Are American Colleges and Universities the Next Covid Casualties?

Yves here. This is an important post on how American higher education got in the mess it is in and what might happen next. It provides a long historical view of how colleges and universities saw government funding decline and the directions they went in to try to find new money sources. This piece is far too kind in not strongly calling out the way MBAs have colonized these institutions, increasing the number and pay levels of administrators at the expense of educators. Nevertheless, Covid-19 is going to force a big shakeout and some institutions will not survive.

By Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education from 2005 to 2019 and was formerly provost of the University of Minnesota and the University of Pittsburgh and Thomas Ferguson, INET’s Director of Research, who served formerly on the Public Advisory Committee, Quality Initiative, Council for Aid to Education and was also Senior Associate Provost at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Long before Donald Trump or Covid 19, the eerie resemblance of American higher education to the old Habsburg Empire was hard to miss. At the top a handful of vintage institutions continued to glitter. They exercised a magnetic attraction on the rest of the world that even intellectual disasters on the scale of the economics discipline before the 2008 financial crisis hardly dented. But most every institution below the royals was at least fraying around the edges. Long before the pandemic hit, many showed clear signs of distress.

The root of that distress is not hard to identify: It is the pressures arising from the decline of the American middle class and the soaring income inequalities of the New Gilded Age. While a few US colleges have lineages stretching back centuries, they and their less venerable competitors dramatically reconfigured themselves during the long boom that followed World War II. Historically rapid economic growth along with major government funding initiatives, such as the GI Bill, post-Sputnik spending on defense and R&D; and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society fueled a vast expansion of the whole system.

With college degrees the passport to well-paid, stable employment, going to college became the default expectation of middle-class students and parents and the aspiration of many less affluent households. State supported institutions bulked up, but so did most private colleges and universities. Research institutions, private liberal arts colleges, professional schools, state colleges and universities, and junior colleges nearly all added students and faculty. Many also transformed themselves into conglomerates, branching out into wholly new lines of activity and adding layers of administrators.

The fateful fork in the road came in the nineteen seventies, as economic growth slowed and became far more variable. The declines, along with major campaigns for lower taxes, squeezed both federal and state finances. With direct aid from governments constrained, and advances in biotechnology promising high returns, both Democrats and Republicans encouraged colleges and universities to privatize research performed on their campuses and to spin off products to private industry.[i]

As college costs spiraled upward while middle class incomes stagnated, the market for college education stratified more sharply. A handful of private universities and a very few public ones with deep-pocketed alumni spent big to build internationally competitive programs in science, engineering, and professional schools. In a virtuous circle, those successes attracted further outside funding from both government and industry. A few institutions were so successful at this that student tuition eventually became a secondary factor compared to how their endowments fared in the stock markets.

Over time, the search for outside funding turned increasingly desperate as state support continued falling off, especially after economic downturns. State funding now supplies 21% of the budget – a huge decline from the nineteen seventies —-and has been replaced by net tuition revenues which have grown year after year since 1980. [ii]

Permanent faculty are higher education’s institutional memory; they are vital to manage the curriculum in departments and programs, decide who is qualified to teach what in the curriculum, and how students should be assessed. But desperate to save money, colleges and universities steadily chopped back full-time academic positions –from 85% in 1970 to less than 25% today.[iii] Instead they filled more and more teaching slots with adjuncts, who are paid much less. Many, according to a new report, live on incomes of $25,000 or less.[iv] Because the permanent faculty is less than 25% at institutions outside of the top 150 or so ranked public and private colleges, most instruction is now done by part-timers who are given little or no professional guidance about what or how to teach or how to assess students.

Many colleges, including large numbers of state institutions, also turned to recruiting out-of-state students who could pay full cost. They sought to attract students from abroad, including many from China, for the same reason. In large universities, teaching assistants with an uncertain grasp of English often teach many students.

The nature and amount of student services also changed; many schools, for example, found it necessary to add medical, psychological, and other counseling services for non-traditional students. Rising health costs were a constant problem, especially for part timers. Many institutions also poured scarce resources into sports success, believing that would inspire increased alumni contributions. They also competed for affluent students by offering hotel-like amenities, state of the art gyms, and other expensive facilities. It did not help that many heads of colleges aspired to be paid like corporate CEOs.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration was reluctant to help states out of their budget shortfalls, while national Republicans were openly opposed. State support for higher ed plunged to new lows. In most states, it never really came back. In 2017, for example, the largest governmental source of revenues for public higher education, state general appropriations, amounted to $87 billion – $2.2 billion below the level of 2007.

