Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Long Term, Short Term

Why hasn’t the Great Recession triggered a massive restructuring of American higher ed yet?

By all rights, it should have. It brought to the fore long-festering negative trends in public support, student loan burdens, tuition costs, employability, and whatever else you care to mention. But so far, despite plenty of public discussion and no shortage of of public pressure, we haven’t seen basic structural change.

Part of it, I suspect, is the differing timelines at work in what is -- let’s face it -- a very mature industry. Most states don’t finalize their budgets until the last minute, and sometimes later than that. (California just announced another round of cuts for this academic year! “California -- putting the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunction’!”) That means that public colleges won’t have reliable budget figures until shortly before classes begin, if they even have them then.

That’s a tremendous problem for a semester-based business. Once a class starts in September, its costs are fixed through December. And once an employee starts an annual appointment in September, those costs are fixed until next summer. Abrupt changes are impossible to handle elegantly when costs come in big, fixed chunks like that.

Theoretically, a college could always decide to maintain quality by sacrificing breadth, but the internal (and often external) politics of that are frequently prohibitive. SUNY Albany’s experience last year was instructive. Merely floating the idea of discontinuing a few programs set of a political firestorm across the country. Watering down programs across the board wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow. If the cost of program paring is a year of heated internal politicking, a vote of no confidence, horrible press, and eventually having to back down anyway, it’s easy to decide that it’s just not worth it. Until the internal and external constituencies are ready and willing to understand that sacrificing breadth can sometimes be preferable to sacrificing depth, I’d expect to see very little movement here.

A decade ago, I expected to see the for-profits swoop in and become the radicallly disruptive force that would bring change. That looks considerably less likely now. The better for-profits -- I won’t even try to defend the worse ones -- got a few big things right, like junking the agrarian calendar. But they never actually solved Baumol’s cost disease. Now that student loan debt is a hot topic -- and rightly so -- they’re at a disadvantage.

In most industries, radical disruptions don’t come from incumbent players. Change is too painful to endure when it isn’t yet obvious that you have to; by the time it is obvious, it’s too late. Even when the disruptions come from within the incumbents themselves -- Xerox’s development of the GUI, say, or Kodak’s invention of digital photography -- it takes others from the outside to bring the potential disruptions to fruition.

My guess for the next big disruption is that it will involve a move away from the degree itself. Alternative credentialing is the logical answer to Baumol’s cost disease. If you insist on defining degrees in terms of time, but the real world cares far more about competencies, then it seems like there’s an opening for certificates defined in terms of competencies. Once you break the stranglehold of the credit hour, all things are possible.

But getting to that would require either a completely fresh start -- as in a new institution -- or an unprecedented flexibility of new funding. For example, the certificates would need to be eligible for financial aid, or they’re non-starters. And in the early stages, at least, they should be “stackable,” so that if someone wanted to, she could accumulate them towards a degree. (Ideally, that would eventually become irrelevant, but it would be a short-term necessity.)

In the meantime, faculty workloads, union contracts, financial aid guidelines, and cultural expectations are all calibrated on an inflexible measure. The pressure is building on that, but it hasn’t broken yet. To the first one who succeeds in breaking it will go the spoils of innovation.

I’m just sayin’...

but the real world cares far more about competencies, then it seems like there’s an opening for certificates defined in terms of competencies. Once you break the stranglehold of the credit hour, all things are possible.
But what competencies? Who gets to decide them? The employer who is looking at the now? The grad/professional schools? How will it be assessed?

New med school requirements require competencies and medical schools would love undergraduate institutions to have specific classes just for pre-meds but what happens when most of those pre-meds realize either A) they won't be getting into medical school or B) they don't want to go to medical school? They have a very specific set competencies that given the narrow focus of the curriculum won't allow them to do much after and won't easily allow them to switch.
"Stackable" certification strikes me as very compelling.

It's really kind of ridiculous that people trying to become PhD scientists in pharmacology don't pick up pharm tech and pharmacy competencies along the way. But the former is 'prestigious' in a different way and marketed to a very different student than the later. Even though if you fail out on the PhD process, you're typically left with a lot of student loans and no easy job prospects that pay as well as even pharm techs.

Similarly, I have a PhD in "molecular medicine"- but I'm a microbiologist as much as anything. Do I have the skills to run clinical samples for a hospital? Nearly all of them. Do I have the certification to do so? Nope.

