Today in collegiate dystopia: gazing into the crystal ball

April 28, 2020 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

A writer in The New York Times has taken a rather optimistic view of the implications for higher education of the current shift to remote teaching and learning. It’s not that he thinks things are going well this semester– they’re not. Rather, he thinks that colleges will be able to reopen without that much change in the fall (or whenever things return to normal).

His thesis:
As for predictions that it will trigger a permanent exodus from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual classrooms, all indications are that it probably won’t.
I think he’s too optimistic. While the experience with remote education has not been good, many colleges outside the top tier see remote education as a lifeline to survival, and administrators at these colleges are eager to embrace the tuition-paying students, and cost savings, that remote education brings. To see this, just spend a little time perusing the house organs of education administrators, Inside Higher Ed (open access) and the Chronicle of Higher Education (much of it paywalled).

For years now, the only thing that has mattered to administrators is institutional success. Institutional success means the continued existence of the institution; success in the acquisition of funds from funding sources; and good publicity. For awhile they thought that recruitment (enrolling as many students as possible) and retention (making sure every student who enrolls keeps coming back every semester) were the keys to success. In all of a college’s activities, attracting new students was the point—finding and enrolling these new students was all that mattered.

More recently, administrators (to a great extent under pressure created by the neoliberal initiatives of the U.S. Department of Education) have come to believe that graduating students is more important than getting students. This might seem a laudable redirection, but, in a textbook exemplification of Campbell’s Law, this meant that the entire aim of higher education could be re-imagined—credentialing became the goal.

So, many colleges now seek to recruit, and then rush through to credentialing, as many students as possible. Many new programs have been created in pursuit of this goal. And much of the work of creating and running such programs can be outsourced to companies that, in exchange for a cut of the tuition, promise to find the students. (It’s remote education, so the students can come from anywhere.) Recently, however, one such company, Academic Partners LLC, has run into some difficulty; the president of the University of Texas, Arlington, was forced to resign because of his allegedly shady dealings with the company. But I fear this is just a speed bump on a rush to change the nature and mission of higher education.

19 thoughts on “Today in collegiate dystopia: gazing into the crystal ball

  1. Unfortunately, in my experience, this shift toward the “rush through to credentialing” has resulted in the lowering of standards with respect to assigning grades and applying stringent educational practices. This along with the increase of parental interference (harassment of instructors and deans acquiescing) and students literally crying their way to a better grade, has resulted in a significant shift in how a university fulfills its “mission”.

  2. Although nearly five years retired now, I still pay attention to what’s going on at my college, and more generally in U. S. higher education. I certainly agree with Prof. Mayer that staying open is the main, if not the only, goal of administrators. They serve the trustees and will without even the slightest cringe, make slaves or worse of the faculty.

    ‘Pray, what succulent cuts from the One Body of Professors did you eat raw?’ This my fanciful query to former colleagues who met yesterday to vote on which programs, departments and even schools to get rid of–all based on proposals that came from an outside firm hired to analyze the school’s financial and enrollment troubles, which was then processed by a administrative and faculty ‘task force’ before presentation to this most fateful faculty meeting.

    The results of the voting I don’t know. But I do so firmly believe that this was all an administrative horror of legerdemain that will make it look like the faculty cannibalized itself. And in this case the seeming is all too true.

    Those proposals I alluded to: not a single mention was made of the university’s mission statement, which is still in place, lying to the world that liberal education lives here. And in the case of the report on the English Dept. (where I professed), the word ‘literature’ did not appear.

    1. I’d love to see a copy of the relative value of degrees. I mostly wonder where the Gender Studies and other subjects that are heavily woke would fare. Unfortunately I’m supposing that the study at your school is based on financial value to the institution and not financial value to the student.

      I can see the generic school (I don’t mean to characterize yours since I’ve no knowledge of; sorry if I’m out of line here) valuing only those departments that bring in the most money to the detriment to the long term survival of the school. Here I’m thinking of Evergreen.

  3. More students today seem to have the attitude that having paid for college, they are owed degrees without having to work too hard. Online education is a big mistake, since it makes student evaluation harder and credentialing the undeserving easier.

  4. Institutional success as measured by metrics unrelated to education quality and student performance is what often gets administrators promoted and gives them the ability to move to higher paid positions at other universities. Using bad metrics is a sure path to disaster in higher education. It’ happening at the university I retired from.

