Is Higher Education Undergoing a Long-Term Structural Collapse?

Is higher education in the U.S., and almost surely in the West generally, undergoing a long-term structural collapse?

The question sounds histrionic, perhaps even hysterical and would be treated as such in many (most?) mainstream academic circles. But if we see collapse as a long-term process rather than a singular catastrophic event, then there is much we can point to that tells us that, Yes, higher education is undergoing collapse and has been for a long time … for at least four decades, in fact.

We can argue over the reasons for the collapse, including whether we are looking at mere bad decisions, accidents, or whether something more malevolent has been going on, but we can’t argue over the fact of the matter: higher education is collapsing.

What makes the problem even more serious is that contrary to what a lot of tech types will say regarding online options for learning, nothing is in place to replace existing brick and mortar higher education on a large scale. I’ll make a few remarks about this last.

I probably don’t have to discuss the rise and influence of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse (that school’s most influential philosopher), so for completeness sake I limit it to two paragraphs: the institution of “affirmative action” preferences based on race and gender in the 1970s following the Supreme Court’s catastrophic Griggs decision (1971). This decision invented out of thin air the idea that “discrimination” equals a lack of proportional statistical outcomes. This being practically impossible — no society anywhere in the world has achieved it — within 15 years the emergency of political correctness to protect the idea of government-designated victimhood and preferential treatment to attempt to rectify it from intellectual challenge, as well as protect the various movements created by government-designated or self-identified victims from any kind of intellectually serious evaluation.

For any such evaluation would have to accord with objective standards of logicality, evidence that premises are correct, practicality of the implementation of ideas, etc., and by the late 1980s and even more in the 1990s, these were dismissed ad hominem as the social constructs of straight white males (sometimes straight white Christian males, although it was hard even then to maintain that Christianity had any influence in academia worth speaking of).

Less evident to those who focus almost exclusively on Frankfurt School “cultural Marxism” is the corporatization of higher education that began, also in 1971, with the Powell Memorandum handed down by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. In his statement Powell actually singled out Marcuse as a deleterious influence in academia, and also Ralph Nader. He was far less concerned, I would submit, about the integrity of scholarship and dusty philosophical conceptions of objectivity than the fact that the interests of corporations, and of corporate-dominated capitalism itself, had been called into question in the late 1960s. His Memorandum signaled the beginning of a stealth counterattack which was fueled by the rise of the neoliberalism that emanated over the next couple of decades, e.g., from the University of Chicago (founded and endowed originally with Rockefeller money, with Rockefeller and similar big business interests remaining dominant in the school’s governing ethos). Neoconservatism, meanwhile, was replacing traditional conservatism in the Republican Party and would spread to the Democratic Party during the Clinton presidency.

Arguably, neoliberalism-neoconservatism had become the dominant consensus among the elites by the mid-1990s. Utterly materialistic, driven by the desire for profit and the extension of a mass consumption ethos across the entire planet, and willing to launch various degrees of aggression against any and all who refused to fall into compliance, I would think it hard to argue against the destructive effects this ethos has had on the world — a world in which the lion’s share of jobs are meaningless, time-wasting affairs serving one overriding purpose, earning the money to pay rent or the mortgage, put food on one’s table, and keep one’s lights turned on. I often suspect this ethos, which divides families and sets people apart more broadly via pointless competition for jobs and other resources, has long underwritten the escape of many populations into substance abuse (think: opioid epidemic), and the fact that one of the leading causes of preventable death is now suicide.

Against this background, how can higher education as a serious enterprise, able to educate people not just in marketable skills, but in the ability to think critically, act autonomously, buy intelligently, and vote intelligently, possibly survive?!

Notice, first of all, how little the neoliberal-neoconservative consensus actually has to say to women and minorities. Much less whether it has delivered on promises made back in the 1960s and 1970s. The percentage of black philosophy professors back during Martin Luther King Jr.’s day was between 1 and 2 percent. What is it now? Between 1 and 2 percent. I’ve no reason to believe other academic disciplines differ significantly. Small wonder we have groups like Black Lives Matter, born not just of deadly violence by police against unarmed black kids but, on campuses, of frustration over the system’s failure to deliver on its promises. BLM wants more diversity in the form of more black faculty members. Okay. Where are universities supposed to find them? I have often noted (no one has ever responded, much less disputed the claim): the claim that African-Americans cannot find academic jobs because of rampant discrimination rests on the assumption that really there is a population of would-be African-American academics out there.

White women, as middle class as middle class can be, have received the lion’s share of “affirmative action” benefits. And if we can believe the MeToo’ers, their situation is hardly Utopian, whether in academia or in other arenas such as Hollywood! I’ve hardly investigated all or even most of the claims of sexual misconduct that have floated around for many years. How would I? There are too many, too much doubt over who can be believed, and in the effort to untangle all the he-said-she-said and try to determine the truth, nothing else would get done! But while some of these allegations are probably exaggerations and some may be retaliatory, I don’t believe for a minute that all of them are. Is there any doubt, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator … or that at least some male professors are guilty as charged?

