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’...