitable? | Alex Chediak Says:

    […] Read the whole thing. […]

  16. Week in Review – 31 January 2014 | USMA Library Blog Says:

    […] “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.” – » The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age Clay Shirky […]

  17. HenryClemens Says:

    All too true, but why is not part of the answer a secondary education certification scheme that is serious and ideally nation-wide. The British GCSE/A-levels is something that seems to work. Herding the cats that would be necessary to implement something like that is, I grant, a monstrous task, but perhaps no more difficult than revising the university system. As things stand now, the lack of standards in most high schools means wasted opportunities of academic development for a very large part of our reasonably gifted teenage population. A revised university system would still leave in place the distinctly inadequate high school system we have now.

  18. higher education’s multiple futures #futureEd | digital digs Says:

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  20. Mary Donovan Says:

    Clay, thank you for a perfect articulation of the untenable situation higher ed now finds itself in, and for providing the history and the context that produced it.

  21. Freddie deBoer Says:

    As is typical of your work, you fail to provide evidence for two essential points: one, whether the “large scale” alternatives you endorse actually work; and two, whether we can make large-scale changes to learning outcomes as represented in quantifiable metrics through education. Generally, people assume that the answer to the latter question is “of course.” But in fact, the history of education actually teaches us that student-side variables are vastly more determinative of student outcomes than anything related to educators or schools. Most people who start out in a particular place, educationally, stay there, relative to their peers. That’s a finding that accurately reflects a broad swath of educational ages and contexts. The notion that education can meaningfully alter the relative positions of large numbers of people in assessment metrics is an orthodoxy that defies what we actually observe empirically.

    The sensible and moral consequence of this is to redistribute wealth through some form of universal basic income. The notion that we can educate out society into prosperity and equality is totally unproven, and I would argue, totally contradicted by historical evidence. On the other side, straightforwardly redistributive programs like Social Security have been massively successful at changing economic outcomes. So that’s what we need: Social Security for everyone throughout life.

    Education isn’t ending inequality or poverty because it is incapable of doing so, has never been shown to be capable of doing so, and was not designed for that purpose. Redistribute.

    Freddie, I absolutely agree with you about income inequality, and about basic income. My wife’s academic work is on basic income — http://almazzelleke.wordpress.com/ — so I’ve been following that debate for some time now.

    Even within that framework, however, education can affect outcomes positively in ways reducing income equality alone can’t. I’d refer you to Ernest Pascarella’s _How College Affects Students_ for an overview (http://www.amazon.com/How-College-Affects-Students-Research/dp/0787910449) which is an (enormous) literature review, and find that education can in fact create positive life outcomes, other variables being controlled for.

    -clay

  22. Jon Says:

    Carl, while I agree with you on many points, I think it is important to be more global in your thinking. The 40 years of shrinking support for state schools happens to coincide with many other policies that have contributed to massive shifts in income inequity. You can not separate this one section from the whole cloth. You rightly mention that these decisions have been made by democratically elected governments. But it is a representative government, and the elites have not established policies that benefit those they represent. Do you really think any sane block of middle class voters would support the results of these policies if you summed them up and delivered it as platform ?

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  25. Michael Patrick Rutter Says:

    We need to start changing the pervading metaphors/perceptions of what higher education looks like. The real question is … How do we do that?

    ‘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…’

    I’ve decided I don’t like the default comment mode here, so I’m adding replies under the posts I’m replying to. — clay

    Michael,

    I think about that a lot.

    The metaphor my colleagues often use invokes religion. In Wannabe U, the author describes the process of trying to turn UConn into a nationally competitive school as the faculty being ‘dechurched’. In this metaphor, we are a separate estate of society that has putative access to its resources, as well as the right to reject democratic oversight, managerial imperatives, and market discipline. We answer to no one but ourselves.

    The metaphor I have come to prefer (influenced especially by Richard Rorty) is that we in the academy are workers, and our work is to make people smarter — ourselves, our peers, our students, which is a goal that has to be constantly negotiated among various constituencies.

    With that metaphor, whatever other questions we academics ask about our own work, we also have to ask “What does society (which is to say, the people who pay our salaries) want us to be working on?” In cases of real genius like, say, Martha Nussbaum or Dick Lipton, the answer is “Anything they want.” For us mere mortals, though, there is an overlap between what we care about and what the students’s goals are after and outside the academy.

    From my point of view, we need to care more about that overlap. I’m not sure what the right metaphor is, but “Service workers of the intellect” or something might fit the bill. -clay

  26. PN NJ Says:

    It would be nice to think that most students are interested in the traditional broad liberal arts education, but in fact most are interested in the skills and credentials needed to get a job. So why not admit this fact, eliminate “superfluous” distribution requirements, and reduce the time / expense to earn a degree. The relevant courses for many BA/BS degrees could be easily completed in three years.

