The End of the Golden Age of the American Academy

Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, has written a great piece that attempts to chart the reasons for the rise and fall of what he calls the “Golden Age” of the American academy.

First the drastic change in the student body:

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.

And of course, the drastic change in the faculty:

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.

So what’s going to happen? Large-scale low-cost education:

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.

Read more.

H/T: Shira of The Fruits of Kamma Tumblr.

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