The Coming College Collapse

Some pretty alarming predictions are being made about American institutions of higher education these days.  Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, predicts that half of all colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.  That’s upping the ante on a prediction Christensen and Michael Horn made in the New York Times in 2013:  that the bottom 25 percent of every tier of colleges and universities will close or merge out of existence in the next 10 to 15 years.

Abandoned HospitalWhy the dire forecasts?  Because colleges have been struggling for a while now, their business models aren’t sustainable, and demographics and economics indicate that things are going to get worse very soon.

Here’s an interesting point made in the first article linked above:  “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.”

The fact that the average tuition discount rate is nearly 50 percent indicates that it’s high times if you’re somebody whose child is getting ready to go to college.  College tuitions may be like hospital prices lists for different procedures — that is, they are quoted amounts that almost no one really pays — but an average discount of 50 percent is staggering.  Clearly it’s a buyer’s market out there, and buyer’s markets are bad news for sellers, who get caught in price wars that do nothing except cut into their bottom line.  And, in the case of colleges and universities, the fight for students not only involves cutting tuition, but also building new, high-end dormitories, workout facilities, student centers, and other facilities that might appeal to high school kids who are trying to decide where to spend the next four years.

Statistics also show that about 25 percent of private colleges are operating at deficits, and that expenses have exceeded revenues at public colleges over the past three years.  And demographics aren’t helping, either:  the number of American 18-year-olds who are going to college is declining, and the decline is supposed to get worse within a few years.  Combine fewer applicants with tuition price wars and high fixed costs to pay expenses like tenured faculty salaries and building maintenance costs and you start to see the obvious challenges.  Throw in the possibility that some kids who have grown up sitting in front of their computers might decide to opt instead for the on-line learning options that are making increasing inroads, and the picture becomes even bleaker.

Often, predictions turn out to be wrong, of course, but there is no doubt that these are tough times for American institutions of higher education.  Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear that your alma mater is closing its doors.


Harvard’s Muddled Cheating Scandal

On Friday, Harvard University announced that it had imposed academic sanctions on dozens of students involved in a cheating scandal.  The back story tells you a lot about the state of modern education — even at an exalted academic institution like Harvard.

The incident involved an undergraduate course called “Introduction to Congress” that was seen as a gut course — that is, an easy A.  The scandal came to light when a teaching assistant for the course noticed that students may have shared answers to the “take home” final exam.  After an investigation that took months, Harvard’s academic integrity board announced that a number of students were required to withdraw from the school for several terms, others were put on probation, and others received no disciplinary action at all.  The President of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council says that the withdrawing students shouldn’t feel “alienated” from Harvard and should be embraced when they return.

A letter from a Harvard alum about the scandal raises some interesting questions.  According to his letter, the professor teaching the course had previously encouraged “open collaboration” on his exams.  He then changed the rules to say that the students couldn’t collaborate with professors, teaching fellows, “and others,”  the letter alleges, but some teaching fellows for the course nevertheless went over the exam in open sessions with students.  The vaguely defined rules, the letter suggests, led students to engage in lots of collaboration — although even the letter writer concedes that some students “went too far, literally cutting and pasting their answers.”

What does this incident say about Harvard?  For one, it tells you something about its academic rigor.  A class called “Introduction to Congress” that encourages “open collaboration” and features a “take home” final exam that TAs discuss with students beforehand sounds more like a community college course than an Ivy League offering.  It also tells you something about Harvard students.  Even with a basic subject area that is taught in every American high school and the luxury of a take-home final, some students were so dim-witted and unprincipled they thought they could get away with cutting and pasting answers of other students.  The students don’t exactly come out of this sounding like the cream of the crop, do they?  And finally, it tells you something about the hidebound nature of colleges, and the general atmosphere on campuses, that the investigation of a cheating scandal takes months and even students who blatantly cut and pasted answers are only required to withdraw for a few semesters, to be “embraced” on their return.

If Harvard, and other American colleges, don’t want to be seen as diploma mills, how about taking this approach:  have a meaningful honor code, offer challenging courses, require students to appear in the classroom for the exam and write their answers on paper, act promptly when potential cheating is detected, and punish those who violate the rules rather than telling them they will be welcomed back with a hug.