This piece is something I've been working on for some time, wrestling with the issues pertaining to higher education in the United States. It is very much from an American experience here, and something I think that addresses the issues behind the myths centered around higher-ed here in the U.S.
Everyone wants to go to heaven, but the gate of heaven isn’t like the gate of hell, which opens with a push. I confused the gate of hell with the gate of heaven.
–Wang Xiaofang, The Civil Servant’s Notebook
College or university education, post-secondary education, or higher education has a serious problem, and COVID-19, with its political and economic fallout, has made the problem facing higher education more pronounced. Higher education is facing an existential crisis, one that is challenging its dominance in the American workforce. In fact, college or university education, much like belittled public education in the United States, has become laughable. Internet memes, rightwing commentariats, and, of course, conservative (and even liberal) lawmakers have shown college/university education to be nothing more than atrocious government waste, producing undereducated and ignorant graduates, and creating “too big to fail” educational institutions across the country that are (essentially) money-making enterprises for cash-strapped states.
When I first started college, at the age of seventeen, it was expected that I would find a job after studying hard, writing papers, and taking exams for four years. In fact, college or university education came with a sort of spoken guarantee that I would find a good-paying job with little or no effort, aside from studying and performing adequately in various academic subjects. Moreover, I would be able to pay off my student loans with relative ease and smart budgeting, inch ever upward toward true prosperity, and, one day, just one day, I would be a member of America’s shrinking middle-class.
This was about the time of the Great Recession, as misleading as that moniker has become. The Great Recession saw droves of Americans entering college, including young, traditional college-age students and older, non-traditional students. College became a way to escape the harsh realities of the Great Recession’s economic hellscape, where unemployment, wage freezes, mortgage defaults, and very real anger and confusion were everywhere. However, the promise that college education provided one with the ability to secure stable (and worthwhile) employment, one that was touted by politicians in Washington, D.C. and my adopted home of New Mexico, began to crack under the pressure of the post-Great Recession economic realities. It was an impious fiction, packaged and sold by the country’s political leadership, who, for various reasons, wanted people to skip on trades and seek out white-collar work instead. It was a fiction that, for the most part, proved to be true until it wasn’t.
The problem with any myth, particularly myths concerning how one achieves prosperity, is that it tends to break apart when the conditions allowing individuals to believe in them are ripped away. The Great Recession, and subsequent economic dislocations, ripped away any notions held by Americans that education, all by its lonesome, could help individuals achieve real prosperity (Think: Entering (and staying within) America’s shrinking middle-class). Although higher education does indeed bring about prosperity, and higher levels of employment, many pundits believe that higher education, particularly through two- and four-year degree programs, is unable to help graduates secure true middle-class prosperity. In other words, if pundits are correct, the promises politicians made to so many Americans have become full of empty words for those Americans struggling to find gainful employment following college or university graduation. Moreover, many college-educated Americans struggle against heavier burdens from student loans used to help finance educational opportunities.
This rather bleak view of higher education has had many experts, including prominent futurists, claiming the death of higher education is upon us, especially in the United States. The data seems to be indicating this: more people are pursuing alternative forms of education, high school graduates aren’t flocking to colleges like they used to, and the earnings for undergraduate degrees appear to be in decline. The number of students enrolling in and attending colleges or universities has been in steady decline since 2011. More students are shunning for-profit and four-year colleges or universities. Furthermore, some data, although I am skeptical of some of these data points, suggest undergraduate degrees, particularly four-year degrees, are seeing a decline in real wages. , 
Like any proclamation of death, we need to be wary. We also need to be vigilant when it comes to promises made by politicians, and we need to be critical of those experts proclaiming the death of higher education. Thus, we need to look deeper, and when we do, we find that higher education, although not dying, per se, is, indeed, a species facing endangerment and, very possibly, extinction. In other words, we mustn’t believe that death is already here and start planning a funeral and a life afterward. Higher education in the United States is on a sort of life support or even hospice care, depending on the state you live in. We can still take steps to help higher education remain relevant in the twenty-first century. Moreover, we can take action to push institutions to pursue innovative curricula and practices. However, saving higher education for tomorrow will take an incredible amount of work and resources, along with some radical solutions to very real problems.
In my own state, New Mexico, our last governor had an ax to grind when it came to higher education. Susana Martinez, a Republican and fiscal conservative, did the unthinkable when she vetoed a bill funding higher education in the state of New Mexico in 2017. This sent waves of panic throughout the state’s institutions of higher learning, and, more importantly, it rekindled the debate concerning the supposed economic value, or lack thereof, of higher education as a whole. We even made the national news, and many New Mexicans didn’t appreciate being in the limelight. The state at the time, and this is still the case, has been ranked the lowest in public education, something that has demoralized New Mexico educators, even at the highest levels of our state’s education system.
To make matters worse, states like New Mexico are forced to compete for an ever-shrinking piece of the higher education pie. The rise of A.I., better software, cheaper computing hardware, and relatively inexpensive bandwidth, have all made it easier for colleges to compete across stateliness for student (and federal) dollars. Organizations like Liberty University and Southern New Hampshire University boast about serving tens of thousands of students, both in their respective states and elsewhere. State institutions, like my alma mater, can compete with more expensive schools in the online arena. Ironically, these same schools are using state funding to build and make repairs to their beautiful brick ‘n’ mortar campuses, which in the case of my alma mater hasn’t seen large on-campus growth in over a decade.
