Is Higher Ed Dead?

  Bernie Sanders — AP
Bernie Sanders — AP

Author: Matt Morava


Jeffery Selingo wrote a column a few months ago for the Washington Post titled, “How Many Colleges and Universities Do We Really Need?

It’s a provocative question.

In the article Jeffery points out that most of the 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States are located in the Northwest and Midwest, while most college-age young people live in the South and West.

While that’s a factor, there are more challenges facing higher education than geospatial:

  • Crashing Enrollment Numbers — Colleges and universities across the country are facing lower enrollment numbers.

  • Abysmally Low Graduation Rates — “The 2013 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2007 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2007 completed the degree at that institution by 2013.” U.S. Dept. of Education.
  • How’d you like to be the Chancellor of Harris-Stowe State University, St. Louis, Missouri with a graduation rate of 10.4%?
  • Astronomical Student Debt — Average student loan debt for the soon to be graduates of 2015? $35,000.00
  • The Student Load Debt Crisis in 9 Charts — Mother Jones
  • Tuition Is Too Damn High! by Dylan Matthews (If you’ve not read this ten part series, do so, amazing bit of research and writing.
  • The Value of a Liberal Arts Degree is in Question — Clearly there’s a need for medical, engineering, science, technology, and legal, but what’s the street value of a liberal arts degree these days?
  • College: The Path To Opportunity and Prosperity by Drew Faust
  • China Can’t Bail Out Higher Ed — Colleges and universities love students from China because they typically pay full tuition, but most professionals in higher ed believe that’s a bubble that can’t be sustained over the long term.
  • U.S. Colleges Expelled as Many as 8,000 Chinese Students in 3 Years — Newsweek

Will we (as the outspoken Mark Cuban has suggested on numerous occasions) see universities and colleges closing their doors in the near future?

Mark Cuban on Student Debt

Mark Cuban on Student Debt

Probably, and Mark has a point on predatory lending and how universities have been willing to play along, but to fully understand the challenges in higher education you have to follow root-cause downstream and look at what first happened with public education.

The Five Factors that Crushed Public Education

In 2010, I began research on a book I had tentatively titled, “Schools Out Forever: The Rise and Fall of Public Education in the United States” and in the process I had outlined five factors that crushed public education.

1. Unionization — There have been numerous dramatic moments in our nation’s history that have taken place in the halls of high school, but you’d be hard pressed to find a moment more heartbreaking and courageous than the “Little Rock 9.” A group of nine black students who faced unimaginable hate and resistance as they crossed pro-segregation picket lines and went straight into the history books.

What’s not generally known is that prior to the 1960’s (and the battle over segregation) union enrollment numbers were incredibly low. Only about 12% of teachers were unionized prior to the 1960’s. Those numbers exploded during the segregation battles of the 1960’s, in which many teachers went against school administration and principals (who were mostly in favor of segregation) and risked losing their jobs by protesting.

“The national American Federation of Teachers grew from fewer than 60,000 members in 1960 to more than 200,000 by the end of the decade.” AFT. The numbers were even greater for the other major teacher’s union the National Education Association. With a strong union, teachers could now picket schools and threaten strikes against school administrations that were pro-segregation without fear of losing their jobs.

However, an unintended consequence of unionization was that for the first time in U.S. public education history there was a formal separation between the curriculum creators (administration) and the curriculum deliverers (teachers). Teachers post segregation became merely the mouthpiece of a curriculum and were no longer “co-creators” in the learning process.

This had a negative impact on teaching/teachers and opened the door for an even greater separation down the road.

  The Little Rock Nine — Little Rock Central High, 1957
The Little Rock Nine — Little Rock Central High, 1957


2. White Flight — Desegregation led to all kinds of interesting machinations, intrigues, and double-dealings as whites across the country pulled their kids out of desegregated schools and either moved to the suburbs and/or placed their kids in private/religious schools.

White Flight continues to this day and there’s a massive difference in the quality of education in the United States. Our system could now best be described as “Separate and Not Equal” as kids in private schools don’t face the challenges faced in most public schools:

  • There are over 160 different languages spoken in many public schools and when English is a second language learning moves at a slower pace.
  • In public schools you’re more likely to find kids who face food scarcity issues, come from divorced homes or contend with absent parents, and live below the poverty line.