Throughout this long time of troubles, both governments and universities encouraged students and their parents to make up the revenue shortfall by taking on debt themselves. Student private lenders gleefully helped, often at rates that were astonishing even by the standards of deregulated American finance. After 2008, as interest rates fell to historically low levels, some private lenders still tried to charge double digit interest rates for student loans. The national student loan debt has risen to over $1.6 trillion dollars in 2020.[v]

The result has been a slow motion train wreck. The steady growth of a dual economy in the US has made middle-class jobs increasingly scarce and destroyed many previously well-paid, secure jobs. As the Sanders and Warren campaigns made obvious, many students now carry heavy loads of debt when the graduate – if they graduate. Dropout rates, especially of minority students, have soared and many fewer students – again, especially minority students – find college a practical possibility. Rates of college attendance for Black and Hispanic students run far below that of whites, whose rates have also been declining. Whites and Asians earn a college-level credential at rates about 20% higher than Blacks and Hispanics.[vi] At the same time, students with diplomas often cannot find anything resembling an old fashioned entry-level position, because there are so few to be found.[vii]

Now, suddenly, with the Covid 19 pandemic, the long running financial squeeze threatens to turn overnight into genuine insolvency as institutions struggle to figure out how to safely run instructional systems dependent on in-person activities and support systems all too reminiscent of cruise ships. Duke University’s President Vincent Price recently sent the board, faculty, and staff a memo stating that Duke would need to find an additional $150 million to $200 million to get through the upcoming academic year. University of Michigan and Stanford University administrators project losses on a similar scale. Endowments have likely also taken a hit, though the massive Federal Reserve interventions in financial markets has supported portfolios, if not working Americans.

Duke, Michigan, and Stanford, though, are wealthy institutions with established reputations. Many of these, if they must, can operate online for a good while, if not comfortably, and relatively few students will likely fail to show eventually. By contrast, it is painfully obvious that many less well-endowed institutions are grasping at straws to find ways to reopen in person. They fear that students and parents simply will not pay for online instruction at home from less renowned institutions and many need the tuition to survive. In addition, colleges and universities often garner important revenues from student payments for dorm and meal services. More than a few have substantial debts to service.

Brave talk about innovating through various testing regimes is common. Some institutions promise tests to assure safety via robots or other devices that have never been tried on a large scale. Or they talk grandly about how students will agree not to congregate in groups in or out of class. The comparison to US states in the south and west which reopened too early is uncomfortable. Or to Israel, where premature efforts to reopen schools are widely blamed for reigniting Covid.

Earlier federal bailout legislation awarded higher education very modest funding based on the number of Pell Grant awards their students received. (Pell Grants fund low income students; total support amounted to some $14 billion, which spread among the more than 4000 American higher education degree granting institutions is risible.)

Many education leaders are pressing for much larger packages in the next CARES legislative package. Figures of $47 billion or more are being tossed around by groups representing only part of American higher education. There is also discussion of measures protecting universities from at least some liability suits.

Not everyone is on board. A celebrated former president of Harvard known, if guardedly, to be close to the Biden campaign, has proposed that institutions should take advantage of the crisis to accelerate changes that were in train anyway. In his view, that might lead to wider use of online instruction by a few institutions with strong worldwide brand names.[viii] Some of his colleagues are more cautious: they recommend that for only courses in some fields.[ix]

By contrast, the outgoing President of the University of California system recently stated flatly that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have not worked well. That is our view, with the important qualification that for highly motivated students, in some sharply defined contexts, well designed MOOCs or videotapes can be effective. Absent those, we think that the experience of Princeton and other institutions, where students enrolled in MOOCs stayed away in droves, is likely to be repeated.

We also take very seriously the empirical studies indicating that smaller classes with full time faculty add substantially to student learning. For example, overall scores of one critical thinking test that we think has real merit are highest at institutions with small class sizes.[x] Our conclusion, quite in the tradition of Socrates and classical theories of education, is that personal contacts with teachers play a disproportionate role in inspiring individual intellectual development.

But the key point is this. Larry Summers or the dissenters could be right. Or wrong. That is for the future to decide.

In the meantime, it cannot make sense for the US government to spend trillions of dollars to rescue the financial system, but do virtually nothing for colleges and universities. Allowing the entire higher educational structure to deteriorate is like refusing to wear masks during a pandemic: pointless and self-defeating.

Higher education is a principal avenue for the transmission of human capital and learning to new generations. This makes it essential in today’s digital world in which college graduates will need critical thinking skills to survive. Colleges and universities are also central to serious efforts to rectify inequalities of income and wealth. The notion that affirmative action in a handful of brand name institutions could substitute for serious efforts to broaden higher education for citizens in the twenty-first century is absurd. For minority students and poor whites alike, state universities and colleges, including community colleges, are indispensable as pathway to the middle class in a globalized context. If hundreds of colleges close or scale back over the next few years, then higher education in our New Gilded Age will go right back to where it was in the original Gilded Age.

We would not, however, favor no-strings federal aid to universities any more than we favor that for banks. Institutions getting bailed out should have to commit to raising the percentage of full time faculty over, say, five years, back to at least 40% of all instructors. We also think that both students and faculty should be represented on the boards of all institutions to reduce wishful thinking by administrators about the real conditions of campus life. In the longer run, institutions need to sweep out layers of expensive bureaucracies with modern data systems using state of the art new technologies.

Though the subject is too big for a piece like this, what we regard as the best evidence about how well institutions actually teach critical thinking indicates real gaps even at many very high ranking institutions. As part of any bailouts, longer term efforts to compile real evidence about value added should be required in place triumphal recitations of test scores of entering students or illustrious alumni – or even how much money graduates make. We are not guessing when we say that many institutions have fiercely resisted such moves. But we are very encouraged that in a handful of institutions where such efforts have been tried, decently funded programs for disadvantaged student have had rousing success.[xi]Colleges and universities need to be saved, not only from financial ruin, but also, all too often, from themselves.


