This Big Structural Change Sucks
Higher education is changing. Not for the better
About Systematic Organization
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Organization, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate. The chief charm of New England was harshness of contrasts and extremes of sensibility—a cold that froze the blood, and a heat that boiled it—so that the pleasure of hating—one's self if no better victim offered—was not its rarest amusement; but the charm was a true and natural child of the soil, not a cultivated weed of the ancients.Everyone agrees that presidential leadership matters.
This week, we’re talking about how politics and pandemics means that big structural change is already here for higher education…and it’s not great.
This Big Structural Change Sucks
(Alternative title: I Asked For Big Structural Change and All I Got Was This Lousy Pandemic)
For a little while during the primaries, it looked like the candidate of big! structural! change! would win. She didn’t, but we ended up with lots of big structural changes anyway. And for higher education, I’m worried that a toxic combination of politics, pandemics, and economics will mean that we’re going to get the worst kind.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Back in March, when we were still talking in terms of V-shaped recoveries, some optimistic observers thought that if the pandemic had any long-term overall negative economic impact it would be good for colleges. After all, the Great Recession of 2008-2010 or so led to surging enrollments for many schools and graduate programs, as people took advantage of student loans and the absence of jobs to tool up.
I didn’t think that was likely. Pandemic had already sent everyone home by that point, and it seemed unlikely to me that people would want to launch themselves into new, expensive graduate degrees or other programs that would be begun online. After all, especially for MA programs, one of the real draws is specifically that you get to network with folks—those sweet cocktail hours are genuinely part of the curriculum. Online didn’t offer that.
Of course, there were other problems. Surveys suggested that lots of folks, especially new undergrads, were thinking about taking a gap year or not coming back to school. For small, tuition-dependent private schools, an enrollment drop of 10-20 percent could put many out of business. A few years of that would lead to dire times for a big part of the sector.
Everyone assumed, however, that it was likely that federal aid would be available to smooth things over. This would be tough, and possibly very tough for some schools, but it wouldn’t necessarily be an industry-changing event, especially if the feds acted.
What’s happened is a mix of these scenarios.
Many or most universities transitioned to online—some of them smoothly, like my employer UMass Amherst, and some of them after recklessly endangering students and faculty, like a great many other schools. (Some still haven’t, but they will, because living quarantined in a dorm is maybe all of the worst bits of college life with none of the compensating benefits.)
For now, I’m still being paid. But UMass Amherst has laid off 1,200 workers, mostly but not exclusively in the parts of the enterprise that only make money if students are on campus (dining and residential life). Our chancellor has told us to expect more layoffs—hundreds of them. And the economy means it’s likely our state budget will be cut back—and that’s the contribution that funds faculty salaries. In preparation, they’ve frozen, and now removed, our research allotment, and rumors are that we won’t hire for years even though we’ve lost several folks to retirements and other causes (no, not Covid).
And UMass is doing pretty well, considering.
Other places are much less well off, with faculty layoffs or termination becoming commonplace news items rather than once-in-a-year things and with many many more institutions doing things like suspending retirement contributions, which is of course just a fancy word for a 5-10 percent pay cut.
Some schools are looking at increased or steady enrollments—not bad, under the circumstances, but not necessarily great. But many community colleges are apparently facing enrollment declines, as a New America report suggests. That’s a big danger sign because community colleges are the cheapest part of the market serving the least well-served part of the workforce. Declines there signal real trouble for vulnerable populations.
What I missed (as did a lot of folks) were the knock-on effects of not having childcare available via K-12 schools. With schools closed, it’s difficult to start or continue a college degree if you have care responsibilities but not much of a safety net.
That’s a danger sign. It points to a potential K-shaped recovery, in which the rich recover and the poor don’t. We normally talk about that in terms of affecting people, but it’s also going to affect institutions. Because it turns out that the federal government probably isn’t going to help higher education any time soon.
All Covid-related higher ed stories need stock art of Georgetown University for some reason.
Remember the HEROES Act? That was the Democratic House’s proposal for a fourth (or was it fifth?) Covid-related bailout. It would give universities a lifeline to cope with the costs of coronavirus. Those include, by the way, not just declining tuition but increased costs—for testing, for cleaning, and for upgrading online teaching systems. (Yes, Virginia, it costs more to teach online than in person, especially if a school can’t sell your campus and walk away from it while its faculty is also teaching online.)
It’s gone nowhere. The crises that were supposed to trigger some sort of new bailout—in particular, the expiration of extra unemployment insurance—have come and gone and are now all but forgotten about. And with a looming budget shutdown, it’s doubtful that we’ll get any action on this before Election Day/Month/Year. There’s a real chance that no more major legislation, possibly except for a continuing resolution, moves this year at all. Aside from bailouts to universities, we’re also not getting bailouts for state and local governments.
For public and small, tuition-dependent schools, this starts to look again like the worse-case set of scenarios. Publics were hit hard by the 2008 crisis and never really recovered. Covid is like a killer missile that attacks state and local budgets by eliminating the things that they tax, from high-income individuals who decamp to Florida after writing weepy LinkedIn posts to restaurants and other service industries to the income that workers in those in-person jobs would receive. That’s basically the tax base for all local and state governments, and making up that revenue requires federal intervention.
The economic harm’s also going to hit small private schools because there’s going to be a continuing economic hit to households. Small private schools need tuition dollars, but sinking incomes and increased comparison shopping will put the squeeze on those schools. Maybe not this year, but beginning in the next academic year.
