On 5 June 2018, Adam Harris’s “Here’s How Higher Education Dies” appeared in the online version of The Atlantic. In the piece, Harris makes the case that higher education, as an industry, has passed its peak and appears to be on a slow decline. He grounds his assertion in Bryan Alexander’s 2013 work, noting that Alexander’s predictions appear to be coming true and discussing reasons they seem to be so. Harris then explicates the problems to colleges and universities of declining enrollment (mergers and closures of programs and schools, further increasing adjunctification), as well as possible remedies (outreach to non-traditional students). He also notes that while some schools will be relatively insulated from coming changes, others will have to adapt to survive. Harris ends with a small gesture towards hope, citing Alexander’s own ideas about institutional viability, and the putative irony of institutions of learning suffering amid a glut of available information.
It is true that Harris’s article took some time to find its way in front of me, and I accept that my comments about it will be affected by that delay. Too, they will be affected by my continuing disentanglement from academe–a process that is not complete (and will probably not be so long as I continue to benefit from my minimal engagement); I readily admit that my experience of higher education has left me with decided attitudes about the whole endeavor. But I do not think that higher education has reached its peak–perhaps a lesser peak on the way to its full summit. There is still too much reliance on the kind of credentialing higher education offers and too much resistance to that in enough areas that the kind of saturation “peak” seems to require when used in other arenas for it to apply, I think. And there is still more room for adjunctification, though I worry about pointing it out for fear of prompting it.
There is also still more understanding that there can be another way in education for it to be really “peak” (though I am not entirely happy about that phrasing, I’ll admit). Even in the online, “career-focused” class I am teaching now, with students who are explicitly and specifically working towards degrees so they meet requirements for jobs, I have students–and more than might be thought–who either know or are open to knowing the pleasure or learning for its own sake and of looking into areas of endeavor removed from their professional concerns. The adult and non-traditional students I teach, while knowing and acknowledging that some of what they are asked to do is asinine for any group of students or not appropriate for them as for 18-year-olds straight out of suburban secondary school, understand that what they study outside their majors is helpful for their lives outside their careers–whether as part of their putative civic engagement or their personal, non-remunerated enrichment. They still have some sense of education as an inherently worthy goal, whatever the grade in the course–at least some of them do.
Peak higher education is not a thing in itself, but a symptom of a greater disease, and that symptom has still not spread enough to kill the patient. Yet.