[i] The literature is large, but see the very lucid summary in Dickson, David, and David Nobel. 1981. “By Force of Reason: The Politics of Science and Technology Policy,” in Ferguson, Thomas and Rogers, Joel, eds, The Hidden Election. New York: Random House.

[ii] Rick Seltzer (2019). “Dualing Conclusions on State Disinvestment.” Inside Higher Education, October 24; Pew Charitable Trusts. 2019. “Two Decades of Change in Federal and State Higher Education Funding. Issue Brief,” October 15.

[iii] Finkelstein, Martin, Valerie Conley, and Jack H. Schuster. 2016. The Faculty Factor: American Academy in a Turbulent Era. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[iv] Flaherty, Colleen. 2020. “New Report: Many Adjuncts Make Less Than $3,500 Per Course And Live In Poverty.” Inside Higher Education, April 20.

[v] National Student Loan Data Systems. 2020. U.S. Department of Education: Washington, D.C.

[vi] National Center for Education Statistics. 2018. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

[vii] The problem is serious and afflicts all graduates, but once again hits minorities even harder, especially Black graduates. See Nichols, Andrew Howard and Anthony, Marshall, Jr. 2020. Graduation Rates Don’t Tell the Full Story: Racial Gaps in College Success Are Larger Than We Think. Educational Trust Washington, D.C.

[viii] See “Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Conversation with Larry Summers,” April 20, 2020; July 21, 2020. See the discussion at about 53 minutes and later.

[ix] Rogoff, Kenneth. July 6, 2020. “Will Universities Learn From Lockdowns.” Project Syndicate,

[x] See the report Catalyst for Change: The CIC/CLA Consortium, by David Paris, 2011 sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges, a consortium of several hundred small liberal arts colleges. It demonstrates the importance of small class sizes for the development of critical thinking skills. A number of studies using assessments of non-profit assessment organizations show that the value added growth of student learning is highest in institutions that educate their students in small classes. See Steve Klein, David Freedman, Richard Shavelson, and Roger Bolus. 2008. “Assessing School Effectiveness,” Evaluation Review. January, 32 (6): 511-25; cf Jeffrey Steedle and Martin Bradley, 2012. “Selecting Value-Added Models for Postsecondary Institution Assessment, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 37 (6): 637-652.

Note that we are not suggesting that individual student assessments should rest mainly on test scores; that is a different question and test inaccuracies for individuals are well known pitfalls.

[xi] The Accelerated Study in Associate Degree program (ASAP) at the City University of New York is often seen as a national model for what can work. See Barsay, Jill. 2020. Ohio Import of NYC Community College Program Based Rigorous 3-Year Test. Hechinger Report: New York: May 18.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I can recall, many years ago reading a study comparing the costs of third level education per person. There was a massive disparity in costs between countries – for example, even back in the 1970’s and 80’s, the cost in the UK was far higher than in most European countries. A key driver of this was regional policy going back decades which encouraged the development of large campuses in smaller towns which would attract students from a wider area. But while there were solid reasons for this, the cost per student was far higher than for traditional city technical colleges with would draw their students from the commuting zone. In Germany, many top level Universities are simply big buildings in the city centre with lots of classrooms and labs, with the students travelling from home every day just like they did when they went to primary and second level schools. There is obviously a loss in that whole ‘college life’ thing, but it works out vastly cheaper to provide a good education.

    I think that if there is a model for the future, it is of a more decentralised network of more local colleges attuned to local needs in terms of providing skilled and well rounded graduates, but with online teaching provided where it gives a genuine benefit – for example, regular online lectures by the acknowledged leaders in their field, or in highly specialised area where small colleges could not hire dedicated staff. But this of course requires a co-operative, not competitive mindset among educational establishment.

    1. Larry

      I’m not clear why this model is cheaper. My mother attended UMass Amherst and was able to pay for it with a part time waitressing job. The dorms she stayed in are still in use today and the land acquired at the time was incredibly cheap and remains tax free. Tuition and fee growth has greatly increased because we simply invest less in higher Ed while simultaneously allowing admin bloat and vanity sports programs like the failed UMass D1 football upgrade to continue.

      1. KLG

        My first tuition check at my “flagship” state university was $179.50. Richard Nixon was less than a year from his resignation. My (very basic) dorm room was $135.00 for the quarter. Dorms without air conditioning were $125.00. I did not do a meal plan. I remember because I wrote the checks. I could pay for college by working during the summer at a good industrial job, long since disappeared, and 20 hours a week at minimum wage.

        Tuition for the year was $538.50; Dorm: $405: Total $943.50. According to the BLS inflation calculator, that is $5,381 in 2020 dollars.

        The actual cost as of today for tuition and dorm room, at an admittedly better institution in many ways: $18,372. Is the institution 241% better? Not hardly, as they say in these parts. But the newer and renovated dorms look like (2-star) hotels, and the gym is no longer the WWII-era building, which was more than adequate. The football stadium holds 30,000 more people than it did way back when, not that that matters this year. Student population has increased about 52%, less than the population increase in the state.

