Friday, December 10, 2010



Last week I heard a story on Marketplace that struck me as helpful in understanding the chronic shortage of tenure-track faculty jobs.

It mentioned that a recent study found that over the last several years, there has been a net of zero job growth in companies five years old or older. All of the job growth – all of it – can be accounted for by startups. “Mature” industries don't power growth.

And I thought, hmm.

How many colleges can you name that are under five years old? And of those, how many are nonprofit and tenure-granting? How many are slated for opening in the next year or two?

A very different world is in the living memory of many of the people at the top of the profession. In the 1960's, community colleges opened across the country at a rate of one per week. Many of the people who entered the field then are still around. An astonishing number of college presidents got their start in the 1960's. (A few weeks ago I attended a workshop with a big muckety-muck and high-level administrators from colleges and universities in my area. The big muckety-muck made a comment that started with “in the sixties, when we were in college...” I coughed.) If you got in when things were expanding, opportunities were thick on the ground.

Obviously, this is no longer the case.

My own career got a jump start when I signed on to a for-profit during a growth spurt. The growth spurt opened administrative opportunities much more quickly than would have been the case elsewhere. In this part of the country, it was one of the only academic settings that was actually growing. There, the 'startup' part was indirect: when the company started another campus not terribly far away, it raided my campus to staff it. The resulting staffing gaps created opportunities. In the nonprofit sector, moments like those have become vanishingly rare.

Since public higher education is basically a mature industry in the U.S., any efforts at growth are already swimming upstream. There will be programmatic and geographic pockets of growth, but they'll be matched (or exceeded) by other areas trimming. Retirements will help here and there, but the unrelenting cost pressures on colleges limit what can be done there.

I've seen some of that on my own campus. We have plenty of position requests, the vast majority of them more than worthy, but we can only afford to fill a few. Saying 'yes' to one necessarily involves saying 'no' to several others. At this point, new requests can only be approved by bumping off other requests in the queue.

Because I am a giant nerd, I used to play SimCity from time to time. I always enjoyed the beginning, when things were growing rapidly, but tended to lose interest when the city went from youth to maturity. There usually came a point at which the best you could do was to maintain, and that just wasn't much fun. Public higher ed is looking like that now.

IHE reported a couple weeks ago that half of the academic jobs created in the past few years were at for-profits. That sounded both right and shocking. That’s where the growth is -- or was, until very recently -- so that’s where the jobs are.

The Chronicle's story a few weeks ago on the brief life and death of Founders College gave me hope, oddly enough. For about ten minutes, Founders College was a shot at a niche I consider the next big thing: the upscale proprietary. It botched the attempt in any number of ways, not the least of which was grafting an overlay of Ayn Rand on top of the ‘upscale proprietary’ concept, thereby muddying the brand. But if you take out the Randian stuff, and staff and market it correctly, I could see an upscale proprietary really taking off.

In a way, I hope that turns out to be true. If nothing else, some area of growth would at least open up some opportunities. And growing on the high end of the market would get around many of the issues faced by the schools that compete with community colleges but charge five times as much. Mercedes U is lighting waiting to strike. I’m just sayin’.

Without startups, the prospects are bleak. Here’s hoping...

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