James Gallagher

higher education will never be the same

Published on June 8, 2020 in education

It has been said by many people that coronavirus is not just igniting new trends, but it is also accelerating old ones. For instance, remote work was already on the rise for years, but coronavirus forced us into scaling up remote work operations. Coronavirus acted as the catalyst that the world needed to see the power of remote work. We've seen that remote work is not perfect, and it doesn't work in many jobs. I would bet that once this is over, more people are working from home. A lot more.

I believe this crisis will accelerate a number of trends which have been talked about in higher education for years. I think these trends will cripple small, private institutions. I think even Ivy League universities are going to be forced into new ways of thinking. I would say that I am especially confident in the trends I am going to outline coming to fruition because it seems that many universities are not learning from what is going on.

I have read that some universities want to be back on campus by the fall. At risk of sounding harsh, let me say this: it's ridiculous to even think of sending students back to campus later this year. Even if a vaccine suddenly appeared, many people's confidence has been shattered completely. Would you really want to rush people back to a campus when they have been largely confined to their house for the last few months, worried about the future? If a university asked me to do this, I believe I would leave immediately.

So, what trends will this crisis accelerate? The first trend I believe we'll see is a mass reduction in the cost of college.

What is college? When you go to college, you are not just paying for the education. You're paying for the experience. The amenities. The sports teams. This crisis has illustrated that, when universities have to be, they can be really lean. Online education options are cheaper and easier to administer at scale than the systems that universities use for their on-campus offerings. We've all known that college is not just about the education, and that's why so many people have been willing to pay inflated prices for college. If you want the status of going to an Ivy League, you've got to pay; if you want to go to the best school in your state because you've heard it has a great culture, then you have to be willing to pay a higher price tag.

This isn't exactly what higher education should be about, though. You can go have other experiences. College is not the only place where you can meet other young people. You can meet them online, then talk with them in-person (well, not right now, but you get what I mean). Higher education should be about the second word in the term: education. It should be about learning. That doesn't mean that you should be prepared for a specific job by the time you leave; I recognize the value of a liberal arts education. I do think that higher education should be more about the teaching and the instruction.

I expect that many more colleges will announce in the coming days and weeks that students will not be allowed to return to campus this fall. Even some schools who say it's a possibility will soon realize they are being a bit too optimistic -- that maybe next fall is a better goal which they can meet. So, the question is: will students still want to pay the same price for an education without the experiences? Without the campus cafeterias. Without the grandeur of living on-campus. I think the answer is no.

Students will put more pressure on universities to reduce their costs, because people simply won't be willing to pay the same price for a substantially reduced experience. Imagine if Apple launched a new phone tomorrow that had half the features of the iPhone 11 (their most recent phone) and charged the same price. I know that some people would buy it anyway because it's an Apple product, but would you? Would you buy a phone with half the features for the same price? I certainly wouldn't. Likewise, I wouldn't pay the same price for college as I would have if I were to have enrolled last year. If there are fewer services available, the prices should be lower.

Some people will not enroll back into college, and that will force colleges to acknowledge that they need to change their prices. Colleges that are already struggling financially will not want to place any more stress on their bottom line. What's easier to do: stick with some antiquated belief, or reduce costs and increase the chance that people will come back and enroll in your school? Some institutions will be stubborn, and that's fine. Higher education is so bloated and antiquated that some of those schools will come out of this alive. But if so many people are reconsidering their next steps -- even if it just means taking a gap year that they were not otherwise going to take -- then colleges will need to take notice of what's going on.

To change their prices, universities are going to have to cut costs. Remember how I said coronavirus has accelerated a number of trends in the past? This is one of them. Last year, I spent a lot of time researching how much money universities spend on line items like athletics teams. It's ridiculous. I still can't quite fathom how universities, with all their tenured professors and great academics, are unable to see that more administrators does not correlate directly with academic success. Oh wait, I think I have an answer: they've never questioned the status quo because they don't have an incentive to do so. If something works -- even if it doesn't work well -- then inertia is enough to make you keep going on that path. Colleges were working fine before, and so very few gave into the pressure to reduce costs.

Universities should cut down on administrators. They should reduce investment in non-necessary on-campus housing. They should focus less on amenities, or just scrap them altogether depending on the school. These three changes would dramatically reduce the price tag for college students. The best part? It's feasible to make these changes, if universities just acknowledge that now is the time to change.

I also believe that higher education will become a less popular path for young people, in favor of more career-focused alternatives.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe in the value of a liberal arts education. I'm not entirely sure why my perspective on this changed, as I used to be on the other side of the argument. I think it has something to do with how I have recognized that everyone thinks differently. For some people, a history major is their life's passion. Who are we to say that universities shouldn't offer those people the education they want just because it may not lead to the most attractive career in the world? I'm going off on a tangent, so let me get back to my point.