        Oh, and back in the day, tuition accounted for about 10% of the total expenditures of the university, with direct state appropriations at 53%. Today students cover 33% and with the state “contributing” 28% (University Fact Book, online). Hustling of various types completes the budget.

    2. Nick

      These types of places do exist and may fare well through natural selection. I’m starting work at a public PUI, or primarily undergraduate institution, and from what they tell us the numbers for summer and fall are up or even yoy. Contrast that to the private U I’m leaving which is in an awful situation likely to get worse in the next couple months.

      Factors here are scale, dependence on international students, dependence on resident students, and amount of “frills.” Local, reined in places still need dedicated teaching staff though. Video lectures from a pedagogical leader are not a great standalone method for even basic material, and specialty subjects are tricky because these subjects can change rapidly, with newer or more contingent problems, meaning that they don’t scale well and typically require a fair amount of expert time to be taught effectively. So beyond adjuncting budgets and really calling for institutional support.

      1. Felix_47

        As a continuing student I have to say video lectures are far superior to the real thing and I have had the good fortune of going to an Ivy in the past. The HUGE advantage is that when you don’t understand something you can slow it down or repeat it as often as necessary. And if you are not feeling alert after a long night or whatever you can do the whole lecture again. What cannot be replaced is question and answer sessions with the professor. In my day there was no such thing but I have noted that my children had that opportunity until COVID. So a combination of lecture by video and coaching and Q and A live seems to be the best. The old way was to throw it all at you and let you figure it out. And it was usually thrown out at you by someone from China even then 40 years ago.

        1. Medbh

          ” So a combination of lecture by video and coaching and Q and A live seems to be the best.”

          I agree. I did a traditional bachelor program and an online masters program at a big 10 school. The lectures are huge, and you have no meaningful interaction with professors.

          The main main challenge with online programs is discipline. It’s easier to give in to distractions or procrastinate if you don’t have contextual cues and structure forcing you to focus.

          You’d think some university would have created a program to cater to the disciplined students looking for a cost-effective degree. Yet in my state, the online programs are more expensive than traditional programs.

          1. RMO

            All of my University experience here in BC has been in classrooms of thirty or fewer students. Obviously I didn’t go to one of the two “big” schools in the Vancouver area. When I was taking classes for the business/accounting degree a few years ago I noticed that I was sometimes being taught by professors who also taught the same subjects in those schools, in a class 1/10 the size and was able to talk quite a bit with them when needed. Even more interesting though was that students at the big schools didn’t start to handle things that we were being taught in our first year classes until they started their third year.

            Whenever my wife and I go to the Chan Center for a concert the drive through the UBC campus just has me thinking that the place looks like an elaborate money-vacuum designed to suck cash from the students and deliver it directly to the pockets of high level administrators… with a small amount of leakage for the teaching and facilities staff to fight over.

  2. voteforno6

    I have a family member who teaches at a small private school. They’ve already been told that the faculty have to be teaching in person, with students given the option of being in the classroom (with masks and distancing) or online. I asked about enrollment, and she said that they’re at about 2/3 of what they previously had. She also said that she’s going to have to update her will.


    1. Merf56

      Oh my, I could have written your exact post. My daughter is that family member and a prof at a small PA private and well respected college. They college initially said anyone could teach solely online but now they are required to be on campus full time u less they have a chronic illness or live with someone who does. They have a year old baby I am caring for. She is flat out terrified of bringing Covid home and infecting the baby and us though we are all healthy folk. She is equally terrified her job will disappear as whilst she is tenure track, enrollment is way down and the board is resisting any and all calls to dip into their tidy endowment. She is the major breadwinner and her spouse is a K thru 5 teacher in a low income district … If she loses her job they literally lose their future as secure college and Uni teaching jobs are damn hard to find and will , seemingly, be impossible in the future.

      What a sh**show is the US

  3. Adam1

    I think, at least for this coming school year, private schools are going to see a big drop in enrollment. Just based upon some conversations with friends with kids graduating HS this year or with kids only one year in (actually less than that since they all were sent home in Feb/Mar), they’re picking state and community colleges at least for this year. There is just too much uncertainty to plunk down $10’s of thousands of dollars.

  4. Bob Hertz

    Several years ago I was browsing in the stacks of a large college library, and I came across the shelves were Phd theses were bound and stored. Each volume had its title printed on the spine.

    I cannot comment on the hard sciences, but for everything else I was rather stunned at the triviality that resulted from millions of dollars spent on faculty advisors, undergraduate stipends, plus cash tuition and debt paid by the students.

    I think that many colleges could just close their graduate departments in most subjects and go over to the German model. Have the full time faculty who are left teach 4 classes a week.

    1. Carolinian

      Publish or perish?

      My former university is now more like a resort–although it always had its own golf course–so perhaps that cruise ship analogy is not so far off. Here in town we have a couple of private colleges which have been making themselves steadily more deluxe over the past few years. Clearly that MBA marketing germ has infected education in the same way it has infected hospitals which now doll themselves up with fountains etc. Sports are also a big thing for American schools and I’ve read that many consider a potential suspension of college football to be the the biggest blow.

