Part of the reason this change is so disorienting is that the public conversation focuses, obsessively, on a few elite institutions. The persistent identification of higher education with institutions like Swarthmore and Stanford creates a collective delusion about the realities of education after high school; the collapse of Antioch College in 2008 was more widely reported than the threatened loss of accreditation for the Community College of San Francisco last year, even though CCSF has 85,000 students, and Antioch had fewer than 400 when it lost accreditation. Those 400, though, were attractive and well-off young people living together, which made for the better story. Life in the college dorm and on the grassy quad are rarities discussed as norms.Yes, and among the residential colleges, the Swarthmores and Stanfords serve relatively few students. So how well is the sector serving that majority who are either in the land-grants, mid-majors, community colleges?
The students enrolled in places like CCSF (or Houston Community College, or Miami Dade) are sometimes called non-traditional, but this label is itself a holdover from another era, when residential colleges for teenage learners were still the norm. After the massive expansion of higher education into job training, the promising 18-year-old who goes straight to a residential college is now the odd one out.
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.Perhaps the falling value of that degree (even for students who finish) is a consequence of higher education getting away from the notion of "acceptable quality." Admit unprepared students and call it "access", rely more heavily on cheap and contingent faculty labor whilst asking the remaining tenure-line faculty (via) to teach more students, serve on more committees, and produce better research, devote the money that is available to athletics, amenities, and diversity hustlers, then profess surprise that U.S. News sell more guides and the recruiters quit showing up at your job fairs.
One obvious way to improve life for the new student majority is to raise the quality of the education without raising the price. This is clearly the ideal, whose principal obstacle is not conceptual but practical: no one knows how. The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.
The other way to help these students would be to dramatically reduce the price or time required to get an education of acceptable quality (and for acceptable read “enabling the student to get a better job”, their commonest goal.) This is a worse option in every respect except one, which is that it may be possible.
Mr Shirky is not yet ready to go there.
Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.No, continuing to hope to do all things for all clients will simply continue the misery.