“College is dead,” declares a young, t-shirt clad CEO as he promotes his apprenticeship-matchmaker company in a YouTube video. There’s no need for school, Isaac Morehouse explains, considering that you can get a good job with just some professional skills prep and a little help with networking. “College is a complete waste of time and money,” agrees one commenter.
College isn’t dead, and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. But it has entered the danger zone. At a stunning pace, higher education is losing its reputation and the respect of the general public. It’s possible that public opinion has reached peak cynicism about the value and purpose of postsecondary study.
Consider these representative comments on a recent Wall Street Journal article about alternative education:
“You know what colleges no longer teach students? Knowledge or skills that lead to a job that pays a living wage.”
“I would be thrilled to see most colleges – especially public colleges – disappear and be replaced by institutions that actually taught useful skills.”
“You’re a barista because YOU chose to get a worthless English degree with a minor in women’s studies.”
Over the next decade, many schools–which already face an approaching demographic reduction in the college-age population–will increasingly struggle to survive financially as more and more potential participants say, “What’s the point?”
How did this sad situation arise? We could write books on that subject, but here’s a brief review of five negative influences on higher ed’s bad rep.
1. Snowballing Tuition and Student Debt
Americans are now well aware that most universities raise tuition annually and at a rate far above inflation. The costs of attending school have reached shameful levels, with Trinity College’s recent increase to over $70,000 per year serving as just one example. Public schools generate additional consumer acrimony by increasingly favoring admission of out-of-state students, who pay higher fees than in-state students.
Meanwhile, hardly a week goes by without a major media outlet reporting on the student debt crisis. With every graduation, another generation of students learns the reality of living with an average of $33,000 of outstanding student debt (amounting to over $1 trillion in debt nationally).
A palpable sense of anger has arisen as graduates weigh their long-term debt burdens against the disappointing results of their career prospects.
Politicians, keenly aware of the growing malaise, have begun to woo the indebted masses with promises of debt forgiveness and free education for all. This, in turn, generates another type of anger, as those who have already responsibly worked to pay back their debts resent any talk of forgiveness for others.
In response to the diminished perceived value of their offerings, schools have shifted from their traditional missions towards an emphasis on vocationalism–tactical career prep. Studying Shakesepeare was easier to justify when it didn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars per term.
Now, with astronomical tuition rates always front-of-mind, students understandably have adopted quid-pro-quo expectations regarding their vendors of higher ed. Accordingly, schools feel more pressure to show a direct, tangible return on investment.
Because even an Enron accountant couldn’t model a successful ROI for that art history major, the study of traditional liberal arts has fallen out of favor. Colleges and universities instead try to tout their more vocational, career prep programs. Unfortunately, they generally don’t do this well, because most of them have been structured (for a hundred years or more) to prepare students via general, “disinterested” study and inquiry.
Meanwhile, when it comes to transferring job skills, these slow-moving institutions must compete with new, purpose-built, and ultra-inexpensive resources such as Coursera, Lynda.com, and YouTube. If you want to learn how to be a developer or sales rep, which pathway do you think can prepare you faster and cheaper?
3. Bitter Professors
We’ve long turned to the comments sections within the staid Chronicle of Higher Education as a means of checking the pulse of the professors out there. These comments function as a sort of virtual faculty lounge, where the profs let their guard down and tell you what they’re really thinking. For some time now, we’ve observed increasing tones of bitterness and resentment among those colleagues.
But now, the cynicism has infected even the articles themselves, as recently reflected in Notre Dame Professor Christian Smith’s column, “Higher Education is Drowning in BS.” (Now there’s a quote you don’t hear on the admissions tours!) Professor Smith’s rant offers a litany of offending trends, including:
“BS is universities hijacked by the relentless pursuit of money and prestige…BS is a tenure system that provides guaranteed lifetime employment to faculty who are lousy teachers and inactive scholars…BS is third-tier universities offering mediocre graduate programs to train second-rate Ph.D. students for jobs that do not exist.”
And he goes on, as only a tenured professor could.
The groans continue in the comments on that article. “Depressing but true,” says one colleague. “I don’t think I have ever agreed so thoroughly with an article,” says another. And another prof adds, “You know, if I could keep students awake in class, or get them to spare me a minute from looking at their cell phones, I might actually worry about how I am influencing them.”
4. Nutty Professors
Have you seen the latest Nutty Faculty Member of The Week? If not, just check your feed on one of the socials, and let us know what you find. There’s no shortage of tenured kooks who can embarrass themselves and their universities with a vile tweet or a provocative, absurd course title. Such gestures function as PR daggers against alumi, prospective students, and the general public, gradually killing off respect for higher education with thousands of little cuts.
One of this week’s anti-spokesmen for higher ed is Fresno State’s Professor Randa Jarrar, who took time away from her scholarly publications (such as “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers,” and “I Still Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers,”) to recognize the passing of Barbara Bush. Jarrar tweeted she was “happy the witch is dead.”
In response to someone who challenged this comment, Jarrar further tweeted, “sweetie i work as a tenured professor. i make 100k a year doing that. i will never be fired.” To which we reply: Sweetie, we’re not sure mom and dad will keep writing those tuition checks to fund your school and your tweet habit.
5. Snowflake Sensationalism
Meanwhile, the students aren’t doing themselves any favors. GenZ, it seems, is more sensitive, scared, and delicate than previous generations, and of course nothing magnifies those characteristics like a codependent college community. The terms “trigger warning” and “safe space” have recently entered the common lexicon, conveying the impression that universities largely serve to nurture–if not create–the neuroses of spoiled children.
Here again, social media frequently serve up damaging caricatures of snowflake syndrome. For example, yesterday brought news of the University of Utah’s “Cry Closet,” an ultrasafe space for private sobbing when a student is overcome by the stress of final exams. Presumably the closet may also serve as refuge for those traumatized by the sight of politically incorrect Halloween costumes of figures such as Pocahontas or Poncho Villa.
And thus the snowflakes swirl and fall innumerably among the non-academic public, building up large drifts of contempt for higher education.
Where Are the Wayfinders?
Author Chris Wooding has said cynicism is a “one-way path, and once taken, the way back is lost forever.” Higher education, and the public’s view of it, are stepping towards that path. At the same time, we suffer from a dearth of leaders and cheerleaders who can redirect us towards the true purposes and value of academic inquiry.
To be sure, there are some positive influencers, including founders of innovative schools, champions of liberal arts programs, and enthusiastic professors who demand excellence from their students. Unfortunately, though, universities have lost their way so much that it’s too easy for an author to make “The Case Against Education,” and too difficult to rebut it with inspiring counterpoints.
At Degree or Not Degree, we’ll continue to observe and candidly comment on the good, bad, and ugly of higher ed and its alternatives. At the same time, we’ll do what we can to point the way towards truly valuable and meaningful educational opportunities. We don’t want college to die.