The Future of the U


So, I'm a bit late to this particular party- since the Reddit Post in question is about a month old now, but I read it again and I decided that it was worth reacting to, because, despite the deep doomerism that infuses the entire post, there is a kernel of truth to be considered there: what is the future of the University?
First of all, go read the Reddit post and come back. I'll give you a minute or two to do that.

Got that done? Okay, let's talk.

We've got to pull back our view and focus on higher education in general. In the nearly fifteen years I've been perched in my little corner of higher education, I've been hearing about the great coming educational apocalypse and it has yet to materialize. This doesn't mean that there aren't very legitimate reasons for concern in the years ahead.

I think it's important right out of the gate that we harsh the narrative about higher education a bit- college costs have, in fact, been dropping for the past decade or so. Have they been dropping enough? Not at all-but a drop is a drop and we've got to acknowledge that. Whether this is a blip brought on by a looming demographic crunch or the very sclerotic bureaucracies of higher education finally reacting to very real market pressures, I don't know- but the cost of college is decreasing and I'd expect that to continue.

Why? Well, the closing of Iowa Wesleyan University (pour one out for the birthplace of the Air Raid Offense, football fans) should be ringing big, giant alarm bells in the 'small university' and 'small, liberal arts college' areas of higher education. I think you're going to see a tuition arms race as those universities start to realize that there are way too many fish in the pond, demographics is destiny and if they can't put butts in seats consistently, there's going to be existential trouble ahead. 

If you're a Grinnell (with its reputation) or a Cornell (with its block scheduling, which is pretty unique) I think you've got a little bit of breathing room- but if you're a smaller college or university and you don't have a unique thing that makes you stand out from the pack, I'd be a little scared about what the next ten years look like. You're seeing it now-- colleges here and there, shutting their doors or stopping football programs, things like that-- I would expect to see that more often over the next decade or so.

As those colleges close, that means those students have to go somewhere and the Big Universities are the most likely beneficiaries of that over the short to medium term. In the case of Iowa specifically, I think you've been seeing future-facing moves for over a decade now-- in ten years, our campus footprint is going to be a lot smaller than it used to be. It'll be more compact and clustered together as the Regents pursue a policy of 'right-sizing' their campuses. Older buildings with higher maintenance costs are going to come down and some of them may or may not be replaced, depending on what decision-makers think- to me, that's a sign that someone up the food chain is at least thinking a little bit about the shape of things to come.

The attitudes of my generation- especially when our kids get to thinking about college are going to be fascinating to watch. I know Missus and I tend to fall into the category of, "Yes, you're going to graduate high school" and "Don't go to college unless you know what you're going to do if you get there." I think gap years or just simply working for a couple of years might become a thing over there. I think the trades are going to see some increased interest and I do think people will still go to college.

Will it be different? Yes. I think if my prediction of a tuition arms race amongst smaller colleges comes true, I think it will filter up to the big universities and then the selling point could become, "get in, get a quality education, and get out in three years or less and save yourself a ton of money in the process." or something to that effect. 

To address the points of the post specifically: Do I think in 15 years the University will be 'something much closer to a community or technical college, and not a particularly good one' No, I don't. Underprepared admits have been a problem for as long as I've been alive-- and I grew up with a Dad who was a college professor who grumbled about that very problem constantly. Do I think Iowa's Red State politics are going to be a deterrent to qualified faculty? Maybe initially-- but one election cycle can staunch Iowa's lurch to the right and I don't think our current politics are sustainable over the long term. Homeostasis of some kind will be reached and our politics won't be stuck where they are now when we get there. 

And even if I'm wrong about that-- there are plenty of Universities in very red states that have yet to wither and die away. It's not great, to be sure, but it's not a death sentence either.

Ultimately, the market moves how the market move, and in an academic job market flooded with candidates, full-time faculty positions are nothing to sneeze at. Tenure track ones- assuming tenure survives the next decade or so also will not be refused by qualified applicants-- now, they may not stick around and make a career at Iowa the way they used to I'll grant you that, but I don't think the University will be lacking in applicants.

Hell, if push comes to shove, I'll roll up my sleeves, get my Ph.D. and do it myself, damn it. 

There are legitimate reasons for concern. The post is right about that, but do I think it's all gonna crumble? I don't. Granted- none of what I've just written takes into account random Black Swan events or the rise of AI-- but knowing what I know now, I feel comfortable saying that doomerism about the future that's turned all the way up to 11 is well off the mark. I'd personally put my doomerism meter at about... 4? 

I guess if I have a secret fear in all of this is that maybe this Reddit post will turn out to be right and the future will catch up with me in all the wrong ways in fifteen years or so when I'm ten years too early for retirement and fighting bad demographics on the other end of things trying to pivot my career into something else. That's what keeps me up at night if I'm being honest-- but I've also got the advantage of having time to prepare. 

If you can see the future coming, you can work to make it better. Maybe you'll succeed and maybe you won't- but you still have to try.

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