      Some of us would say that college is one middle class institution that is overdue for a comeuppance.

    2. Mer56

      Wow. Callous much? People that teach and work at these institutions are real people with real jobs, families and mortgages. Maybe try and act like you understand that.

  5. chuck roast

    I’m just beginning to read this post, and I note your intro as saying…
    “This piece is far too kind in not strongly calling out the way MBAs have colonized these institutions, increasing the number and pay levels of administrators at the expense of educators.”

    One of the authors is said to have been “…a Senior Associate Provost” at UMass. When I was a kid I always wanted to be a Senior Associate Provost when I grew up.

    1. Dwight

      Yes, he mentioned sweeping out layers of bureaucracy and replacing them with technology, but I doubt he meant his level or his assistants’ level.
      Sweeping out private and public bureaucrats will mean less need for college grads and less home buyers.

      1. flora

        The admin at my uni did this “replacing them with technology” in the name of efficiency. The only people swept out were either lower level staff, grounds keepers, building maintenance, and clerical staff, or full time faculty and researchers who were ‘incentivized’ to accept a buy-out or take early retirement. These are the people who do the hands-on work that makes a uni function and fullfills its pedagogical mission. The people swept out were replaced, if at all, with temps and adjuncts and part time researchers.

        The admin took those salary savings and increased the number of admin staff. Now, getting a simple request either answered or completed requires multiple online forms to fill out and takes days to complete. Go figure.

  6. allan

    Looking at footnote [ix], it seem that Ken `Excel Class is Hard’ Rogoff, who previously declared a War on Cash,
    now also proposes a War on STEM:

    …It therefore seems reasonable to ask whether the United States government should take on the costs of creating basic pre-taped or online college lecture materials in certain fields. (The same could be done for adult education courses.) In particular, introductory online course materials in apolitical subjects such as mathematics, computer science, physics, and accounting should be prime candidates for federal funding. …

    Of course, unlike Rogoff’s 90%-of-GDP rule of thumb for debt, which did so much damage
    during the stimulus debates of 2009-2011, this is not going to be taken seriously,
    but the image of a leading figure in one discipline telling other disciplines essentially to close up shop
    is not one that should be forgiven or forgotten.

          1. Massinissa

            I’m not sure I agree, to be honest. It remains to be seen whether they get killed or just us. For every Russian or French revolution, there are many instances of that sort of thing NOT happening, with the impoverished simply becoming moreso impoverished, with the English land enclosures being a good example. Extreme impoverishment where the many were made less well off than those before them due to the ruling class, with no resulting social explosion, does not seem to be that uncommon historically.

  7. HH

    The campus colleges are like the Cunard steamships at the dawn of the jet age, and like the ocean liners, they will be relegated to a much smaller role as amusement facilities. Learning can be done efficiently online. Do you know anyone who has not learned to do something from an Internet video? Imparting critical thinking skills is not some mysterious process requiring ivy and proximity to a PHD wearing tweeds. It is done by constructive critique of repeated writing assignments. That is how the Oxbridge tutorial method works, and this method is directly transferable to online interactions.

    What to do with the empty campuses? They would make excellent recovery or retirement centers for distressed, handicapped, or under-served citizens. They would also be useful as community facilities for recreation, artistic performances, and exhibitions. The future of geographically-chartered educational institutions is to serve their local communities, not to congregate young people at ruinous expense for a mediocre education better delivered over the Internet.

    1. km

      The primary aim of schooling is not learning – it is signalling.

      In fact, one doesn’t need on-line anything to learn. Did not Frank Zappa teach us to “go to college if you want to get laid, go to a library if you want an education”?

      That said, I can tell you from experience that online learning is a disaster for all but the most self-motivated. We can argue later whether or to what extent that is a good or bad thing.

      1. HH

        Reading in a library will not teach you to develop and express your thoughts effectively and defend your ideas against criticism. That is why you need the constructive criticism of teachers to form your own critical faculties. This has been true since Socrates. This can be done by an interactive online teacher just as easily as by a teacher sitting opposite you in an ivy-covered building.

        1. Alex Cox

          It is just not so. By what means does an “interactive online teacher” communicate with their students? Via Zoom? Are you aware of its limitations?

          Teachers don’t usually interact one-on-one in classroom situations. There are anything from a dozen to a hundred students in the room. But it’s still possible to raise your hand and ask a question. And, in a non-virtual situation, to interact with your fellow students, and to discover what they have/haven’t learned, and to visit the teacher during their office hours.

          MOOCS failed for a reason. That Larry Summers now espouses them is all you need to know.

          1. HH

            Tell me what aspect of an in-person tutor session at Oxford cannot be duplicated in a Zoom meeting with a small number of students and the same teacher. Is it the smell of cologne? Is it body language?

            Here is what happens in the Oxbridge tutoring cycle:
            1. The tutor gives a challenging written assignment to a student.
            2. The student completes the assignment
            3. The tutor reviews the student’s paper and provides an interactive critique.
            4. Return to step 1.

            After several of these cycles have completed, the student has a very good understanding of how to produce good work and the tutor knows the strengths and weaknesses of the student.