Rich schools, by contrast, will be fine. No they can’t sPeNd ThE eNdOwMeNt, but they will be in the same position as chain restaurants when things reopen. TGI Fridays and McDonald’s are going to move right into the niches that will be vacated by all those small independent restaurants that are going under right now. And so too will wealthier schools be able to coast by through this trauma and then hoover up all of the academically marginal but wealthier students who once would have gone to the private schools that closed. Indeed, a shakeout of the higher ed sector might leave some schools better off by closing the competition in an industry with notoriously high barriers to entry.
For academic labor, however, this is a bloodbath. As of a few days ago, the American Political Science Association’s job board showed only 43 jobs for assistant professors in all fields in all countries. That’s a calamitous, extinction-level decline. There may literally be more people on the market from Harvard alone this year (counting ABDs and recent Ph.D.s) than there are jobs available.
The idea of alt-ac employment is no longer something that’s an (excuse the pun) adjunct to Ph.D. training. Alt-ac is the new employment. And that’s doubly tough because the same economic crash that killed the academic market is killing the non-academic market too.
At some point, this is going to have to lead to either a transformation in the content of graduate education or waves of shutdowns of Ph.D. programs. In any event, we’re going to get big structural change in higher education unless there’s massive federal intervention. And with Trump still at least a 1-in-4 shot to win, there’s a good chance we won’t get that either.
What I’m Reading
This week, our featured book is an older text, but it checks out.
Infamously, almost all Ph.D. programs neglect to include any training on how to teach. This often surprises folks who don’t hold a Ph.D., like the folks who take our classes as students or the people who write large checks to the institutions that employ us.
Their reasoning seems sound. After all, K-12 teachers have degrees so that they can teach K-12, so if you’re teaching in college, you have a degree that trained you for that job.
Well, not at all. I don’t even the use “teaching” to describe my career—I do teach, but my job is, contractually, mostly research. And the assumption of Ph.D. programs, certainly in political science, is that the goal of the program is to train you to research—even if you end up in a job that’s mostly teaching (which most scholars actually do).
The optimistic defense is that being great at research will help you be great at teaching. Which is kind of a glaringly obvious fallacy, since we could also just hire people who are great at teaching to do teaching instead of hoping that great researchers will be great teachers.
The real reason is much simpler. The Ph.D. is a research degree because it’s meant to serve as a credential for a job in research. Sure, professors teach at research universities, but at a structural level that’s understood to be a kind of institutionally necessary evil, part of the bargain for those institutions to survive. What really matters is research and the advancement of knowledge. (Of course, this logic has now spread through the pernicious chasing of status advancement to higher education institutions that really ought to be more concerned with teaching as their core mission, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
You’re supposed to pick up a lot about teaching as a graduate student through observation and apprenticing as a TA. But this model has some real drawbacks. For one, what if you’re apprenticed to a bad teacher? (It happens, although I lucked out and was placed with good ones.) But for another, it means that you’re limited in what you can know to the folk wisdom and specific experiences of particular teachers. There’s a reason we wouldn’t accept research designs based on analogous principles.
So I early started reading about pedagogy on my own time, and with the help of faculty mentors. At UMass, an on-campus fellowship program helped me a lot as well. And one of the best books I’ve read, one that changed how I teach, is Make It Stick.
This is a short book drawing on the cognitive science and psychology of learning studies. It teaches you how the brain actually acquires and retains information, and distills it into neat lessons. It’s probably overly neat, to be fair, but the key principles—that learning should be effortful, constant, and interleaved—can be incorporated into course design relatively easy. Yana Weinstein’s Understanding How We Learn covers similar ground and is illustrated to boot.
It’s also a depressing book, because it turns out that basically all the things that students hate about class (constant engagement! short assignments! being assigned work before they’ve mastered how to do it!) are actually good for them. The trick for applying these lessons is to make clear why you’re structuring a class like this and to help.
Five years into teaching after reading this book, I’ve finally been able to apply its principles consistently in course design. (Thanks, Covid!) And re-reading/skimming/glancing at the text reminded me of how powerful it was. So if you, like me, never got that How To Teach course in graduate school, I strongly recommend this.
Help A Classroom Out
Speaking of teaching, my course on The Politics of the End of the World could use your help. In this course, students explore how the apocalypse affects how people behave across a variety of domains. It’s a big, exciting course, and the students who take part in it learn by doing—in particular, by working in groups to create episodes of a podcast that examine one particular Massachusetts-based apocalypse and how it affected, or reflected, the politics of the time.
I couldn’t not teach this class during pandemic. As a technically demanding course, however, the class relies on technology. In the Before Times, we would use the library’s holdings of recorders and other gadgets to make all of this work. Now, we don’t have that option. And as you may have heard, UMass doesn’t exactly have spare cash lying around to support courses at the moment.
So my students could use your help to fund replacements and other materials they need. You can contribute here. We’ve met our notional goal of $1,000, but that was just a notional goal—we’ve never had to budget for completely doing the course and making the podcasts remotely.
Your support would mean a lot. And this is a course that gets offered routinely, so we will definitely make good use of any funds you send.
Any money raised that isn’t used for the course will be used to fund another podcast series, this one for professors and students of political science and allied fields, interviewing folks with poli sci and related undergrad degrees about how they succeeded in their field. I think it will be a real resource, and funding for this will help me hire students to do editing, research, and legwork.