Friday, September 17, 2010
Ask the Administrator: Will They Still Need Me When I’m 64?
I am a year away from going up for continuing contract. This is my state’s version of tenure which is not quite as iron-clad as what I was familiar with elsewhere. It is roughly the equivalent to a three-year rolling contract. I love my job. I spent much of my 20's kicking around through various pursuits and I can recognize that I've found the right fit for my talents and interests. I am also quite good at my job so I do not really worry about losing it for performance. But for some reason that I cannot shake I live in fear of the entire endeavor (full-time community college liberal arts professor as a vocation) disappearing well before the end of my working days. At all of the community colleges that I've worked at as an adjunct or as a full-timer I've seen a rising percentage of students taking online classes. It does not strike me as unreasonable that some day in the not-to-distant future we could have one full-time person designing classes for hundreds of schools with graders taking care of the day-to-day running of the classes. You are far better positioned than I to see what might be in the future, so I write to ask you whether this is a realistic fear or not. Should I settle into my job and invest my free time and human capital in improving my performance or should I spend that time improving skills that might lead to a future second career (e.g. a latent interest I've always had in accounting)?
My first thought is that predicting the state of any public institution thirty years out is a fool’s errand. But keeping in mind Yogi Berra’s observation that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, here goes. As Easterbrook likes to say, all predictions guaranteed or your money back...
Although many of my readers would laugh out loud at the assertion, I think of myself as pretty moderate on this question. I don’t believe the apocalyptic visions of a Bill Gates or an Anya Kamenetz, who foresee in their various ways the imminent dissolution of place-based education. Contra Kamenetz, I see a positive value in the ‘bundling’ function that institutions perform. There’s a value in having a single place to go that answers multiple needs at once. In the debate between Thomas Friedman (“the world is flat”) and Richard Florida (“the world is spiky”), I think it obvious that the match goes to Florida; place is incredibly important, and that applies as strongly to higher education as to anything else. Putting a whole bunch of related functions together in one physical location will continue to matter. If it didn’t matter, we’d see all the tech companies relocate to Kansas, where office space is cheaper.
That said, I’m not nearly as sanguine as the Cary Nelsons of the world, who seem to assume that the fundamental structure of mid-twentieth-century higher education was the best of all possible worlds, and that we just need the political will to restore it and make it bigger. (To be fair to Nelson, he’s following in a tradition of labor leaders -- Sam Gompers famously just wanted ‘more.’) History doesn’t move backwards, and the undeniable reality of the productivity cost spiral renders the older vision simply untenable. Besides, you can’t stuff the internet back into the tubes. The public has voted with its feet, or mice, or whatever, and no amount of huffing and puffing will change that.
I consider the far likelier outcome to look something like this:
1. The elites will continue to do pretty much whatever they want. They’re insulated from economic pressure, and the product they sell -- exclusivity -- seems likely to continue to increase in value as the economy polarizes.
2. Community colleges and four-year state colleges will change many of the ways they operate, but they will continue to exist since they provide an excellent value proposition. As the productivity/cost spiral continues to climb, the low-cost but good-quality providers will get even more appealing than they already are. Admittedly, this assumes that some level of quality control will remain, but I’m optimistic that way. The public colleges that decide to shape reform themselves -- ahem -- will be in the best shape twenty or thirty years from now.
3. The for-profits will continue to grow, though they may take some different tacks than they do now. Unlike the publics, which experience growth as a cost, the for-profits experience growth as, well, profitable. Given that difference, I’d expect to see most of the capacity increase in the near future to occur here. The real breakthrough waiting to happen -- I’ve been saying this for years, a lone voice in the wilderness of the interwebs -- is the high-prestige proprietary. Any venture capitalists looking to blow a quick fifty million or so are invited to drop me a line at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com. Founders College has tried this, but got distracted by an ideological overlay. This idea is just one good practitioner away from breaking big.