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  30. clay Says:

    Steve,

    At some level of continuity, policy choices are facts.

    You say “But somehow it can no longer afford the kind of higher education it once believed was essential”, as if this were some mysterious process, when in fact the process was fairly clear. The runup in the funding of US higher education was largely driven by military concerns — the GI Bill as a tool for easing the absorption of demobilized warriors into society, Vannevar Bush advocating for our colleges and universities to become the locus of the kind of research previously done by the government directly (with our Department of Energy and the Pentagon as the source of much new funding), and, critically for state funding, Sputnik scaring the US into a brief educational arms race with the Soviet Union.

    When the military rationale for both the GI Bill and the Soviet struggle ended, so did overall American interest in the kind of funding that drove the Golden Age. There is not now and has never been a broad commitment to higher education as a social good in this country by state governments (which, through a quirk in our founding logic, are and have always been the main supporters of educational subsidy.)

    Now you can say — and many of my colleagues do — that this is all just a matter of getting state governments to take on different concerns or convictions, or getting a more nationalized educational system. That was the song my parents, both educators, sang, and the song I grew up singing. But the period when the states really drove funding up lasted just 15 years — 1960 to 1975 — and has been in decline for 40 years since.

    As a result, I have stopped singing that song. After 40 years, I have concluded that the current reality is the normal case, and the 15 year period where we were flush with cash was the anomaly. I can — barely — imagine some states increasing some subsidies to some campuses at a rate faster than inflation. Some of the schools in California, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Michigan are candidates for this. I cannot, however, imagine my tenured colleagues tolerating the situation that makes higher education broadly affordable in social democracies, which would require us earning less while teaching more.

    I am done, in other words, thinking of myself and my peers on faculty as blameless, and I am done imagining that 40 years of evidence from the behavior of democratically elected legislatures is some sort of readily reversible blip. I do not believe that the caste system that has established itself at elite institutions can be funded at the rate which we insist we need, and I do not believe that we will willingly see any of our own benefits reduced to help our junior colleagues or our students.

    As I said in the piece, there are two ways to make education (or anything) better: hold cost constant and raise quality, or hold quality constant and lower price. Inside the academy, we have sworn up and down, for decades now, that that second way would be a terrible thing, but even as we have done so, we have not only not been able to achieve the first thing, the most socially critical function we manage — issuing of undergraduate degrees — has fallen in value and risen in price every year for some time now.

    And I’m done pretending that that is not the case. I’m done pretending that the only way a student at the City College of San Francisco can get a better job is by going through the system we have today. Other than “The government must give us more money”, Team Academia has no real ideas for fixing this. And I’m done pretending that outrage that the government doesn’t do what we tell them they have to do is going to be effective. I’m ready for Plan B.

  31. Steve Easterbrook Says:

    You say “the money isn’t there” as if it were a fact, rather than a policy choice. That’s probably because you live in a country that has decided to divest from public education without ever discussing the choices being made and their implications. America is richer now than it has ever been in its history. But somehow it can no longer afford the kind of higher education it once believed was essential. Rather than asking yourself how to do education more cheaply, you ought to be asking what kind of value system drives the richest country in the world to decide it can’t afford to educate its kids any more.

  32. CHARLES JORDAN Says:

    There is little to disagree with in Prof. Shirky’s article but I submit that as the business and corporate world has largely abandoned the training of its workers, the cost of education has been shifted to individuals and the public commonwealth. Students feel compelled to acquire credentialing as a means of improving their economic positions. Unfortunately, along the way, “professional” training has taken precedence over education. The two have become conflated in the public mind.

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    […] said that? Why, Clay Shirky, of course. The same Clay Shirky that said MOOCs were Higher Ed’s mp3. This time, the End Of […]

  34. chris Jangelöv Says:

    To some extent it is also about what students are buying. An exam may have been what put you on a certain entrance level from which you could only continue upwards. A ticket to a very good starting point. Today it is not only that the PhD:s are abundant but also that in many areas peak knowledge is short lived. You might be competent when you graduate but five years later that competence is of yesteryear and the ones with the newest knowledge kick you out just like you kicked someone else out five years ago.
    We need a base to stand on but then we need to go in and out of education during our whole lives to keep up with development. This puts a strain on each end everyone of us as individuals but it also calls for a whole new role for academia. And for the expectations of employers and, in short, for society as a whole.

  35. Clay Shirky sees the peak of higher education | Bryan Alexander Says:

    […] a recent blog post Clay Shirky argues that higher education’s economic model has broken.  Shirky offers the title “The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age”, describing a […]

  36. Janice Robertson Says:

    Change the game and lower the transaction costs: Instead of treating students as backseat passengers in a higher educational vehicle that’s geared towards the transmission of self-contained content, i.e., content produced by professors for the self-serving purpose of publication–put steering wheels in the hands of students, take them out on road trips, negotiate real problems–and they will become self-educating. Oops, just lost my job for doing that!

