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The Future Of Higher Education Will Be The Same, But Worse

The coronavirus crisis will do nothing to address big barriers to fundamental reform

A graduate wears a "Save Sweet Briar" button during the commencement ceremony at Sweet Briar College, a women's liberal arts college in Sweet Briar, VA on Saturday May 16, 2015. The school faced closure but fundraisers kept it open since. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The uncertainty that American colleges now face has sparked bombastic proclamations from reformers. A coming disruption will be led by elite cyborg universities, we’re told. The pandemic is a golden opportunity to clean out the diversity bureaucracy. Funding formulas should be changed too, while we’re at it.

Unfortunately, the desire for change has blinded experts to the reality of the situation. The French novelist Michel Houellebecq is closer to the mark: The future of higher ed will be the same, but worse. Colleges will make the changes they must as budgets shrink, and then they’ll demand more taxpayer money to restore higher ed to the way things were.

The lack of alternatives to a college education, and vested interests who want to preserve the status quo, are big barriers to fundamental reforms—and the coronavirus won’t make them disappear.

Higher ed will still survive and be popular because there are very, very few other ways for the average 18-year-old to succeed in life. The self-motivated ones might try starting a business, or take an internship if they’re lucky enough to have family connections to a business that still exists.

Most students, however, are average. They are not budding non-conformists yearning for a Thiel Fellowship. Aside from a college credential, they do not have a constructive option to avoid a Zoom classroom in the fall. To the extent that many freshmen defer college in the fall, it could put some pressure on institutions. Absent of that, however, students will suffer through Zoom and boredom to get a degree. (And it will, in all likelihood, be an online fall semester.)

To see what might actually happen among American higher education, follow what public four-year colleges and community colleges have done so far (and where almost 75 percent of all students study). Decisions at elite colleges such as Harvard, Williams, and the University of Michigan will differ markedly from decisions at Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina or the City University of New York and its 26 campuses.

For the colleges that educate the most students, the outlook is bleak.

CUNY has laid off hundreds of adjunct faculty. Ohio University is cutting hundreds of administrators and scores of faculty. The University of Akron cut three sports, East Carolina University will cut at least one sport, and Western Michigan University wants to cut spending by 20 percent across all university divisions.

The average college will see cuts made across-the-board. The lucky ones might only lose 5 percent, the stragglers 30 percent. Marginal athletic programs, such as cross country, golf, tennis, and sometimes baseball, will disappear. Adjuncts will disappear in droves, and even some tenure-track professors, too. Administrators will also be cut, but not as drastically as professors.

Those cuts won’t be as dramatic as reformers would like, mostly thanks to federal intervention. Though Colorado slashed its higher education budget by 58 percent, for example, federal aid will mean its colleges only face a 5 percent cut. That the academy sees a 5 percent cut as a sign of economic and moral destruction is a sign of the budget battles to come on the state level.

More cuts could happen, however, if students stay away. A big drop in fall enrollment would threaten all sorts of colleges. Until student deposits start to roll in, however, it’s too soon to speak in certainties. Low-income students are more likely to skip a year; FAFSA renewals have fallen almost 5 percent compared to a year ago. Part-time students, too, are less likely to return to classes, as are Latinos, a growing presence on many campuses. If a slice of Gen Z realizes it’s a fool’s game to take on debt for a college degree without the on-campus experience, perhaps the reformers will be right. Until the fall, it’s too early to say.

For some schools, like community colleges, they might even thrive. They’re much cheaper than a four-year school, public or private. Students might be more willing to tolerate online classes if they can do it closer to home and their credits will transfer. Some anecdotal and survey data show a portion of students are leaning that way. If students follow through, places like California, Texas, Illinois, and the Northeast could gain, as their high school grads often go out of state for college. Hubs for out-of-state students, like the University of Alabama, could suffer, as well as schools with a lot of international students.

Truly major changes are more likely to occur at small private colleges, for-profit colleges, and marginal schools that were struggling before the coronavirus. Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, for example, will be absorbed by Boston College. Other small private colleges will follow suit, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, as many have done in recent years. If a private college was mostly unknown outside its state and was taking on debt without getting more students, it may not be around in 2021.

Don’t expect as many closures of public schools, though. When Jeb Spaulding, the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, tried to close three campuses, the response to his “politically radioactive” proposal forced him to withdraw it and resign. If Vermont, which has seen five private colleges close since 2016 and whose public system was struggling before the coronavirus, can’t close a few schools, it will be an extremely hard sell in other states. Local politicians and towns dependent on the jobs provided by the college will fight tooth and nail against closures.

More likely, some public colleges will go the route of Missouri Western State University. After financial mismanagement for years flew under the radar until the student newspaper brought it to light, MWSU cut its budget by 30 percent, reduced its full-time faculty by about a quarter, and ended dozens of majors, minors, and concentrations. It will limp on, with its 33 percent graduation rate. Public colleges can be stripped down and hollowed out, but they can’t be closed.

More federal funds also portend against public college closures. The higher ed lobby has demanded at least $47 billion more from Congress in coronavirus aid. The status quo, from that point of view, needs to be maintained. In protecting the status quo, even the basket cases are bailed out: According to Real Clear Investigations, 87 percent of the 447 colleges under “heightened cash monitoring” by the Department of Education received funding in the first round of coronavirus aid. Given how uncritically state and federal governments fund higher education, it’s unlikely that a coronavirus renewal will cleanse what plagues American colleges and universities.

Yet, perhaps some colleges deserve to die. Many of the schools now shutting down, merging, or getting hollowed out have a poor track record for graduate outcomes. They have abysmal graduation rates and high debt loads. They also struggle to maintain enrollment numbers as students have noticed the poor results and vote with their feet. Declining to save those struggling institutions could leave would-be students better off. Jettison the dead weight, and decent colleges might remain.

Higher education does not exist in a vacuum. The ongoing changes are made based on local economic and political conditions. That makes it harder to implement good ideas, unless it’s sold as an expansion that requires more funding, not fewer administrators on campus.

The decisions are also made, increasingly, by people who all have a college degree. They see college as the only route to success; they rarely have an appetite for expanding non-college career paths. They are the ones that college was designed for. Why reform college, in their view, when the problem is not enough state funding for colleges?

Many of the proposed reforms are good ideas. My colleagues at the James G. Martin Center have offered an outline of reforms for the University of North Carolina system that many state systems could follow. The National Association of Scholars has offered an even broader, national plan for change. And the Drake Group’s ideas for athletics could lay the groundwork for restoring the primacy of academic success above some sports-obsessed schools.

Those ideas are sound, and it’s worth challenging college leaders and politicians to endorse them. However, reformers need to think about reform in terms of what to expect from decision makers and existing conditions. Reformers won’t suddenly be embraced while higher ed leaders and lobbyists cajole state and federal officials for emergency funding.

The coronavirus will not spark The Great Higher Ed Reform. Federal laws would have to change. Guardians of the status quo, like Saul on the Road to Damascus, would need the scales to fall from their eyes. And the average student would need a viable alternative that pressures colleges to change their ways. Until then, reformers will continue to fight in the trenches to change a bloated system that leaves many students worse off than before they entered.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. 

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