@anonymous- I don't buy it. Premeds would make equally good pharmtechs or home health aids or, if they make it most of the way through, RNs or PAs, or whatnot. There are lots of allied health fields that need people, some of which pay reasonably. Making the stakes as 'all or nothing' 'prestige or go home' may benefit somebody, but it isn't the typical student coming from a middle class family with lots of loans.
Of course, there's a huge institutional history backing up the divisions between doctors and nurses, and it may not be possible to break that down.
A number of our professional programs do offer multiple certificates that can be more or less accumulated on the way to a degree, right now. This applies to our education, tech, computers, aviation, nursing, health sciences, social work, GIS, programs (probably others - those are the ones I know of). I don't see that as incompatible with a 4-year university plan, particularly those of us who are not SLACs. And in most cases the certificate standards are set by some kind of national body, rather than by our school. In fact this has been used (successfully) by certain departments as justification for new hires or expanded program budgets. The impact, though, may not be a leaner/meaner program; it may just be new cover for existing favorite programs. You know: "We'll call it something new and keep doing pretty much the same old thing, anyway."
There you go again with that nonsense about an "agrarian" calendar. In what universe are all of the crops harvested by the middle of August (semester system) or not planted until mid June (quarter system) nationwide? Our college follows a "football" calendar dictated by the universities our students transfer too. Example: Ohio State is giving up the quality options of a quarter system for the football system so there will be students in the stands in August.

I also don't understand why you think "stackable" certificates don't exist. Our college has had them for ages, and they seem particularly effective in several areas, most notably the health professions. We don't have an LPN program, but we offer an LPN-to-RN AS program and many places offer an RN-to-BSN program that our AS grads use later in their careers. Some might have started as an EMT.
To followup Becca @5:24AM -

I am told that many med schools now want applicants to have experience as a health aide or an EMT to limit drop outs once med students realize they will see a lot of sick and dying patients. There are good pedagogical reasons for including certification along the way.
there has been no change because students are still flocking to universities in record numbers.

students are eating the debt caused by the massive tuition hike that has been gifted to them by the federal student loan program. if that program goes away, most of the country can't afford college, and universities have to redesign their models to get their revenue back.

the new plan by the current administration will just make this worse. with [future] student loan payments capped at 10% of discretionary income, and being forgiven after 20 years, universities are going to let their tuition costs skyrocket. with payments based off of discretionary income, why even care about the price of tuition? if a student wants to be a teacher, and knows that his/her salary is pretty much capped at $50k, then why not take out a $300k loan for school, instead of a $100k loan? payments will be the same regardless of the loan amount.

paying 10% of your income to your tuition balance will be the new norm. this way, students keep flocking to overpriced universities, and the taxpayer foots the bill. the universities get to make up for the state deficits by routing money through the federal student loan program. genius.

why would universities reorganize? even in the face of massive debt, no guarantee of a job, and almost certainty that their first "real job" will be for very little pay, kids are flocking to college.

universities have a pretty sweet deal going with the federal gov't, and the payoffs have only gotten sweeter in the past few years. of course, these changes were made because of the massive student loan debt that america has on its balance sheet, despite the fact that the changes don't apply to current loans (this 10% cap doesn't apply to current existing loans, only new ones). so all of the people who are hurting right now got no relief.

there will be no reorganization as long as students and taxpayers are willing to accrue massive amounts of debt. there is no reason for a thriving business model to reorganize.
I'm a little surprised you aren't including dual enrollment as one of the big disruptions. Gen Ed is clearly moving into the high schools. Among the things I'm SO GLAD we didn't have when I was a teenager: Facebook, YouTube, and dual enrollment.
Our CC is eliminating certificate programs. Somehow the admin doesn't see it worthwhile, despite the fact that the instructors who teach in the professions are saying that employers are looking for that.
The fundamental problem is overcapacity. We've acted as a society as if there can't ever be too much education, so any additional expense is reasonable. As a result we have far too many law schools and law graduates (just to mention the field I'm familiar with). I believe I read recently that law jobs expanded by 150,00 over the past decade, while we graduated 600,000 people from law schools! I expect we have far too many colleges and universities as well.

Education is not valuable if it does not make a material difference to one's career prospects, which is the situation we now find ourselves in. Our current crop of politicians have chosen a no-growth path for the economy, with copious lip service to unemployment issues but absolutely nothing to support meaningful job creation. To the contrary, the pointless class warfare has never been worse.

