Crisis As The New Normal

Goldie Blumenstyk is an editor and reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. She’s been writing about academia for decades and has rightly established herself as one of the most respected journalists covering the field. I read her regularly and trust her judgment, as do many others who work in higher ed.

Five years ago Blumenstyk wrote American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know. It is a well-crafted and clearly organized short book that presents a data-informed overview of the key issues facing higher education. It is not biased or slanted, but it does make points. As Blumenstyk writes in the introduction, the cost of college is rising faster than anything else, student debt is well over $1 trillion, many doubt the big picture value of college, higher education may be exacerbating inequities (racial and economic), government support is on the decline, and the underlying financial model for many colleges may not be sustainable. The consequence of all of the above? Higher education is most assuredly in crisis. For an easy to digest and comprehensive overview, it’s a difficult book to beat.

With the start of 2020, I thought that it could be helpful to take another look at American Higher Education in Crisis to see what has and has not changed. A crisis, I used to believe, was not just a period of intense difficulties. In my mental definition, a crisis also involved a decision, some point of inflection, some kind of resolution. After re-reading the book, though, I may have to revise my definition when it comes to higher ed.

American Higher Education in Crisis is akin to an FAQ; Blumenstyk poses and answers basic and important questions. The book is organized into four sections. Part One looks at students: who attends, in what numbers, and at what kinds of institutions. While enrollment has declined across the US over the past five years, the issues here remain at the top of everyone’s mind. Most institutions of higher learning are deeply focused on capturing and retaining students. Part Two is an examination of cost, spending and debt. Again, many of the same issues and problems dominate discussions today. College costs remain a major issue inside and outside the academy. State funding has improved for many, but not all, and overall financial support for higher education remains contested. Student debt has continued to increase, as have college discount rates, the number of institutions in financial trouble, and complaints about student amenities that may (or may not) be viewed as frivolous. Part Three is titled “Who’s in Charge? Leadership Pressures – From Within and Without.” Shared governance, short-term presidencies, increased calls for accountability, and the role of business and corporatization are still in our headlines and ongoing debates in and around higher education. If anything, pressures on academic leadership have increased.

The last section of the book, “What’s Ahead,” takes a look at MOOCs, different models, OER (open educational resources), big data, stackable credentials, badging, apprenticeships and distant/online education. These are described as having the potential to meaningfully affect higher education, but what is fascinating is the limited impact of these disrupters. As areas of attention they are still important, but they have not catalyzed significant changes.

Bottom line: we are still very much in the same crisis that Blumenstyk described all so accurately in 2015. We face the same challenges, same issues, and have the same concerns. American Higher Education in Crisis? remains relevant and the answer remains “yes.”

David Potash

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