Empty Cash Drawer

College Finances In Danger

December 16, 2020


Danger Will Robinson! College finances are about to fall off the cliff. A stream of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education such as Permanent Budget Cuts are Coming, and Higher Education’s Nightmare Scenario paint an apocalyptic picture of carnage and destruction. Other sources are not much rosier and the reality that barring single-party control of government in January, the Federal government financial cavalry is not coming, and lend to a deeply pessimistic mood in education.

At the risk of invoking a bit of Schadenfreude, it is kind of is about time that higher education had this moment of reckoning. The ivory tower pledged to the noble pursuit of truth and wisdom has not been a pure exemplar for many years. In most institutions, an honorable social purpose has been sustained by grubby commerce and mass production realities. Just look at the swirl of discount rates, as institutions chase ever diminishing returns down the drain.

What seems to be missing in large measure is a discussion of innovation, collaboration, re-tooling and adaptation. As just one example: other than a handful of public systems and an infinitesimally small number of private colleges the idea of sharing services, faculty, equipment, libraries and so on, is simply dismissed. Again, and again, the reason given is that “we are unique” or our process is so different as to be un-meldable with others.

Also missing, in the vast sea of strategic plans pledging fealty to innovation and nimbleness, is any serious re-examination of the basic model of a 15-week course delivery system that meets for 150 minutes each week. COVID has forced most of us to teach online, either dynamically or asynchronously, which is progress, but in most institutions, it is seen as a short-run expedient “until things return to normal.”

If anyone seriously thinks that the old normal will be the new, they are deluding themselves. Google and its imitators are coming for higher education (Alternative Credentials on the Rise). The economics of a residential sleep-away college experience are simply not viable any longer for most families who are financially leveraged to the hilt themselves. Unless there is a massive increase in support for the sector, the model of one professor holding forth with a small room of students is no longer a viable option for budget conscious schools.

So, is higher education as we know it doomed? As an optimist I think not. There is a reason why the non-for-profit and public approach to higher education remains the gold standard. The freedom from enriching investors and shareholders gives space for institutions to focus on their social purpose and to invest in the quixotic search for knowledge and discovery. Google and their competitors will happily teach you how to manage, for a price of course, but they are simply unequipped to teach the “why” of discernment and wisdom as essential ingredients for a successful organization and a fulfilling life. For far too long, the liberal arts have failed to press its value-proposition to the wider university and society even though the skills gained by these degrees are prized by industry.

Maybe, a COVID-19 vaccine, and a new administration, and, and, and will bring back normal as we “knew it.” Then again, institutions that adapt will thrive, and those that pine for the past will wither. COVID-19 has simply accelerated a reckoning that was already under way. The skills, talent and imagination are all in place in higher education; now is the time to unleash those energies and let innovation lead the way.

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