Friday, September 17, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Will They Still Need Me When I’m 64?

A new correspondent writes:

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.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what are your crystal ball visions?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.