Instead, my alma mater has spent a good deal of money upgrading and maintaining its physical campus, all the while ignoring (really, neglecting) the distance education students and the infrastructure that supports their growing numbers. Distance education has become a way of shoring up funds, a robbing Peter to pay Paul moment, when on-campus enrollment has steadily decline into oblivion. Thus, institutions like my alma mater are surviving in a time of low enrollment nationwide. It is institutions like these who are clinging to the old ways, ignoring the realities beset in front of them, especially in the looming post-COVID-19 educational environment.
If higher education wants to survive, it will need to change. This need to change, adapting to environmental stimuli, is an important part of the successful propagation of lifeforms. The same can be said for institutions of higher learning, where there tends to be a shying away from the realities bearing down on higher ed. COVID-19 did not make these problems happen, per se. Instead, COVID-19 brought them to the forefront, revealing them to students, administrators, policymakers, and faculty all at once. The issues besieging higher education cannot be dealt with using old methodologies.
Between the failure of promises made by politicians and all the other negative baggage associated with higher education, the future of higher ed is in serious trouble. Higher education needs to stop thinking like an industry. When institutions see themselves as being part of an industry, they fail to find why they are doing something. The why is important here. We must remember that without answering the why, higher education will continue to face an existential crisis, and, if left untreated or left to fester, higher education could very well end up like nineteenth-century railroads: Irrelevant and unresponsive to future demands. In other words, if higher education wants to remain relevant, it needs to look at itself in a deeper, more critical way, avoiding the fate of many nineteenth-century railroad corporations.
Further, higher education needs to stop fetishizing the degree completion mantra. Degree completion, or even the completion of certificates, can only be one of many solutions to ensuring higher ed remains relevant into the foreseeable future. Another problem is bridging the gap between praxis and theory. In many higher ed classrooms, theory trumps praxis, meaning hands-on and experiential learning takes a backseat to so-called book learning. Thus, institutions of higher learning need to bring the two forms of learning together. For example, a student studying basic medical techniques should be able to practice them, even if that comes with simulations and workshops focused on learning proper techniques. Engineers would, in this learning environment, learn to apply their theories to the real world. Budding scientists could do the same thing here as well, making use of makerspaces to experiment and learn in ways that might engage the brain in deeper, more meaningful ways.
A successful higher ed institution would create learning experiences within and outside of the formal classroom. Moreover, the institution in question would offer the necessary resources to help students hone their skills and retain their knowledge from formal college courses using spaces like a makerspace or innovation lab, etc. Moreover, a successful college or university should not stop offering educational opportunities with degree programs. They could, in theory, offer continued education opportunities for alumni and members of the larger community. Thus, an institution such as a community college or rural university could become a hub for scientific and economic innovations, developing strong roots in the community that would allow these institutions to remain relevant and sustainable into the foreseeable future.
If higher education institutions fail to adapt and change to the needs of their communities, their students, and to the larger politico-economic frameworks, it is likely they will be replaced. These institutions could be replaced with alternatives like corporate-sponsored MOOCs, industry-specific certificate programs, or even micro-degrees centered on deep specialization for specific industry needs. Higher education needs to show that it can be a competitor in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to the way things have been done. Higher education, particularly in the United States, has shown promise to be a radical innovator, offering educational opportunities that could (and should) rival what is offered in its place.
Despite what some are saying, higher education is not dead yet. I emphasized yet for a reason. In the future, higher education could be replaced with alternative educational systems, systems that may or may not offer students what they need to survive, adapt, and thrive in the twenty-first century. If we lose institutions of higher learning, what is to say that we will not lose so much more?
Commentary & Bibliographical Notes:
1. Originally published on Medium as “The Death of Higher Education?” Revisited and revised here under a different name, something that felt a bit more poignant than the previous (and ambiguous) title.
2. An excellent discussion on employment rates among college graduates can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES): NCES, “Employment Rates for College Graduates,” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Accessed 11 January 2021, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=561.
3. See citation above. This is the official study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s NCES.
4. For a closer inspection of household debt, particularly college/university education debt, see the Federal Reserve’s short report on the matter: Federal Reserve, “Student Loans and Other Education Debt,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Federal Reserve, Accessed January 11, 2021, https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2019-economic-well-being-of-us-households-in-2018-student-loans-and-other-education-debt.htm.
5. A rather poignant article on this can be found in The Atlantic: Adam Harris, “Here’s How Higher Education Dies,” The Atlantic, June 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/06/heres-how-higher-education-dies/561995/.
6. Paul Fain, “College Enrollment Continues Decline,” Quick Takes, Inside HigherEd, May 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2019/05/30/college-enrollment-declines-continue.
7. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSC Research Center), “Current Term Enrollment – Spring 2019,” NSC Research Center, Accessed 10 January 2021, https://nscresearchcenter.org/currenttermenrollmentestimate-spring2019/.
8. Jaison R. Abel, and Richard Deitz, “College May Not Pay Off for Everyone,” Liberty Street Economics, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Accessed 11 January 2021, https://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2014/09/college-may-not-pay-off-for-everyone.html.
9. For an in-depth study of wage trends in the United States see Sarah A. Donovan, and David H. Bradley, Real Wage Trends, 1979 to 2019, CRS Report No. R45090. Washington, D.C. Congressional Research Service. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45090.pdf.
10. Valerie Strauss, “New Mexico Gov. Martinez vetoes higher education funding. All of it.,” Answer Sheet, The Washington Post, April 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/04/17/new-mexico-gov-martinez-vetoes-higher-education-funding-all-of-it/?noredirect=on.
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