The American university is shrinking.
It has been a relatively quiet downsizing so far, but it’s going to get louder in the years ahead. College enrollment is decreasing nationwide. Lower-tier schools are struggling to meet enrollment goals, and even mid-tier schools are scrambling to develop new fiscal strategies. Partly, this shift just reflects the fact that college is extremely expensive. Millennials have supplied their predecessors with cautionary tales about the crippling burden of educational debt. Generation Z now sees the wisdom of considering alternatives to college. Beyond that though, there is the reality that birth rates have been falling in America for many years. Fewer babies in 2002 means fewer college applicants in 2020.
There’s some good news here, and also some bad. Let’s start with the bad.
Downsizing could have catastrophic consequences. Living in an information age, we need a top-notch university system to stay competitive globally. In many respects, our existing system is actually quite good, but it’s bloated, decadent, and controlled by an army of petty bureaucrats, each with his own tiny fiefdom to protect. There is no reason to trust that these overpaid functionaries have the right priorities. When the system starts contracting, trustees and administrators will get busy scratching each others’ backs, and we may just be left with whatever happens to survive their cutthroat game of swivel-chairs. Quite recently, the University of Tulsa gave us a peek at how this “keep the sports teams, fire the history department” devolution might unfold. If this kind of thing becomes the norm, higher ed could easily devolve into little more than a network of posh finishing schools for the wealthy.
There are other bleak possibilities. The downsizing process might develop more coercively, orchestrated by Republican politicians. Keep in mind, when contemplating this possibility, that Democratic dominance in academia is overwhelming, and right-leaning voters are well aware of that fact. A sizable share hate the universities with a burning passion and see them as the institutions most responsible for instilling leftist political views in our nation’s elite classes. In a scorched-earth culture war, a Trumpian demagogue could have great success channeling “drain the swamp” energy towards a campaign to “topple the tower.” How discerning would those reformers be? Imagine our university system falling into such shambles that the Chinese, Indians, or Israelis regularly hire away our top talent for their universities and research programs. That could be our future.
None of this has to happen. Higher education may be due for some downsizing, but it’s possible to maintain globally competitive universities on a more reasonable budget. We simply need a shift in focus, prioritizing core university functions (teaching and research) over brand-boosting, virtue-signaling, and administrative vanity projects. Incentive structures should be adjusted to make that happen. Even private universities (with rare exceptions) depend heavily on public support in the form of grants and student loans, so there’s lots of leverage to exploit.
First, let’s consider teaching. Fewer students will need fewer teachers, so now is the ideal time for universities to correct an egregious scandal by reducing their reliance on adjunct labor. Given the operating budgets of most modern universities, it’s truly astonishing that a significant majority of college instructors are now retained as “contingent faculty,” teaching courses for menial wages with little or no job security. In the short-term this saves a lot of money, but the downsides are significant. Having worked as an adjunct myself for seven years, I know how difficult it is to give students necessary attention when you’re barely getting paid. Some adjuncts end up teaching seven or eight courses at multiple institutions, just to make ends meet. How can they possibly be available to their students when they’re working under those constraints? If we want uniformly high-quality teaching (to say nothing of research), we need to ensure that instructors are getting appropriate support from their institutions.
Adjunct teaching has created an unhappy quagmire for higher education, but it comes with an upside: It shouldn’t be too difficult to downsize the professoriate without decimating the permanent faculty. It shouldn’t be necessary to fire our genuinely committed teachers, or dedicated researchers who are a real asset to an information economy. Better support for instructors won’t save the university money, though. So where do the budgets get trimmed?
It really comes down to three things: administration, athletics, and amenities. Our universities are being spoiled by As.
Unfortunately, the reality is that institutions today have very little accountability for what they actually teach. It’s quite possible to succeed as a university without offering undergraduates high-quality instruction. In general, employers expect relatively little from college graduates in terms of acquired knowledge or skills. Most specific job skills are learned on the job or in post-graduate programs. College provides a valued life experience for young people, along with a screening service for employers that enables them to identify intelligent and responsible would-be employees. But for those purposes, it doesn’t much matter whether you got around to reading Middlemarch.
It’s unsurprising, then, that universities tend to skimp on instruction, pouring resources instead into brand-building, along with extensive efforts to ensure that young people enjoy their years in school. This is why schools pour money into athletics. Most sports programs are money pits, but they contribute to a school’s prestige and name recognition, and provide platforms for networking and alumni outreach. We can also understand why universities invest in swanky student centers and state-of-the-art athletic facilities. From an administrator’s perspective, it’s not necessarily bad that students today are studying less and socializing more, since that networking builds community ties that keep graduates in alumni networks, and on future donor lists. How essential are those assets, though, in maintaining a top-notch knowledge economy? If universities are mostly functioning as social clubs for elites, there’s no reason to give them public subsidy.
The biggest money suck of all, though, is administration. As universities began to prioritize brand-building over teaching, administration predictably exploded. Since the 1970s, higher ed has more than doubled its ranks of career administrators. Some defend this development, arguing that modern students need more services. It’s hard to buy that argument when we dig into the numbers though, taking particular notice of administrative salaries. Is it reasonable to farm actual courses out to ramen-eating adjuncts, while retaining 93 diversity specialists at a single state school? If that doesn’t faze you, note that 26 of these personnel pulled down six-figure salaries; collectively they cost the university more than $11 million in a single year. Regardless of how one feels about campus diversity initiatives, it’s hard to see any good justification for that largesse. It’s also hard to explain why presidents at public universities should be banking more than a million dollars per annum. When Mitch Daniels took over at Purdue University, he quickly slashed $8 million from the university’s budget, mainly by reducing administrative bloat. Those savings were then translated into lower tuition, and less debt for graduating students.
Higher Education gets a lot of bad press nowadays, but we shouldn’t forget the essential role that our universities have played in bolstering American prosperity. The Academy is riddled with problems. Nevertheless, we need it. It’s time for the public to demand that universities clean up their act, and fulfill the function for which they were founded.