            Tell me why this can’t be done with Zoom.

            1. KLG

              Because it can’t, for more than one student at a time, and I doubt it really works one-on-one. It certainly would not have worked when I had a lab full of graduate students, each of whom was quite different and needed mentoring in different areas of mastering the discipline. I recently spent 6 weeks beginning the first of May tutoring 8 first-year medical students on the musculoskeletal system. Zoom was merely adequate for the current crisis. My ability to determine who needed guidance in this or that area was nil. More importantly, there was no student-student interaction, which is the key to our curriculum that is nontraditional and depends on such in-person interaction. But more importantly there was no interaction outside of the tutorial room. Physicians must work as part of a team, and for most of us that is a learned skill. YouTube can teach you how to manipulate an Excel spreadsheet or change a thermostat or a tire. Maybe it can teach you to suture a laceration, but I doubt that. Mostly it allows you to waste time…

              And actually, I have always interacted one-on-one in the classroom, for the students who wanted that interaction. The other two-thirds, not so much. But they usually realized that a deep dive into any discipline is not what they thought the were signing up for.

              1. HH

                You say Zoom can’t do the job, then you say Zoom was “merely adequate.” The current campus-based medical education system has been static for about a century, while technologies like Zoom are in their infancy. If an alternative to in-person instruction is merely adequate and dramatically cheaper, isn’t that a significant advance?

                Tele-medicine, AI diagnostics, and Internet-based instruction can all be criticized anecdotally because of their immaturity, but they are the future. The software-based systems will always improve, while human practitioners are at a plateau of ability. Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer in the US. It doesn’t have to stay that way.

                1. flora

                  How can I put this? It’s a subtle point. Here goes:

                  There is a thing called “how to approach a problem”. Learning “how to approach a problem” – any problem – is more than going online and gathering facts. Facts are important. They are a part of approaching a problem. But they are not the whole of it.

                  1. flora

                    Blue collar workers who are master craftsmen know how to approach the craft problems they are presented with in their trades. That’s part of why they’re masters of their crafts. When the bean counters decided that all of that knowledge could be off-shored to cheaper labor, they were wrong. I think the term “the crapification of everything” is an NC formulation, and I think it’s right. ;)

                    1. HH

                      Would you call your iPhone a piece of crap? How about a Boeing 787 or a Tesla automobile? These are all products of advanced digital engineering technology, not lovingly hand-made craft artifacts. The notion of a mystical power of craftsmanship that cannot be explained or communicated by modern means is nonsense.

                      How to approach a problem can be taught. If this were not the case apprentices would never become masters. For five centuries, people have been learning from books written by dead people. Now we have electronic books, videos, and tele-conferences that can be viewed instantly anywhere in the world, and some maintain that we are worse off because there is a missing magic in the physical presence of an instructor. I don’t think so.

                    2. flora

                      iPhone is a piece of new technology for accessing data, besides being a communication device. So lets say the entirety of the Library of Congress is available on iPhone (which much of it is), or that the entirety of current engineering data is online, that still makes the iPhone a fact and data gathering function. It cannot demonstrate how to approach a problem to be dealt with. That ‘approach to the problem’ is the reason, imo, that the professions like law and medicine still have the equivalents of apprenticeship. I claim no mystical power for craftsmanship. It is hard won knowledge. I claim their are large parts of any career or profession that are not in a textbook. And, I suggest, the reliance on ‘data’ alone led to much of Boeings’ current engineering problems. When experience pilots were calling out the failures in operability in the real world, for lack of a better term, you can tell the ‘data’ alone was not enough. Computers and data are good servants but bad masters, to reformulate an old saying.

                    3. Basil Pesto

                      Would you call your iPhone a piece of crap? How about a Boeing 787 or a Tesla automobile? These are all products of advanced digital engineering technology, not lovingly hand-made craft artifacts.

                      No kidding

                    4. Dave Chapman

                      flora & HH: The 737 Max is a piece of crap. Major reasons for this are:
                      -Hiring half-priced foreign workers with fake diplomas to write the software for the flight controls.
                      -The lack of a cultural commitment to excellence.
                      -A lack of understanding of the business. For example, not one member of the Boeing Board of Directors is a pilot, that last time I looked.D

                2. KLG

                  Well, I don’t think or believe being merely adequate in a crisis is “doing the job.” If you do, and you live in the US, you are in the right place!

                  And what Flora says.

                  And yes, the iPhone is a piece of crap, along with a Tesla. And apparently Boeing mostly builds crap, since it was taken over by McDonnell-Douglas and ceased being the best large engineering company on the planet.

              2. flora

                Thank you. Pedagogy is more than reciting facts. It is a disinterested intimate interest in the student’s grasp of material, awareness of where the sticking points are for each student that seem to prevent understanding, and ‘crafting’ (for lack of a better word) an individual response at each point to each student. The quizzical look, the humorous but challenging question, the stern look designed to make a student think a more about the whole instead of the particular, the moment when you see the student’s ah-ha moment which is unmistakable and which can be as subtle as a momentary change in body posture, there’s so much more to it even than this ; that cannot be replicated by zoom.