Colleges and universities have arguably become cesspools of corruption and greed, and it is hard to believe this ethos, which includes the prevailing materialism, has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation minorities — which include intellectual minorities such as Christian and conservative intellectuals — find themselves in.

Over the past four decades or so, administrations have bloated while the population of tenured faculty has dropped. Higher education is arguably phasing out tenure as the older, tenured generation dies out and is not replaced. In a commonly cited statistic, in some institutions 70% of faculty are now adjuncts: part-timers working for starvation wages, sometimes at multiple campuses or at multiple institutions. Their efforts to conduct scholarship fade into oblivion, as between the lengthy commutes and piles of papers to grade from five or six classes (necessary, to keep those lights on and food in the freezer) consume all their time. There are cases of adjunct faculty discovered to have been living in their automobiles and sneaking into student dorms to take showers.

It is also very difficult to believe that colleges and universities do not have the money to pay their faculty living wages. The reason: the money taken in via athletic programs (in many institutions millions per year), the salaries paid university presidents and other top administrators (six figures, sometimes even seven figures at prestigious institutions), and the money spent on new buildings, new technology and facilities, new gyms and gym equipment, and on campus beautification projects. Many of these last seem intended to create and reinforce in students’ minds, almost subliminally, the mindset of a corporate environment.

The problem is not scarcity but allocation, based on intelligent priorities which support and do not work against the interests of faculty and students, as well as against the institutions themselves. Living wages for faculty might be reciprocated in many ways, as faculty have the time to do their best teaching and research, and can serve as articulate voices supporting the institution raising its visibility at national conferences … instead of having to spend all their available free time looking for their next job.

If what we see is the future of the faculty, which is more corporatization and more “adjunctification,” the most intelligent and talented are going to leave academia, because most of the skills that make one, e.g., a good philosopher, are transferable to other occupations (computer programming, app design, health care, freelance writing, copywriting, etc.). There are now many accounts of recent Ph.Ds opting to leave, or in some cases newly-minted faculty accepting one of the kinds of jobs that are now all that is available for the majority of newly-minted Ph.D.s and realize they have made a mistake.

None of this touches what has been done to students during recent decades. As administrations have bloated and faculty have been forced into decisions between humiliating conditions of servitude amidst near-starvation and departure, it is common knowledge that students are graduating with five and sometimes six figures of student loan debt.

A cynical arrangement exists: colleges and universities can raise tuition without risk because the government pays them, not the students. Administrators know the institution will be paid, in other words, and their upper echelons couldn’t care less how that money is paid back.

They do not have, as Nassim Taleb would say, skin in the game!

The students, almost none of whom have had a class in personal finance or anything close, are willing to go massively into debt in order to get that education they are told they must have in order to be employable. They are vulnerable to the wiles of predatory lenders.

Yet when they cannot find jobs that pay well enough to enable them to pay off their debt, they default; and their credit rating is ruined. When former students cannot make large purchases such as homes due to lack of decent-paying work, outstanding debt, and/or bad credit, does this or does this not hurt the economy in any sense of that phrase?

Here are a few stories of student loan debt.

In aggregate, total student loan debt is now around $1.53 trillion.

Many students, finally, should not be in college. As far back as the 1950s, we saw the rise of the idea that Everybody Should Go To College. There are, however, many, many worthwhile skills that can be developed, and trades practiced, that do not require a university degree. While it is arguable that a college education gives students the “soft skills” they need to be, e.g., intelligent voters and participants in our so-called democracy, it is equally arguable that these can be dispensed at the secondary level, or at home. A study appeared a number of years ago that showed conclusively that university students are not really learning anything! Many, of course, are there for no other reason than to get a degree in order to get a job. They are not truly suited for academic work, and should not be forced to pursue it.

In the present “bubble” environment, student enrollment has begun to drop. In some cases, where campuses have experienced PC-related disruptions, students are speaking with their feet. Others, however, may just be weighing the perceived benefits (too small) versus the very real future costs (too large). One futurist argues that higher education can only go in one direction: down. That is our inevitable long-term collapse.

Another author observes that creeping corporatization has descended even to the lower grades, and that there are objective measures for when not just a university but an educational system more broadly is simply exploiting its teachers. She predicts: either we reverse these trends, or the system will self-destruct as people avoid teaching as a career choice.

In South Carolina, where I used to live, there were already shortages of teachers in crucial subjects such as math and the sciences. This did not stop the bureaucrats from erecting ridiculous barriers to entry. I know this for fact because I ran into them. A woman I dated for a while there, having jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops necessary to jump through in order to be a teacher in that state, was then paid less than $30,000 a year. She was — what else? — a part-timer. This designation served corporate-bureaucratic purposes of keeping wages down but was not an honest measure of her work-load, which amounted to well over 40 hours per week.