4. The less prestigious, but still expensive, private colleges will fade away. I’d expect Antioch to be the template for many more. I understand paying fifty thousand a year for Princeton, and I understand ten thousand a year for Compass Direction State. But forty thousand a year for Nothing Special College just doesn’t make sense anymore. The non-prestigious independents are where I’d expect to see the bloodletting.
Admittedly, I’m making a whole pile of assumptions here. I assume the world won’t end in 2012, we won’t devolve into some sort of Mad Max style barbarism, and we aren’t on the cusp of a massive social democratic revival. But based on the shifts visible now, I consider these the likeliest directions for medium-term change.
If I’m right, then as a young faculty member at a community college you’d be well advised to make yourself adaptable in your current role. Your vision of a rump faction of full-timers becoming curricular czars for armies of adjuncts parallels pretty clearly the for-profit model, and I’d even suggest it’s within shouting distance of some of what the National Center for Academic Transformation has been pushing for a while. There’s a fairly powerful gravitational pull in that direction, as well as in the online direction.
Having said that, it’s also true that technology is changing at an astonishing rate, and I simply refuse to predict what it will look like even ten years from now, let alone thirty. I foresee accelerating technological change, but what that change will look like on the ground is entirely beyond me.
The people who will do well in the future system -- in which I’d expect to see such 20th century conceits as “credit hours” tied to “seat time” go the way of the typewriter -- will be those who can adapt to change as it unfolds. That doesn’t mean blindly adopting each new fad as it comes along; it means bringing that wonderful critical intelligence to bear on new possibilities.
A cliche of economic history is that the early railroads failed because they thought they were in the railroad industry, but they were actually in the transportation industry. Trucks ate their lunch. The educators who will thrive in the future will be those who understand that they aren’t in the Tenured Professor business; they’re educators. That may mean online delivery, or mediated delivery, or modular approaches, or structured group tutoring, or mentoring, or I don’t know what. But outside of the elites, the one strategy I can almost guarantee will lose is digging in your heels and trying to stop history. If you don’t believe me, ask your local newspaper editor.
So yes, I imagine you’ll still have a job (assuming you do it well), but the job you still hold decades from now may not look a lot like the job you have now. If you’re smart, you’ll lean into the change.
Wise and worldly readers, what are your crystal ball visions?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
Nothing lasts forever. While I don't know if it will be the literal truth, my advice is to prepare for 3 or 4 different careers over your life time.
This applies to everyone in every sector.
All community colleges are not the same. My college experiences growth as profit, not cost.
To the writer, I would suggest comparing the tuition paid for your classes to your salary. At my CC, that tuition covers my full time salary. This might also be true at a 4-year state school, but won't be true at a university unless you are teaching the 400 student lecture that subsidizes small classes and research. That is what DD means by "excellent value".
I would also suggest that students seek one-on-one contact with a real person. Just look at one of the for-profit ads that show an older prof walking with a younger student, as if that will happen in an on-line course...
It seems likely that the educational marketplace will splinter as different schools will experience this pressure in very different ways. Ivy League schools don't sell education as much as they sell an elite branding, and that won't change. Colleges that provide a good educational product at a good price will also do well. The real impact will be felt by those schools that are either providing questionable value, are overpriced for the value they do provide, or are drowning in bureaucracy and red tape for the students.
Students want to see results for their time and money. They want the experience to be as convenient as possible. And they want it to be affordable or paid for by someone else. Schools that can provide for these needs will thrive. Schools that don't will either fold up or stagger on for another couple of decades propped up by more and more government dollars until they finally collapse under the unrealistic expectations of state legislatures.
Long story short: if you work at a good school that gives good value and puts the students first, there will be change but in the long run you'll be fine. If you work at a crappy school that wouldn't survive in a more dynamic and competitive marketplace, look for a better school to work for.
Anyone can offer an online course, and, arguably, anyone can design a decent curriculum with quality textual resources. However, in my experience, students only have a quality learning experience when a faculty member knows how to teach effectively in an online format and is highly engaged with the students.