This is where Dems and Liberals, who talk a good game about diversity, tend to be a bit hypocritical. To paraphrase Daniel Tosh, “Ah private school where everyone’s rich and white the way God intended.”

3. Women Move to Corporations — Prior to the 1960’s, a career in “Corporate America” just wasn’t possible for women beyond a few lowly positions. That started to change with the Woman’s Rights Movement. Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs and the “Old Boy’s Club” slowly began to open its doors.

Those were hard days for the women who broke into corporations in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and every woman working in business today owes a bit of gratitude to the women who broke down those doors. (More than half the U.S. workforce is made up of women today.) Sheryl Sandberg is arguing for pay equality, not the right to have a seat at the table, and that’s real progress…

  Sheryl Sandberg — The Telegraph
Sheryl Sandberg — The Telegraph


…but imagine for a moment if Facebook, or any corporate job, wasn’t an option for amazing and talented women like Sheryl. How awesome would Sheryl (and the millions of women like her) be as elementary or high school teachers?

“So awesome!” is the right answer.

And that’s what public education was like in its heyday from the (1910’s — 1960’s) when it was an honorable (if limited) profession for women.

Note — I’m not advocating women be relegated to jobs in eduction, just pointing out that the level of talent was high in the 60’s and steadily dropped throughout the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s before things started to turn around.

Education has opened its doors to men and more men are seeing education as a viable and honorable career path, but from 1960–1998 there was a massive brain drain and talent migration away from education, especially public education, that drastically diminished the quality of education being delivered.

Any organization is in trouble when they lose their “bar raisers” and exemplars.

4. Culture Wars — Starting in the late 1970’s and early 80’s you saw the Culture War that had raged around Vietnam, Nixon, Communism, and the prevalence of White Culture/Western Perspectives in education blow up into curriculum battles across the country. In the aftermath, you have a spectrum now where Shakespeare or Chaucer are not taught on one side because it’s “Western and White” and the other side where “Evolution” and “Global Warming” are treated as just ideas.

You pick the curriculum that works best for you, if you can afford it.

The casualties of the Culture War? Millions and millions of students who’ve been taught a politically charged body of knowledge without knowing it.

5. Standardization — All of these are interrelated, but the final nail in the coffin of public education was standardized testing. It marked the complete separation of the teacher as guide/creator/evaluator of learning to being just a cog in the wheel churning out curricula.

  “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!” Pink Floyd’s The Wall
“Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!” Pink Floyd’s The Wall


Of course, if your kid is in private school you’ve avoided most of these issues (U.S. private schools are churning out the best education on the planet) or maybe you’ve elected to go the homeschool route, but either way there’s no doubt that there are massive differences (separate and not equal) when it comes to education in K-12.

Those differences eventually roll up to university level.

Student Enrollment Numbers — 2014

  • Public — 50M students
  • Private — 5M students
  • Homeschooled — 1.8M students

University as High School Redux

The top 100 private or public universities in the nation can afford to be picky. They admit only the best of the best high school graduates each year.

Toughest U.S. college to get into according to The Street

1. Harvard University 
Cambridge, MA

Acceptance Rate: 5.8% 
SAT/ACT 25th Percentile: SAT 2120; ACT 32
SAT/ACT 75th Percentile: SAT 2390; ACT 35

And that’s awesome… but what about the other 5,100 colleges and universities? What about the millions of students who don’t have a chance at one of the top 200 universities or colleges?

More and more your average university and college is providing remedial writing, reading and math curricula that traditionally would have been delivered during high school. Many argue that a BA in 2015 is now the equivalent education of a high-school diploma circa 1959.

A level of education that was once upon a time free keep in mind.

I don’t see how all 5,300 universities and colleges are going to survive over the next few decades when so many forces are aligned against them.

I think you’re going to see the rise of corporate universities, apprenticeships, peer-to-1UP mentoring, and self guided learning… all for a fraction of the cost.

I ask my students, “Would you rather have a college degree or have worked for Google on your resume?”

Most choose Google.

They’re smart.

They get it.

Education should be free and for all, not just the elite, but the masses are going to have to be smart about what’s the best way to raise themselves up and it ain’t $35,000 in debt for a high school education.

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