  37. Tim Dellinger Says:

    Note that having a college degree only retains value right now because there isn’t a better (more predictive, and trusted) credential to be had for people who are seeking jobs.

    Furthermore, although Clay Shirky hints at it in the essay, I’ll explicitly state that the online versions of education have reduced the college experience down to what’s easy to implement and easy to measure: receiving lectures, and activities of the quiz-and-test variety. It’s not clear that the value of the traditional old-school college experience (and it’s accompanying degree) were the result of those particular aspects of the experience. Granting degrees based only on coursework runs the risk of diluting the perceived value of the degree.

  38. Clay Shirky’s Adjunct Math | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] people have already taken up Clay Shirky’s latest more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger piece about how we just can’t afford t… I just wanted to check the math about […]

  39. Tim McCormick Says:

    Great post. As Ivan Illich argued in his radical 1971 critique Deschooling Society, educational systems institutionalize a need, then may tend to serve themselves more than the need — like medical, professional, legal, etc systems. (see full text & convivial annotation system at http://deschoolingsociety.digress.it/)

    Illich makes many interesting suggestions for radically lowering cost and expanding efficacy/accessibility of learning. For example, peer-to-peer learning networks allowing any skill/knowledge-holder to offer it to another, via community centers, peer educational credit system; and computerized “intellectual match” interest-matching networks. In 1971 he envisioned some of the most open possible variants of todays MOOCs and online learning.

    From another angle, Illich also calls for dismantling or prohibiting any requirements for educational credentials in employment, in favor of assessing actual needed skills and on-job performance. We increasingly can see that educational “attainment” is highly predicated on prior privilege, and the steady expansion of credentialism is often discriminatory gatekeeping and higher-ed rent-seeking. Who does it serve?

    After the Golden Age of Academia may come the Golden Age of Learning.

    Tim McCormick, Palo Alto
    @tmccormick tjm.org

  40. Jesse Turner Says:

    Everything can be improved, everyone should help, and the status quo ends in death for all. however I am careful with a focus on cheaper. Sometimes people get what they pay for, and sometimes that ends up being a raw deal.
    With policy makers and politicians I focus on building the best higher education system we can. Dell built cheap, Apple built quality, and the rest is history. We need affordable, meaningful, and quality.
    Thanks Clay for opening this extremely important conversation.

  41. Annmaria Says:

    I paid off NYU for my oldest daughter last year. Costs for my youngest to attend – 16 years younger – would be double what it was for fewer tenured profs, larger classrooms and all paid by us. Having worked at a university I’m sure some of those admin jobs could be eliminated & replaced with full time faculty. We’re looking at different schools that might be worth the money, like the UC system

  42. Andie Says:

    Perhaps teaching positions / institutions should stop being conflated with research ones? Is there any way for that to be feasible?

  43. David Cushman Says:

    Do you see a two-speed solution emerging? One forthe more privileged leafy academia – which appears to be able to continue with the old model in sun-drenched quads – and a newer, faster (perhaps more digitally enabled and collabloratively created) alternative for those with a need for greater fit with need?

  44. Bryan Blakeley Says:

    “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.”

    This is a crucial point. When we ask the question, “what is college for?” we shouldn’t be surprised if the answer varies among different groups of students. How do we treat this as an opportunity rather than shoehorning everyone into the same structure?

  45. The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age | weiterbildungsblog Says:

    […] “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.” Clay Shirky, Blog, 29. Januar 2014 […]

  46. Steve Midgley Says:

    You make the complex seem obvious – thanks Clay. I couldn’t agree more — until someone demonstrates a systemic way to improve the quality of education, the only economic option is to make it cheaper. People can bang on the table all they want, but that future is inevitable w/out something dramatic happening on the quality end.

  47. The End of the Golden Age of the American Academy Says:

    […] First the drastic change in the student body: […]

  48. Leslie Bary Says:

    Will, send ’em to my university. Low tuition, a lot of merit aid for people from out of state who are strong students, medium sized school, they will know their professors, place has a culture, and campus/downtown area is bikeable. There are some top programs and people get into graduate school even from the non-top ones.

    This essay generally labors under the assumption that most tenured and tt faculty have the situation NYU’s apparently does. I am at a research institution and TT faculty starts at $44K for a 3/3 load, no research funding; FT NTT starts at $38K for a 5/5 load, no terminal degree required, no research expectation.

  49. Clay Shirkey: The plight of American colleges – disruptive change and the loss of the Golden AGe | A Man With A Ph.D. Says:

    […] There isn’t enough money to keep educating adults the way we’re doing it[Via Clay Shirky] […]

  50. Will Richardson Says:

    “The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well.”

    As the parent of two teenagers, I can’t tell you how much this statement scares me. And I also can’t tell you how many of our parent friends have little or no context for the challenges that higher education and the kids that have come to rely on it are facing.

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