View from Mudsock Heights

A lot of small cities – Athens among them – owe much of their existence to local colleges and universities.

For instance, many of us have heard local officials speak to the effect that Athens needs no industry beyond Ohio University. They have not, to the best of my knowledge, addressed the inverse: what happens to Athens if there is a greatly diminished Ohio University?

We’ve gotten a taste of it this spring, though the result has been blurred because pretty much everything has been diminished. But now there’s an argument to be made that the question should be taken seriously. Higher education as we know it may, when and if it reappears, take on a form that we do not recognize.

The alarm, though not everyone finds it alarming, comes from thinkers such as Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Last month he predicted that cyber colleges will roar onto the scene as a result of our pandemic experience, with top colleges and universities joining Silicon Valley companies to replace much of what residential institutions of higher learning have traditionally provided.

That makes sense. It’s cheaper and more efficient, especially for undergraduate liberal arts education. And the structure already exists, through massive open online courses – MOOCs, as they’re known. I remember the enthusiasm with which my friend Marjorie undertook online study via Coursera seven or eight years ago, taking online classes as varied as rock’n’roll history and epigenetics. And she was an Ivy League dean!

Online schools offer degrees and, through economies of scale made possible by virtual teaching, make the best professors available to thousands, tens of thousands of students, at the same time. They typically cost far less than residential universities do. They are growing.

This is against a backdrop of confusion and uncertainty at brick-and-mortar schools, with many prospective students having no idea where or if they’ll go away to college in the fall. “Already, the University of Michigan anticipates losses of $400 million to $1 billion this year across its three campuses,” New York Magazine reported a month ago.

For some students there is less uncertainty, the article continues: “One out of ten high school seniors report they no longer plan to attend a four-year institution. A quarter of current college students say they wouldn’t return or it is ‘too soon to tell,’ and 12 percent of high-school seniors are thinking they’ll take a gap year, as opposed to the normal 3 percent.”

It’s not just the pandemic. Students are more and more wondering what the point is in taking on enormous debt in exchange for courses of study that often don’t result in marketable skills. Parents and employers see students graduating from college without some of the basic skills that used to be found in eighth graders – things like writing, and reading comprehension. Others see colleges less as institutions of learning than centers of indoctrination and are not keen on paying for their children to go to one of those.

The situation has grown to the point where Galloway predicts that close to half of America’s universities may be gone in a decade. A harsh light was cast by the ad hoc online classes offered by universities during the lockdown.

“Zoom has uncovered how disappointing college education is,” he said during a PBS interview. “There’s a lot of households saying, ‘This is what we’re paying for?’ . . . There’s going to be demand destruction because more kids are going to take gap years and you’re going to see an increased pressure to lower costs. . . . You’re going to see incredible destruction among [universities] that have the following factors: a tier-two brand, expensive tuition, and low endowments. There are 4500 universities in the U.S. You could see 1000 to 2000 go out of business in the next five to 10 years. What department stores were to retail, tier-2 high-tuition universities are about to become to education, and that is they are soon to become the walking dead.”

The high-end schools – Harvard, Yale, some of the best-of-breed universities in particular fields – won’t have a problem, he said. And they’ll learn there’s money to be made by putting courses online.

For the others, tuition has gone through the roof, but the product offered is much the same as it was 40 years ago. The pandemic has disrupted this, though, and Galloway says “it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of people.”

State schools, he said, have their own unique responsibility. “I’m here because of the generosity and vision of California taxpayers and the Regents of the University of California, getting near-free degrees from UCLA and Berkeley. I think that government funding of public, land-grant institutions that dramatically expand their freshman seats is warranted. But unless you’re growing your freshman seats faster than the population, you aren’t a public servant, you’re a luxury brand.

“And, frankly, some of these universities deserve to go out of business.”

That’s pretty harsh, but it reflects the kind of thinking that’s emerging in the country today. That thinking affects the decisions of students and parents. There is a growing movement, and has been for several years now, toward trade schools, as high schoolers realize that they can make a great living in a trade, and not carry the tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt that come with a possibly useless four-year degree.

This spring’s pandemic has focused that kind of thinking in ways not before seen. The question is not whether there will be an effect but how great that effect will be.

And that is a problem not just for the institutions themselves but for the businesses and communities on their periphery, whose well being – indeed, whose survival – depends on the health of the universities. I remember a remark made by a friend when I was thinking of moving here. We were looking at various properties and happened to pass through the Meigs County village of Rutland. I asked about Rutland and was told it was “Athens without Ohio University.”

At a minimum, it seems to me that some rethinking needs to be done. Ohio University, one hopes, is sorting out how it can be relevant and successful in the years ahead.

And Athens, one hopes, is looking for ways to support itself beyond being a one-industry town. The nation’s landscape is dotted with the ruins of one-industry towns.

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