  5. this meant that the entire aim of higher education could be re-imagined—credentialing became the goal.

    I’m only familiar with the PMP certification and passingly familiar with some programning certifications, but it seems to me the professional certifications figured this out no problem. Don’t lower your standards, in fact make them quite high. Then say you get one chance per fee at the exam. If you fail? Pay again.

    So I think the model can be made to work for some skills and subjects. I don’t think it will replace brick-and-mortar – there are IMO social learning reasons why getting a kid out of the house and independently managing their work/life balance is a very good thing – but I could see a hybrid system that uses both coming in to play. I’ll take Chem 101 as an example. Imagine the simple calculation things like stoichiometry, calculating pH, balancing redox equations reactions etc. uses the professional model; mostly self-study, with an on-line exam you can take any time, but you have 1-2 months to complete. You then go into the actual chem building and meet with actual professors/TAs to do the laboratory practical exercises. And the MWF professorial lectures cover more deep subjects than just “here’s how you do the math” – they lecture on why systems work this way, and what it means in a bigger sense.


    1. But the goal of professional certification is not to award as many certificates as possible; it is to insure professional competence amongst those practicing the profession. This is rather different from the credentialing model of higher education. You might think, “But if the credential does not vouchsafe the competence of the holder, what good is the credential?” Aye, there’s the rub.


  6. Well, the US is the one industrialized country that places little value on knowledge and respecting experts. Here the well-educated are ridiculed and marginalized in favor of the genial and mediocre, at best, and predatory marketers and conspiracy theorists at worst.

    So what chance did higher education have anyway? Professors are pressured not to pass on their expertise but to validate their students’ unformed feelings. Good student evaluations are vital to tenure and promotion, that’s one of the first things the committee looks at. There is no metric as to whether the students actually learned anything.

    So the outcome is an education system that, yes, has the only goal of passing all the clients through to the end as efficiently as possible and making sure they’re satisfied so that they can get more of them.

    It seems that the UK is catching that virus as well, sadly.

  7. While it’s admittedly anecdotal, all my interactions with high school seniors so far (kids of family and friends)indicates that they are not the least bit enthusiastic about paying stratospheric tuition that they’ll be paying off for years in exchange for the privilege of sitting in their bedrooms watching zoom sessions on their laptops.

    It’s certainly true (and has been for years) that administrators absolutely love the online classes model, but they’re mostly the only ones.

      1. “If it were me and I faced a year of “remote learning”; I’d take the year off!”

        Indeed. Most of the seniors I’ve talked to have said that that’s their plan.

  8. Comment #6 points out: “Institutional success as measured by metrics unrelated to education quality and student performance is what often gets administrators promoted and gives them the ability to move to higher paid positions at other universities.” And when this self-interested goal can be tied to, or disguised as, a virtuous-sounding social aspiration, so much the better. Aha: the constant invocation of the holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion begins to make sense.

  9. This topic and comments caused an explosion of diverse thoughts in my old brain. In no particular order:

    1. Some of us are lifelong learners on our own, with or without formal education. Much can be learned in dialogue between the individual and books/media, interactions with other individuals and/or groups.

    2. Unfortunately, I can count on less than five fingers the professors I’ve had that I considered exceptional and worth the cost of what I paid for their teaching me. With most high school/university courses and instructors, a large part of my liberal arts and social sciences education had to be self-motivated/directed as a result.

    3. Much as I prefer classroom setting instruction personally, partially for the input from professors and students, online education has its’ place, and some universities offering online courses and degrees are noted for their exceptional quality. Many individuals holding down full-time jobs benefit from this alternative form of education.

    4. It has been thought that American universities attract foreign students due to the quality and diversity of education available here. Many foreign universities teach by rote which handicaps students in
    their abilities to learn to think on their own and “outside the box”.

    5. Despite some of the concerns about education that I previously expressed here about the necessity for remedial education of students entering college before they can handle college level coursework, and the pressure for professors to give higher grades, I would like to believe that the U.S. still has some of the best universities in the world. Obviously, the primary task of administrations to keep universities going should not be at the expense of quality education for their students (and professors) which ought to be the primary goal.

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