I think that as more and more institutions begin to offer more and more coursework online, there's going to be an increasing need for educational institutions to distinguish themselves through the quality of their online instruction, and I think this quality diferentiator is largely going to be faculty.
I think Dean Dad is right in his suggestion that you find a way to make yourself as adaptable as possible, and I think part of this will include learning how to teach effectively in an online format. Don't view online education as something that will reduce the role or importance of faculty but rather as a new opportunity for faculty to diversify their teaching skills and to continue to provide a distinguishing factor that will attract students to your institution.
Here's another signal that your college may not make it: It's lowering standards are using gimmicks to prop up its enrollments. I know of one college locally that, according to some insiders, was in danger of closing. But it increased its enrollments by nearly half in five years after allowing some "back door" admissions.
Dean and those who've commented made some good points about which colleges will and may not make it, and how people can adapt and survive. To their thoughts I'll add this: Colleges that are offering programs in emerging and growing fields will do well, especially if other colleges in their area aren't. Sure, Columbia and Yale can sustain themselves with their English and Literature programs, Harvard with its Kennedy School of Government, and Princeton with its studies in theoretical physics. But any school below the upper part of the second tier that tries to do the same--especially if it's an expensive school--is signing its own death warrant.
And that model is incompatible with growth. By definition, a college that only accepts the top 1 percent of applicants is limited to at most 1 percent of the total market. I hope you have a good answer to the VCs for this.
But will they still need me when I'm 65?
Your ability to work into your 60's will depend in no small part on your ability to make the argument for your value as your salary rises. I would focus on learning the technology that facilitates good teaching as that will only grow over the next few years. Not all on-line teaching is asynchronous / autopilot teaching.
Maintain your ability to work at your college and network and connect with others in industries in your area - that way, should things go south, you have somewhere to go careerwise.
Don't let your self get stuck with academia as the only place you can work. Your college is only making a three year committment to you. You only owe them that much in return.
My prediction for the future is that we have ten to twenty years before online classes start to make a major impact on the profession. Academic inertia should give us at least another decade of safety. You'll notice that the required technology has been available for five years, and there's been barely any progress in the area.
When the shift does come, I think institutions with smaller classroom sizes, like community colleges, will be less affected by it. There's a lot to be said for the sort of student-teacher interaction you get in twenty to thirty person classrooms. In contrast, the 100+ student megalectures have almost no advantages over an online format. As Salman Khan has pointed out, anything taught in a lecture hall is probably better suited to a format where students can pause, rewind, or rewatch. This makes me sad, since I'm teaching a megalecture this semester, and I feel like it has been a really great experience for me so far.
I'm thirty, and I don't have any expectations that they'll still need me when I'm sixty-four. If they do I'll be happy to teach, but I'm going to be developing other skills on the side over the next decade.
One very important educational benefit of college education comes from your fellow students. Not primarily networking (although, yes, networking), but simply discussing coursework with fellow students has a very important educational effect.
As was mentioned above, the biggest difference that selective colleges have is in the quality of their students. Which means that the students who attend these schools have the advantage of having four years of socialization in an academic environment with the kind of students who can get into selective colleges.
Or with the kind of students who can get into flagship state colleges.
Or with the kind of students who can get into college. Or with the kind of students who see the need to attend any sort of college.
Online education doesn't provide this socialization, and will therefore almost always be inferior to institutions which do.
It will be useful for students who are unable to take a class in person, of course - but the experience is not the same.
(IME, it is also much more difficult to motivate oneself do listen to the lecture when not in a classroom).
Television was supposed to revolutionize education, too. For 50 years we've had the ability to watch lectures at home, and yet video hasn't had a significant effect on traditional classroom attendance. While online ed offers more benefits than just TV, I still don't think it offers enough to meaningfully affect the career choices of college instructors/lecturers/professors.