Blow It Up?

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

We have a chance.

COVID-19 has provided an unusual opportunity to rethink how we educate people at the postsecondary level in the United States, if not the world. Let us hope this type of opportunity does not present itself again, but over the next few years, the sheer financial weight associated with the pandemic will cripple many higher education institutions and potentially systems. This is the precise time to recalibrate what, how, who, where, and why we provide higher education.

The United States enrolls, by population, more students in tertiary (higher) education than any other country in the world.[1] The US also graduates more postsecondary students than almost any other country.[2] And while the American adage has always been on the “more is better” scenario, we need to learn from our learned and perhaps rethink how we do postsecondary education in the United States. While the incremental expansion of higher education over centuries has resulted in arguably the highest achieving education system in terms of scientific and academic output in the world, it has also resulted in a system that is bloated, inefficient, costly, and arguably ill-suited to prepare our youth for a Brave New Post-COVID World (Huxley would not be impressed…).

The size of the US system of higher education is impressive. There are currently 2,300 public and private not-for-profit four-year institutions (e.g., universities) in the US as well as 969 public two-year institutions. Counting for profit institutions, there are over 6,500 institutions that qualify as Title IV institutions by the US Department of Education. Although many of these institutions are small, the sheer number is both impressive and mindblowing.

So Why Do We Need So Many Colleges?

Well, we don’t. We have such an immense system for a number of reasons. First, we are a free-market society and people can (almost) build a college if they want. It can be built for religious reasons, business reasons, or just for the sake of building a college. If you have the funding to do so, you can. Donald Trump built a university, but it wasn’t accredited by any agency and not classified as a Title IV institution. If you follow the rules and make your college Title IV-compatible, taxpayers will be there to help you via subsidies and student aid programs.

Second, the government has long had a stake in higher education. Public institutions receive billions in support from state legislatures and local governments. The federal government provides funds through a variety of mechanisms via the US Department of Education, the US Department of Labor, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Department of Defense, and many other parts of the federal government. These funds come in the form of student aid, research grants, and other direct and indirect subsidies. And the private sector kicks in, too. It is estimated that between 2 and 16 percent of medical schools’ budgets come from pharmaceutical company gifts and grants.[3] Thus, the US system is very much about funding at a level that puts it in a stratosphere of its own, unmatched by any other country.

And third, there is a popular belief that a higher education is the key to unlocking the vast potential of our citizens. It serves as a lever to a better tomorrow. This notion isn’t wrong, but it is over-popularized, if not romanticized, and fails to consider the negative economic (e.g. glut) and societal consequences of too many people going to college for too long. Membership to this creed has steadily increased with something akin to a marketing campaign since the 1940s, first with the GI Bill, then with the equity agenda, and finally to the mass media popularization of the ROI of higher education. Institutions push their own higher education and compete against peer institutions; the over 800,000 instructional staff[4], including professors, are self-professed supporters of higher education. And for many of us college graduates? We do it, too, because we are products of that system.

And while the US has one of the highest percentages of population with a postsecondary degree in the world, there is little or no evidence that we need any more, regardless of how we define it. In an era of MOOCs and short-term certifications, longer-term degrees outside of specialized areas are becoming dinosaurs of education. They are expensive in terms of both opportunity cost as well as total cost to students, families, and taxpayers. But we still rally behind cries to expand it.

An Opportunity

Rather than building more, we should consider contracting to less. Those who rally behind our traditional system should understand that altering how we provide higher education—less institutions, more hybrid learning opportunities—are the only conduits to reducing the cost and price of a college degree. There is zero chance that we can control the costs of higher education within the structure of traditional higher education. It has been proven, time and time again, that it cannot be done. Any certified economist will tell you that higher education, as a public good, is an expensive sector second only to healthcare and allied professions due to its high emphasis on human resources. In fact, almost 85 percent of all college budgets are people-related.

And as momentum allows higher education to expand through a business lens, society is changing rapidly. High-level skills are required for the high-tech lives we all lead. But these, too, have a double edge to them, where many people don’t need higher-level knowledge because the technology does it for them. Except for an extremely small percentage of people, there is no need for people to learn beyond the basics of trigonometry and calculus. Not everyone needs to be a computer programmer, just as not everyone needs to be a nurse, doctor, or accountant. We can argue the basic skills for citizenry, including basic math, but making an argument for learning certain skills (math is a skill) not attached to a career trajectory makes little sense. There are many other things that people can learn, too, but our elimination of broad learning in place of very specialized learning, even at elementary school levels, has had a negative impact on the motivation to learn among youth.

People like Telsa’s Elon Musk have been sounding out for years to focus on people with skills rather than degrees. Competency-based education has increased in the two-year structure in the US, but has been ignorantly absent in most forms of a university-level education.

COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to retool for a new economy. Consideration of such is not a simple thing. In fact, it would take years to leverage and require a consensus-driven exercise akin to California’s Master Plan back in 1960 which designated the role of the UC, CSU, and CCC sectors. But it starts with state governments, with the backing of the US Department of Education, to pull together leaders and agencies to rethink our system. The push back would be momentous given the weight of the status quo. But that would initiate the conversation. State systems could push this further by changing how postsecondary education is funded, perhaps using more performance-funding objectives, or by limiting certain funding to traditional modes. And while for-profit education agencies have been the whipping horse of postsecondary education (mostly deservedly so), there is a role for them to play in the re-conception of college as we know it.

There is much to celebrate about our higher education. It has produced some of the world’s greatest innovations and brightest minds. The four-year system, plus professional and graduate levels, have an important place in our world. But that place isn’t about the masses. The masses need a different style of education that isn’t second class or second rate. Rather, one that is closely aligned with the current and future needs of business, industry, and society. University education is currently mis-matched in many ways with our society; only the ‘idea’ of university is matched in our minds and our dreams. The reality is we can produce a different system that is more cost effective and efficient while delivering users a stackable credential that can be supplemented at almost any time, synchronously and asynchronously, and not confined by the fall, spring, and summer semester units.

We have an opportunity. We don’t need to blow up our system, but we need to shake it to its core and produce something that will help us in the future. The question is whether we can rally the troupes enough to do anything about it. I am a skeptic.


[1] https://ourworldindata.org/tertiary-education.

[2] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cac.asp.

[3] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4696316.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professors_in_the_United_States#:~:text=In%202013%2C%20the%20National%20Center,152%2C689%20other%20full%2Dtime%20faculty.

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