end of the university

Rod Dreher writes today at The American Conservative about the ominous economic prospects of newly-minted PhD’s, quoting a life-long English professor, D.G. Myers, who after a 24-year academic career and at age 61, suddenly finds himself out of a job:

My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to seven percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up forty-five percent of the faculty. The imbalance cannot last. PhD programs go on awarding PhD’s to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university—a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report—pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach thirteen courses a year.) If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, nine of every ten PhD programs in English should be closed down—immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.

Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:

• Poems about Cities
• Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History
• Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire
• The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England
• Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms
• Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention
• Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens
• The Image on the Page
• Bodies, Selves, Texts
• Consumer Culture and Globalization
• The Western: Looking Awry
• Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions

…  The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms…

In my cover story for The American Interest a year ago, “The End of the University as We Know It,” I argued that going into academia might be one of the riskiest career moves a young person could make at this time, especially considering how the future of online education will worsen the imbalance of supply and demand for faculty:

Consider the possibility that, for the average student, traditional in-classroom university education has proven so ineffective that an online setting could scarcely be worse. But to recognize that would require unvarnished honesty about the present state of play. That’s highly unlikely, especially coming from present university incumbents.

The open-source educational marketplace will give everyone access to the best universities in the world. This will inevitably spell disaster for colleges and universities that are perceived as second rate. Likewise, the most popular professors will enjoy massive influence as they teach vast global courses with registrants numbering in the hundreds of thousands (even though “most popular” may well equate to most entertaining rather than to most rigorous). Meanwhile, professors who are less popular, even if they are better but more demanding instructors, will be squeezed out. Fair or not, a reduction in the number of faculty needed to teach the world’s students will result. For this reason, pursuing a Ph.D. in the liberal arts is one of the riskiest career moves one could make today. Because much of the teaching work can be scaled, automated or even duplicated by recording and replaying the same lecture over and over again on video, demand for instructors will decline.

Check out Dreher’s full post on the issue here, and my related piece at the American Interest here.

(Image: PeyriHerrera.Flickr)

The New York Times is running a story today on a problem that we all know exists. And it seems to be getting worse, not better.

The college degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma–increasingly, it’s a basic requirement for jobs that actually do not require advanced education. And all of the debt and time that goes into obtaining a degree is a burden that even low-paid office workers must now bear.

Imagine racking up $30,000 in college debt so that you can get a $10 per hour job as an office courier. When will the madness end? Here’s an excerpt:

Consider the 45-person law firm of Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh here in Atlanta, a place that has seen tremendous growth in the college-educated population. Like other employers across the country, the firm hires only people with a bachelor’s degree, even for jobs that do not require college-level skills.

This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm’s managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.”

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters…

You have to ask yourself: Why?

Is this simply because Americans have bought into the idea that a college degree = financial security? If so, than the bachelor’s degree is less likely than ever to deliver on such a promise. Ironically, degree inflation has a kind of self-perpetuating effect on the labor market. Those without a B.A., as the NY Times, points out, are being pushed even further down the food chain.

Now high school graduates are being told that they are unqualified for jobs that they used to be able to get. So the pressure to get a B.A. is higher than ever. Yet, because everyone is getting one, the actual market value of a degree is diminishing relative to others in the market (who also almost all have B.A.’s). It’s a vicious cycle. The only winners are the high-paid college administrators and faculty who are making themselves, in many cases, quite wealthy off of the tuition dollars of young people who are destined for low-paying, entry level jobs.

It’s time for employers to wise up and offer talented workers an alternative path to meaningful careers. What if a few innovative companies, say in the technology sector, for instance, started hiring ultra talented students directly out high school with the promise of good pay and upwardly mobile career paths? That might shake things up.

Wouldn’t you know it–it’s already beginning to happen, as the San Antonio Express-News reported in this story last year:

“Information technology is so big and open and there are so many jobs, they are paying an 18-year-old good money to do this work,” said Ricky Banda, who graduated in May from Southwest High School and is already working full time in the field.

After Banda was part of a team that brought home a prize in the CyberPatriot national high school cybersecurity competition, the Air Force picked him up for a network security defense analyst internship his senior year. He made $12 to $13 an hour — with a government security clearance — at 17. Now with a high school diploma and multiple security and networking certifications, he’s making $43,000 a year interning with Northrop Grumman.

In a similar vein, billionaire Paypal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has gained a lot of attention with his program to pay talented students $100,000 to drop out of college and found tech start-ups.

Mark my words–we’ll see much more of this kind of thing in the future.

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My cover story in the January/February edition of The American Interest examines the huge and painful changes technology is about to bring to higher-ed.

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

We’ve all heard plenty about the “college bubble” in recent years. Student loan debt is at an all-time high—an average of more than $23,000 per graduate by some counts—and tuition costs continue to rise at a rate far outpacing inflation, as they have for decades. Credential inflation is devaluing the college degree, making graduate degrees, and the greater debt required to pay for them, increasingly necessary for many people to maintain the standard of living they experienced growing up in their parents’ homes. Students are defaulting on their loans at an unprecedented rate, too, partly a function of an economy short on entry-level professional positions. Yet, as with all bubbles, there’s a persistent public belief in the value of something, and that faith in the college degree has kept demand high.

The figures are alarming, the anecdotes downright depressing. But the real story of the American higher-education bubble has little to do with individual students and their debts or employment problems. The most important part of the college bubble story—the one we will soon be hearing much more about—concerns the impending financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities and the likely shrinkage of many public ones. And when that bubble bursts, it will end a system of higher education that, for all of its history, has been steeped in a culture of exclusivity. Then we’ll see the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual.

Read the full article in the The American Interest, currently on magazine stands and online.

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