NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ver the past two decades, dissatisfaction with American higher education has grown at a steady clip. The main two complaints are that it’s too expensive and too radicalized. But despite wide-ranging debate over reform, no one has devised a way to make the four-year college degree incidental to the attainment of middle-class status. The game seems rigged.
Many higher-ed observers, such as the late Clay Christensen, have welcomed the prospect of “disruption” in the industry for some time. Among conservatives such as Tucker Carlson, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised hopes that the moment for that disruption has at last arrived.
But there are good reasons to think we could come out of the COVID-19 crisis, especially if it drags on well beyond next fall, with a worsened higher-education system.
First of all, the vast American labor market appears to be unable to function without a broadly accepted system of credentialization, and Civil Rights law alone guarantees higher education’s near-stranglehold on that system. A large employer that conducts dozens of job searches over several years, and hires only a token number of minorities, is guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of many anti-discrimination advocates. But if that employer can cite advanced degrees as its main hiring guideline, it can protect itself from legal liability. Unless COVID-19 somehow produces an equally legitimate alternative way of disbursing professional credentials, most of the public will continue to see college as the most reliable path toward economic independence.
Higher education also provides associational benefits. Many view campus social life as one of its more trivial appeals or even a cause of its irredeemable decadence. But in addition to the enormous financial benefit alumni provide to their alma maters, the experience of four years at a residential college tends to result in many lifelong friendships. College may well be more effective at forging social bonds than most other institutions through which the average American adult passes. Conservatives who purport to care about the fragility of our social fabric should not overlook the possibility that disrupting higher education could further weaken it. Online education, which seems likely to expand amid COVID-19 fears, creates a much more purely transactional relationship between school and student. It offers far fewer social benefits than traditional classroom-based learning at a four-year residential school.
Lastly, the threat of consolidation looms large over the industry. One of the ways in which the American higher-education system seems distinctively American is in its decentralized character. We have elite schools, large public universities, and scores of small private institutions that have been around for over a century. Prior to COVID-19, higher-education observers and stakeholders were increasingly worried that a projected decrease in graduating high-school seniors would force a wave of school closures. The debate in higher-ed circles was not about whether the threat of demographic decline was real, but rather about how many schools would be affected and when. The wave had already begun to hit in states with a significant concentration of small private schools such as Massachusetts. If COVID-19 produces a drop in international students and an increase in deferrals, the pace of closures seems likely to accelerate.
Conservatives might hope that this trend will result in a higher-education landscape that is, broadly speaking, less conducive to left-wing indoctrination, but they are likely to be disappointed. Some of the small liberal-arts colleges at the greatest risk of closure are “Great Books” schools. Many are Christian schools. COVID-19 is not formidable enough to compel wealthy Ivy League schools to depart from the progressive status quo. Hopes that state legislatures will somehow impose a measure of sanity on public-university systems have not been realized. Still more vain are hopes that fiscal constraints could make higher education both cheaper and more accommodating to conservative ideas. Recent years of reduced state aid and increased fiscal anxiety have coincided with the proliferation of grievance-studies professors and the campus speech wars. And public colleges and universities, because they tend to enjoy extremely strong support among state politicians, will never experience as much restructuring as budgetary logic demands in any event.
Thus, the more small private colleges we see closing, the more centralization we’ll see in higher education. In K–12 public education, there’s widespread appreciation of the benefits of decentralization. We lament the decline of parochial schools and support the expansion of charter schools. Most small private colleges are nationally obscure but considered vital in their communities and regions. A higher-education system composed exclusively of massive public universities and the Ivy League is not one we’re likely to be happy with.