Higher Education in America 2064: Goodbye Humanities, Hello Business 101Frank McCluskey | Vice President and Scholar in Residence, American Public University System
As the global recession dragged on into 2014, there was a growing public outcry about the cost and outcomes of higher education. There were also growing calls to regulate the large, for-profit universities. It was against this backdrop that the Federal Government passed the Comprehensive College Scorecard, or CCS, late in 2014. Washington was finally going to make colleges accountable. The CCS looked at several measures: how many graduates of a program were employed “in their field,” how many graduates were making a certain salary and what percentage were paying back their student loans. The government gave these new regulations teeth by threatening to cut off federal student aid (FSA) to those programs and schools that were not performing well.
The CCS was gradually implemented over the next three years. For the top 100 colleges, this scorecard had virtually no impact. Many students in the elite schools didn’t need loans and had good jobs waiting for them when they graduated. The impact on the thousands of second- and third-tier colleges, however, was immediate and dramatic. Small, private colleges that scored low on the CCS lost their FSA eligibility and this accelerated their financial collapse. In larger state universities, disciplines that could not show immediate usefulness were phased out in the years 2017 to 2022 so that the schools did not lose their eligibility for FSA loans. Literature, psychology, the arts, music, philosophy, the classics, political theory and sociology majors were pulling down the overall scores of these colleges, with the low employment rate of graduates “in their field” and low starting salaries. To solve this problem, these departments were first scaled back and, then, many were eliminated by the 20s and 30s.
By 2030, most traditional college majors were gone. Many community colleges, tribal colleges and traditional black colleges could not meet the minimum thresholds. As you may recall, the dropout rate in community colleges was high because they took in under-prepared non-traditional students. In fashioning a net that would catch the non-performing for-profits, the government had not taken into account that the dropout and graduation numbers in community colleges were similar. Government funds for community colleges were cut back. These funds were redirected to larger state colleges that had more restrictive admissions standards and, thus, better graduation rates. By 2030, many community colleges had shut their doors.
To lower their costs, many schools started granting credit for massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other free or inexpensive online classes. In this way, they could cut full-time faculty and control the cost of labor. The next step taken to lower tuition was the outsourcing of student services and records to for-profit companies that could do it more cheaply. By 2035, the public began to recognize something was wrong, and there was political pressure to roll back the CCS. But the damage was already done. To conform to the CCS, colleges were forced to steer students into computer science, business or education. As research and scholarship were not measured by the CCS, funding for both was cut drastically. By 2040, the number of patents and copyrights applied for by colleges was reduced by 70 percent.
To meet the CCS standards, colleges had to control costs. Already staggering under a mountain of debt, this forced many colleges into a greater reliance on adjunct faculty with no benefits, and online classes hosted by third-party providers. With fewer faculty, there was a need for more professional administrators trained in business and management. Colleges were now measured on how carefully they managed their budgets and how practical their degrees were for getting their graduates their first job.
The more traditional colleges, governed by faculty senates and traditional boards, were unable to make these rapid and drastic changes and had to close their doors. More than 25 percent of American colleges were financially insolvent by 2032.
But there were two surprising and unintended consequences. The first unintended consequence was that the only graduates in theoretical sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities came from the top-tier schools. This solved the problem of the excess of PhDs by limiting those types of degrees mainly to the upper classes. The second unintended consequence was the growth of badges outside of the university and the growing acceptance of these badges by the business world demonstrated by the hiring of employees who earned them. When this happened, many students simply stopped going to college. By 2064, the number of students attending colleges had shrunk by 45 percent and there were 35 percent fewer colleges. Employers hiring both high-tech and high-skill jobs no longer required applicants to have a college degree.
The student debt problem was solved. There was no more philosophy, classics, music or physics for those not fortunate enough to afford an elite college. Gatsby, Ahab, Jefferson, Puccini, Darwin, Schrodinger, Dante and Locke were banished from the curriculum in most colleges. Students were no longer introduced to Nietzsche, Keroac, Freud, Keats or Marx. I.T., business and accounting programs boomed. Technocratic administrators armed with spreadsheets and boasting expertise in management theories and organizational effectiveness thrived. The university that had slowly evolved over 1,000 years was “fixed” by a single law. Washington wanted colleges to be accountable. Problem solved.
John Cardinal Newman, who authored “The Idea of A University” in 1852, turned over in his grave.
Author Perspective: Administrator