                  1. flora

                    Why, yes.
                    And, if you’ll indulge my going on a bit about pedagogy, when the student knows the subject matter well, and is correct in his recitations of facts, then comes the best part (for me) : harshly pushing back on the student’s correct recitation of facts in a stern (fake) disagreement to see if the student not only knows the material but is confident in his knowledge and in himself and will argue back on facts to prove his point. That’s the best. That’s when the student crosses a threshold and is on his way to the next level of learning.

        2. Otto

          Didn’t Socrates have to drink hemlock? I almost solely got my degrees by reading & taking my professor(s) to dinner and asking questions. Worked out excellently and in far less time then you might think. Not saying it would work for all, but for many yes it would. Nothing wrong with the internet just produce the classes to the same level as PBS, BBC, or HPO. Or Monday night football. Having a zoom Q&A a couple times a week. Labs are a problem but not impossible. If testing proves it out, I’d never look back. I’d add in Michigan right now you can skip High School and in five years get a master’s in whatever engineering, law, medicine, art, etc.,. At UofMichigan one could also take up to 90 credits all by independent study or directed reading. At 90 credits with a B+ -average you can go to graduate school. This has been true for a 100 years.

  8. peon

    I graduated from U of Mich in the mid seventies. My parents were high school graduates, stay at home mom (8 kids), self employed plumber dad. They did not contribute any money to my college costs. I never worked while at UofM, nor did any of my friends, all who were working class kids like me. I had Pell grants, other grants and scholarships and a small National Student Defense loan. I owed $500 when I graduated, 3% interest.
    My tuition for my final semester was around $300. I rented a four room floor of a house near campus with 3 other students for $120 ($40 each). Of course we had no phone, computers, etc. Most of my classes were taught by tenured professors, and all classes above a 200 level were small, 30 or fewer students.
    Most of my classes were in Angell Hall and the Chem building. These buildings look the same today as they did when I went to school years ago. Admin buildings have proliferated. Ann Arbor has been taken over by large real estate/finance firms so rent has skyrocketed.
    Instead of working to pay onerous rent and tuition we spent our free time camped in front of the presidents house trying to get the university to divest from the Krugerrand in protest of the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, opposing the presence of ROTC (military officer training) on campus, obstructing traffic when the US illegally invaded Cambodia in an expansion of the Viet Nam War
    I think all the activism of students during that era has something to do with the increase in cost of attending college.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Another 1970s-vintage U-M graduate here. Your Ann Arbor experience was pretty much like mine.

      And I agree with you on what Ann Arbor has turned into. I haven’t been back there in 10 years. Quite frankly, the modern-day Ann Arbor offers nothing that would draw me away from the Arizona Slim Ranch.

      1. Otto

        Me three, pretty much the same. I have lived here ever since 47 years, many changes mostly not for the better. As many provosts as teaching faculty and every building rebuilt to Ancient Roman™ standards. Average income of any incoming kid (parents): $200k per parent. I’ve been lucky in that I have worked as a consultant (engineering & law) 100% travel all my life (so far) so mostly I’m home weekends. Ann Arbor (A2) is now alot more than the UofMichigan so that’s good, but the UofMichigan is not a good neighbor never has been. I’m hoping with CV19 we get back to basics around here. The U doesn’t need to be 55k strong – time to put an end to all that. A2 is firmly a socialist people’s republic, lately along the Chinese line. So we tax our selves way beyond what you could imagine. Several billionaires live and walk among us. The rest of the state disowns us. It’s a life. Good place to bring up the kids.

    2. eg

      My Dad was ROTC in Canada in the late 50s and I’m grateful he was. It paid for his engineering degree and was our ticket out of hardscrabble farming on poor New Brunswick soil for generations.

      Just sayin’ …

  9. Fresh Cream

    As the grandson, son, and brother of university professors and the father of a college student I find the idea that colleges and universities teach critical thinking risible. I myself am a university dropout with a MBA from the University of Chicago. The MBA was the worst decision of my life.

    1. Ian Ollmann

      That could be MBA being an MBA. Never regretted getting a Ph.D. in a natural science. That is critical thinking with a sledge hammer.

  10. Grayce

    Formal schools will morph, not change. The awful truth is that more, not less, financialization will happen in public, government supported, education, under the Betsy DeVos and Trump models that include for-profit charter schools. The moment for-profit schools are available under the euphemism of “school choice,” the profit sharks will circle. Actual learning will suffer. Actual preparation for adult life (analytical thinking, respect for history, logic) will suffer. When the emphasis comes from Finance or Risk Management, there is only a finance contract and not a social contract. And one last thing, for-profit charter schools will launder tax dollars into private capital gain, aka income redistribution in a trickle-up direction.

  11. Marc Andelman

    University endowments are major perpetrators of inequality, investing in sociopathic hedge funds, and, surely being used to launder money tax free. This system needs to be cleaned out and die a well deserved death.

  12. TiPs

    Related to Yves point, we don’t have MBAs running public institutions, rather, for the most part, many of the top administrators started as faculty. Many went into admin so they could get paid six-figure private sector salaries. Somehow they all seem to get acculturated into the mentality that the answer to any issue is another administrative position, and the solution to deficits is to reduce faculty positions (starting with adjuncts of course since we’re unionized…). Less than 50% of our budget goes to instruction.