With these kinds of abuses in place, is it any wonder that people leave the teaching profession?

Invariably, we face a dilemma: is education in any sense that would have been recognizable as such even 70 years ago compatible with the corporatization that appears to be inevitable in the political economy the neoliberal-neoconservative axis has served up? What adjectives and descriptions apply to this political economy? How about: centralized, consolidated, surveyed, money-focused, obedience-focused, with massive real privileges for a tiny elite and precarity outside its corporatized enclaves and gated communities.

What do we want from an educational system? What should we want? “We” here refers — I hope — to a people whose hope is to maximize personal freedom and autonomy, while living satisfying lives — as opposed to living a present-day equivalent of Hobbes’s “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

We have the technological capabilities to create such a system. There are, as I see it, three things standing in our way.

One is the fact that a truly educated people, valuing autonomy and able to think critically, will eventually turn its attention to those who are really running the show and begin to question some (or more than some) of its policies. This began to happen, at least in part, during the 1960s, which wasn’t exclusively about Marcuse, and gave rise to the fears that prompted the Powell Memo. Modernity’s ruling class did not want, e.g., its wars questioned, and although the story is longer than I can get into here (there are abundant resources available on the topic), one has to suspect that what one might call the “destruction of the American mind” was partly deliberate. Both corporations and government, working together, long ago had wanted, and possibly needed, a compliant population. They designed schools, including colleges and universities, and teaching methods, etc., that would serve up such a population.

Postmodernity’s ruling class is no different, of course. There may be a greater diversity of visible faces, lifestyle choices, etc., and a lot more hedonism, but there is no difference of overall political-economic orientation, which is inevitably about control. Unless a critical mass of common people rejects being controlled, we cannot expect things to change.

This hints at the second thing standing in the way: ourselves. Tech types, whom I mentioned near the outset, will offer online education as an alternative to the four-year college degree. Education writer and futurist Kevin Carey argues that the Internet, the “University of Everywhere,” will make the brick-and-mortar higher educational institutions we’ve been discussing obsolete, just as new technological systems have always rendered older ways of doing things obsolete.

There are, of course, abundant opportunities for educating ourselves online. That much is true. There’s Udemy.com where one will find many structured courses on a wide variety of subjects; there are at least a dozen similar sites; and obviously, there’s YouTube where we can go to learn about any conceivable subject.

The drawback, as I see it (and wrote about here): educating oneself requires behavioral skills many people do not have, as they’ve neither learned them at home or in school. These include self-discipline and time management. If you choose the route of self-education, no one — no teacher or other superior — is standing over you, telling you to get the work done, or even to get up early enough in the morning to get the day started at a reasonable hour. It is just too easy to be a layabout, in other words. Plus, if one is trying to take classes and has to work at the same time, there are likely to be problems as the two run interference patterns with one another (and think of the mother who has kids to take care of in addition!). This all calls for time management skills many people simply do not have, or could easily develop themselves. Not being able to do this should not be judged a sign of weakness, or some such. This is just reality for many people in the real world, as opposed to the world of abstract theorists where all sorts of things look good on paper.

Finally there is the problem of knowing what to view online, and how to organize it into a logical sequence, i.e., a structured curriculum. YouTube, moreover, has a lot of great videos, but also tons of misinformation. It is very easy to go down blind alleys. The Internet itself is full of myriad temptations just to surf and waste time, moreover. The person using it has to discipline himself or herself and say, I am educating myself, when learning, just as the self-employed person must say, I am at work, when working. Otherwise nothing gets done!

The final thing standing in the way is that few employers are able to think outside the sheepskin box. They look at a resume and expect to see at least one college or university degree there. Some tech corporations might be exceptions to this, as the abilities of some of the self-educated teenage whiz kids they see are obvious. In most cases, however, the employer does not want to see a list of certificates of completion of Udemy courses, or one of YouTube videos viewed. They do not have tests the person can pass to prove himself / herself, which is why self-employment might be the only route for someone able to educate himself this way. But again, self-employment requires skills the multitudes simply do not have, and possibly never will, which is why they will remain the multitudes.

Until these bridges are identified and crossed, online self-education will not be an option except for a select few.

And if higher education continues with its present trajectory and would-be students continue to speak with their feet, many lesser institutions will be forced to close, and higher education might well return to what it was over a hundred years ago: a source of privilege for the children of the elites and out of reach (because unaffordable) for everyone else.

This leaves us with a huge and largely unrecognized predicament of major proportions.

For this result, compared to what my generation grew up with (1960s, 1970s), can only be described as a collapse. And if we do not have an educated population, very soon we will not have a civilization.

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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