If I were graduating from high school this year -- which I would be doing had I not have dropped out at the end of last year -- then I'm honestly not sure what I would be doing. I barely know what to do now, and I cannot begin to hypothesize what I would have done if I was a high school graduate right now. One thing I do know, however, is that I would probably be looking to get some training for a practical job.

The economy is a mess right now. Do you think I'm understating it? Well, I don't know enough about the economy to make a more specific claim. All I know is that young people are graduating into one of -- if not the -- worst economies in history. This is important to recognize because when the economy is really bad, people usually invest in training. But colleges, with their high price tags and without a clear focus on careers, are not the best way to get a job as quickly as you can. A degree takes four years to complete, and many people just won't be able to afford one. So, what will people do? I think they'll start to look into alternative training programs.

I think that we'll see more young people look for professional internships and apprenticeships. These opportunities should -- and I say should, because for some crazy reason some companies don't pay their interns -- give young people a paycheck. That will go a long way to helping them develop some semblance of economic security during these times. In addition, because bars, restaurants, and other businesses where young people used to work are closed, I think we'll see people go toward opportunities in fields like law or product management which can be conducted online. Even when bars and such reopen (and I say this as someone living in the UK, where restaurants are still presently closed), they will likely be on reduced staffs, and many of them will close entirely. They'll not be able to afford to stay open.

This creates a number of opportunities for companies to exist that help young people find internships. Some of these companies could be involved with the discovery process: actually helping young people find an internship. Others could help companies set up internship programs. That's just an interesting aside for all my entrepreneurial readers. Maybe this should be an article of itself at some point. Anyway, back to the point.

What sounds like a more attractive proposition right now? Go to college where the result of your efforts will only become economically beneficial after you attain a degree, or go into a professional apprenticeship where you can earn while you learn? That's not to say that you can't go back to college in the future. I expect we'll see many more adult learners in colleges in the future. I do think though that people will see college less as something you have to do as soon as you leave high school -- or a year later, if you take a gap year -- and more as an experience that helps you build upon existing skills.

I know that these opportunities may be scarce, which is why I think so many companies could operate in this space. We need people convincing employers who are in a position to hire that young people are a valuable addition to their workforce. We need to make the process as seamless as possible so that a large enough number of companies open their arms to young workers who are looking for training. Even three-month internships could go a long way to helping young people build the skills they need for their career.

My third prediction is that we will see mass closures of universities.

The Ivy Leagues are going to be fine. Don't worry about Harvard. State universities should also do fine, too. I think this is a good thing as well because they're in a good position to introduce innovation into higher education. The California State university system is an excellent example of a higher ed system that scales well and delivers a good quality of education. I'll bet other states have similarly strong systems, although I'd have to do more research on that. What we're going to see close is all the institutions that are overcharging, and the institutions whose outcomes are not up to scratch.

There are a few reasons why a prospective student may ignore a school's graduation rate. Perhaps the school is their parent's alma mater, and so they feel obligated to attend. Maybe they really like the campus life. Or perhaps their best friend enrolled in that school last year and hasn't stopped telling them about how great their experience has been. But now, in a time when college is so expensive and when the economy is in flux, will people be so willing to ignore metrics like graduation rates or post-graduation salaries? I don't think so.

Universities who don't have good outcomes are going to lose students. And they're not just going to lose a few students: they are going to lose a lot. The current state of the economy means that many people are just not going to have the money to go to college. Their parents on whom they were dependent to help them pay for their tuition may have lost their jobs. Or the restaurant job they were banking on to help pay for school has suddenly gone up in smoke. When money is tight, people are going to be more fiscally prudent. What does that mean? They'll not want to waste money on schools who cannot prepare them well for their career, whether in a liberal arts or technical capacity.

This has been a long time coming. To start, we'll see a number of these universities survive, and it may look like they'll get through it just fine. Although I suspect this is because universities have been able to accrue such large endowment funds that the changes happening in society today may take a few months to hit them. The economy may have already imploded, but most universities have millions of dollars that they can use to pad their finances in the interim. This, however, is unsustainable. At some point many schools will have to announce they are closing. Fewer people will enroll in schools that don't have a clear value proposition, and so those schools will quickly realize the real nature of their financials. They'll die out.

These are but three of the many predictions I could make about higher education. I'm not an expert on higher education, and I am sure that I am missing many key trends that are happening right now. That's the thing about trying to predict the future: it's not easy. Everyone will have a different take on what is going to happen. I suspect that I'll be wrong on a few of my points, and not because I made a logical mistake. It's because we really have no idea what could happen in the future. Let me tell you this, though: higher education will never be the same. That's one trend in which I have full faith.

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