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Trusteeship Magazine

Are the Prophets of Doom Right?

By Barry Glassner and Morton Schapiro
November/December
2013

If one is to believe the popular media coverage, the threats facing higher education are severe enough not just to keep college and university presidents awake at night but to keep them from ever getting out of bed. Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark College and author of the bestseller The Culture of Fear (Basic Books, 2010), and Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, a leading authority on the economics of higher education, review some of the more popular claims and aren’t buying the negative hype.

The conversation about higher education is full of alarming warnings and dire predictions. What should board members make of this?

There is a long-standing American tradition of making bold, and spectacularly mistaken, predictions about higher education. More than a century ago, the founding president of Stanford University predicted the imminent demise of liberal-arts colleges. And so it’s gone, whether the threat was the Great Depression, or the GI Bill, or the baby boom that would overrun institutions, or the baby bust that would lead us to fiscal ruin. What a sorry record of predictive ineptitude! The present prophets of doom will probably do no better than their predecessors.

High tuition and loan levels, combined with poor job outcomes, often leave today’s graduates making large loan payments on low salaries. Won’t sensible young people forgo college without a clearly defined path toward a high-paying profession?

For their sake, and our society’s sake, we hope not. A clear-eyed look at the data gives us confidence that the public continues to place great value on our “product” for a simple reason: It is valuable. The economic return on a college degree is at or near record levels. Not only is a college degree a great financial investment—for most people, it is the single best investment they will ever make. And that is just in terms of economic returns. There is also a lot of evidence that college leads to more satisfying and healthier lives in general.

We’re dismayed when asked how young graduates will pay off $100,000 in student loans on “barista salaries.” In reality, less than 1 percent of students borrow that much to fund their undergraduate education. Nearly one in three students who earns a bachelor’s degree at private nonprofit colleges and universities does so with no debt. (The average debt for those who do borrow is about $27,000, the same as the average new car loan.) And guess what? The vast majority of graduates do a lot more with their education than make lattes, and their salaries reflect it.

Aren’t MOOCs and other new technologies making the traditional four-year residential model obsolete?

Institutions are busy devising the best way to take advantage of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other online opportunities. We see the residential experience enhanced rather than imperiled by remote learning. Students and alumni will tell you how much learning takes place outside of the classroom: during discussions in common rooms or cafes, with friends on a team, studying abroad, or while running a community service organization or an a cappella group. And ask about their favorite prof and you’ll hear of the life-changing impact she or he had on their lives.

Are you saying board members and policy makers should stop worrying and be happy?

A little more joy in board meetings would not be a bad thing. But, no, we’re not saying that. There are challenges we should be concerned about, and the doom prophets merely distract from those legitimate concerns, such as the decline in public and private funding for higher education, which limits access for low-income—and, increasingly, for middle-class—families.

But such real threats are manageable if we approach them in rigorous and thoughtful ways. Campuses and boards are filled will people skilled in precisely those approaches to problem-solving. Couple that with the fact that we provide a product that has never been more in demand, has never had a higher economic and social return, and has never been more important to the world’s future, and there’s more than enough cause for optimism.

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