The Good News in American Higher Education
There are a number of significant challenges in higher education today, including rising costs, diminishing returns, and the stifling effects of runaway political correctness on academic inquiry. That being said, it’s not all bad news. In fact, there are a number of hopeful, emerging trends that promise to create new and expanded opportunities for students while fostering a healthier campus intellectual climate:
1. Declining Number of Applicants – The number of college applicants peaked in 2009… around the same time the number of jobs for graduates bottomed out. What a disaster! Since then, due to demographic realities, the number of graduating high school seniors has declined and, with it, we have a smaller applicant pool in higher education. It is now becoming a buyer’s market for college applicants, and colleges are struggling to fill their freshman classes. This increases the applicants’ admission chances as well as their negotiating power for financial and merit aid awards.
2. Increasing Number of Jobs for Graduates After the worst job market for young adults since the Great Depression, graduates finally have reason for optimism. Thanks to the aging of the Baby Boomers and their shift into retirement, the labor market is starting to open up for young people. According to The Wall Street Journal, incomes for the newest batch of graduates are now the highest in over a decade, while unemployment rates are falling quickly. Also, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that employers plan to hire 11% more college graduates this year than last.
3. Tuition Discounting. After years of runaway tuition price inflation, completely disconnected from the rest of the economy and supported by mushrooming levels of student debt, market forces are finally starting to exert some influence at some schools. Institutions are offering all-time-high tuition discounts to encourage students to enroll and, for the first time in recent memory, we’re starting to see good old-fashioned price competition breaking out among some consumer-minded schools. Now, that’s refreshing!
4. Technological Disruption – Colleges may still have the monopoly on credentialing, but no longer on expertise or pedagogical platforms. The traditional brick-and-ivy model is seeing legitimate competition from marketplace forces that can move much more quickly than the academy and that are better attuned to the shifting needs of the workforce.
Students seeking to get up-to-speed on the latest technological know-how can do so online for a fraction of the cost and time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science. As Goldman Sachs (of all places) recently concluded: “Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the most obvious threat [to higher education], but it could also be companies creating their own de facto degrees.” Colleges are going to have to start to compete with these online challengers on quality and value in order to remain relevant. This is good news for the consumer.
5. Retiring Radicals – Sixties Radicals have dominated the academy since, well, the 1960s. This hegemony may be coming to an end, at last. Besides the reality that the oldest radicals are retiring and dying off, there is also growing recognition that such an overwhelming one-sided tilt is not just bad for classroom discussions, but is also destructive to entire fields of inquiry and the disinterested pursuit of truth on which the entire academic enterprise is predicated. Ironically, aging leftist college professors who still think they are “fighting the man,” actually have been “the man” for decades now. It’s past time for ideological balance and fresh voices and calls for such are growing, both inside and outside the academy.
6. Pushback. The public and even college administrators are increasingly fed-up with extreme, over-the-top campus politics that seem to have reached their own absurd conclusion. Recent expletive-filled, mob-rule protests, fueled by outrageous demands and coupled with histrionic cowering in so-called “safe spaces” have led many observers to conclude that the inmates are running the asylum and that this nonsense has to stop.
All this for just $65,000 a year? Does anyone even go to class?
At Oberlin and Oxford, we’ve seen campus authorities finally say, “No way” to extreme demands from political activists. How refreshing! It appears some academics are finding their spines. Extreme movements always create a backlash in the opposite direction. That’s not politics or philosophy -- that’s basic Newtonian physics, so…count on it.
Likewise, there are growing demands for greater accountability from higher education among the general public. Colleges and universities have enjoyed considerable leeway and forbearance from the general public for years. As long as their children enjoyed college and found decent-paying jobs after the time and expense involved, parents were willing to tolerate a certain amount of campus “hijinks.” With sky-high tuition and unemployed, drowning-in-debt, frustrated graduates over the past decade, however, most of this goodwill has been used up. Parents want their sons and daughters equipped to succeed rather than filled with impractical theory and ideological radicalism. They want results.
A lot of long-simmering issues in higher education are finally coming to a boil. Hopefully, the worst is behind us and we’ll be seeing brighter days ahead in American higher education with a return to civility, value and quality. It’s about time.
Bonnie Snyder is the author of The New College Reality and the founder of Outsmarting College. She is an honors graduate of Harvard, earned a doctorate in Higher Education from Penn State, and has worked in college admissions.