Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million—the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility—are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.As to what colleges should do about this, Shirky admits to having no clear plan. But he dismisses as a fantasy the notion that state governments or anyone else is going to bail out the colleges with lots of cash:
Though the landscape of higher education in the U.S., spread across forty-six hundred institutions, hosts considerable variation, a few commonalities emerge: the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older, enrolled at a community or commuter school, and working towards a degree they will take too long to complete. One in three won’t complete, ever. Of the rest, two in three will leave in debt. The median member of this new student majority is just keeping her head above water financially. The bottom quintile is drowning.
I’ve never seen anyone explain why this argument will be persuasive, and we are nearing the 40th year in which similar pleas have failed, but “Someday the government will give us lots of money” remains in circulation, largely because contemplating our future without that faith is so bleak. If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.Nor is cutting administrative overhead likely to do much:
Last fall, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors proposed reducing senior administrative salaries by 25%, alongside a ‘steady conversion’ of non-tenure-track jobs to tenure-track ones ‘at every NYU location’. The former move would save us about $5 million a year. The latter would cost us $250 million.Like Shirky, I see America on its way back to the educational world of the 1920s, in which only 5 or 10 percent of young people go to a "traditional" four-year college where most courses are taught by tenured professors. What to offer the rest is a hard problem that we should be giving more attention to.
It occurs to me that one solution would be to go even farther along the path of the adjunct-staffed college, in which most teaching is done by part-timers like me who do it because they love it. The few remaining full-time faculty would focus more on recruiting adjuncts and advising students how to put together an education from online courses and the various courses offered by adjuncts of varying quality. It certainly would not be ideal, but what is the alternative?