The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

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