Students continue to flock to colleges for the same reason people buy lottery tickets: you can't win if you don't play. It's a triumph of hope over experience.

But this bubble is going to burst, just as the housing bubble did. The current path is not sustainable.
Excellent post! Great points all around, since education on the whole is lacking in the innovation department. This is part of the issue with formal education these days: it's not moving fast enough to keep up with greater disruptive changes happening elsewhere (news and media, advertising, entertainment, science and personal communication for starters). Bravo for actually thinking about how education can innovate beyond deciding which textbook to use for this semester or how online course scheduling can make things easier for staff.
While yes, we've dumped some under performing certificates at my Public U, we've also added others. Doing just the stacking you've talked about. Get your cert in information assurance and it's fits perfecting into the cybersecurity BS. It is being done. I think the key is that the certs have to be worthwhile to all stakeholders. And as much as I hate to say it, you have to look at ROI both from an institutional perspective and from the employer perspective.
While the real world may, in some sense, care about competencies, I haven't seen much in the way of job postings that are looking for people with certain certificates that indicate them (outside of regulated professions that require a certain certificate or license, such as teachers, doctors, accountants, and such, which is a different issue since, at least in the case of teachers in my state, much of the process for getting the certificate is accumulating a series of credits exactly as you would for a degree rather than measuring competencies independent of time spent).

Without demand from employers (or, I suppose, from grad programs), I don't see why students would choose to pursue such things. It seems like most employers want experience doing x and a degree in y, at least in postings I've looked at. I'd personally LOVE it if I could pick up some sort of competence-based certification to help overcome lack of paid experience already doing x or to recognize that while my degree is in z instead y I actually do know as much about y as most people with degrees in the field, but I've yet to see a single job posting that suggests such a possibility.
I'd like to agree with Anonymous above. Employers know they can demand a four-year degree or more, and they'll have plenty of applicants. Why would they settle for a certificate?
Employers don't "settle" for someone with a certificate in CAD or EMS or the coding of medical information. Even a 4-year degree is no guarantee that the person can do those jobs without the additional training required to earn a certificate.
if there is no expected payoff to your educational investment, why not get the non-degree-requiring job you want, and just take college courses in your spare time.

i like the fluff that the academic community tries to use to justify [part of] its own existence. "you don't attend college to make more money! you go to college to become enlightened!!" yeah, and you should eat pop tarts for breakfast because the wrapper says it has 9 essential vitamins and minerals.

if you aren't expecting a monetary payoff from college, then why go? why put yourself in debt? get your job in whatever you want, and become enlightened in your spare time. college should be seen as an investment in one's future(income). when that concept is ignored, you get a bunch of liberal arts grads complaining that they have no jobs, while the engineering kids are trying to decide which of the 3 offers they have is the best.
I know it's not really the point, but:

It's not the agrarian calendar. When are crops planted? Not Summer - Spring. When are crops harvested? Not Summer - Fall. Thanksgiving, America's harvest festival, is in November - not July.

Traditionally, rural areas had two sessions of school - one in the Winter and one in the Summer. *That* is an agrarian school schedule.
CCPhysicist- In the case of premeds, I totally agree there are very compelling reasons to make sure they can handle real patients! But it needn't be that obvious a connection to be useful for getting students into the workplace if they choose.
What marketable skill are physicists coming out with?
There's no intrinsic reason you couldn't get them some kind of practical computer certification along the way, is there? Most of the PhD physicists I've talked to are happy that, if all else fails, they can get a programming job.
Though typically coding to make a program run a simulation when nobody knows how it should be done is a good recipe for training programmers that hate programming.

Anon at 2:30 PM- I hear ya, but I have seen certifications requested in job ads in allied health and IT. Some fields definitely use them, and some fields don't, and there's probably a pretty decent PhD thesis in examining why those differences exist.
Wait, we're still pretending that the for-profits aren't a money-laundering operation?
If you insist on defining degrees in terms of time, but the real world cares far more about competencies, then it seems like there’s an opening for certificates defined in terms of competencies.

Does the real world care about competencies? Bryan Caplan argues that most education is actually about signaling (you can see this recent post for more, although his ideas span many posts.

If education is more about signalling and credentialing than it is about knowledge, then the ability of others to disrupt the model might be quite limited.

(Note that I'm not endorsing Caplan, but I am pointing to his ideas because he might be right.)
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