    There really is no solution. There is no one to police administrators–believe me, I’ve tried for the past 20 years. As our enrollment shrinks and budgets get worse, maybe central administration will decide to merge or close some of the worst cases…? At this point, it’s sad to say, my focus is on making it four more years to retirement.

  13. edmondo

    I’m sorry. I couldn’t get past this phase. It made me laugh out loud then cry. No one really believes this any more, do they?

    “With college degrees the passport to well-paid, stable employment…..”

    1. Dave Chapman

      edmondo: Well, it was certainly true in 1950. It might have even been true as late as 1960. . .

  14. DF

    “We also take very seriously the empirical studies indicating that smaller classes with full time faculty add substantially to student learning. For example, overall scores of one critical thinking test that we think has real merit are highest at institutions with small class sizes.[x] Our conclusion, quite in the tradition of Socrates and classical theories of education, is that personal contacts with teachers play a disproportionate role in inspiring individual intellectual development.”

    The sad thing is, this often wasn’t even true at universities when I was in college in the early-2000’s. A lot of classes were delivered in large lecture halls (sometime well, sometimes quite poorly) by professors who talked really quickly in heavy foreign accents. Lots of students didn’t bother showing up to those lectures, as they barely learned anything. I also remember some classes where people skipped lecture and just downloaded and watched pre-recorded videos of the lecture. Was more convenient a lot of the time anyway, and it provided an opportunity to replay confusing parts of the lecture.

    I suspect that one big shakeout of COVID will be forcing universities to actually teach the material to their students, otherwise many students will just go elsewhere to learn stuff.

    1. Duke of Prunes

      “Go elsewhere to learn stuff”. I had to subscribe my son to some on-line learning program so he could learn calculus while attending a Big10 university. He couldn’t understand his TA, and, from his perspective, the TA was going through the absolute minimal motions to teach his section. It upset me to spend another 100 or so for something that should have been included in his > 10k tuition, but oh well. It all worked out in the end as he actually learned the material, graduated with an Engineering degree and has a job that supports him well enough to move out of the house.

      1. DF

        I resemble this anecdote (Big 10 engineering program)!

        And for me, while I definitely have some regrets, things did turn out well in the end.

  15. John Wright

    Here is a snippet from a June college related posting by user “grhabyt”

    “Professor/Administrator in California State University here. I’m on the campus team trying to respond and thus reading everything current in Higher Ed on this. The conclusion is that high end and low end will be OK, but private colleges in the middle are screwed.”

    “Students go to college for four reasons:
    a) signalling;
    b) networking;
    c) skills acquisition; and
    d) parties”

    “With instruction online, b) and d) disappear. The elite universities can coast because of a) and endowments, the lower cost state universities like mine are seeing enrollment *increase* because, in a recession, many students on the line about attending college choose c) over unemployment. And as our tuition is only $7K ($12K for out-of-state/international), plenty of the cash-strapped middle class will dial down to us.”


    A friend was telling me of a mother whose daughter originally did NOT get into several of her desired colleges.

    But that was pre Covid-19

    Now these colleges are calling back to see if she is still interested.

    1. Ook

      Further to the “parties” point above, the word brings up images of frat houses and teenagers acting like idiots. So I would modify that to “socialization”: 35 years after graduation, I most remember:
      1. For the first time meeting people who didn’t make me feel like a defective human just because I thought there must be more to life than following the local sports team.
      2. For the first time, not being the smartest person in the room.
      3. Parties at the professor’s house, with like-minded faculty and students, and meeting these amazing people who were having amazing lives.

      None of which can be replicated on Zoom, not even approximately.

      And I can add
      4. Wandering the stacks of one of the largest libraries in North America at 2 AM, experiencing serendipitous discovery. Which set me off on life-changing pursuits of literature, music and cultural history. No, Google is not the same thing.

  16. flora

    About the rise of MBAs on campus. +1.

    and this:
    Higher education is a principal avenue for the transmission of human capital … Human capital?

    The post’s author doesn’t discuss the massive rise in administration, especially over especially the last 15 years, so I’m adding this aspect of the campus financial problems.

    In 1975 there were about 2 faculty to 1 admin. Today their is about 1 faculty to 1.25 admin. All that admin is expensive.

    and this:
    Colleges and universities are also central to serious efforts to rectify inequalities of income and wealth. The notion that affirmative action in a handful of brand name institutions could substitute for serious efforts to broaden higher education for citizens in the twenty-first century is absurd. For minority students and poor whites alike, state universities and colleges, including community colleges, are indispensable as pathway to the middle class in a globalized context.

    Sending students into the world with massive student debt, and especially the economically disadvantaged students, hardly helps their future prospects or corrects past economic imbalances. Yet most colleges and unis I follow are refusing to reduce tuition for online classes that are normally taught in lecture hall.

    Add to the above the fact that many Universities are pleading poverty when in many cases they’re sitting on huge endowments, some in the range of $billions.

    The universities are in trouble, just like every other segment of the US and economy. But I take some of their pleading with a large grain of salt.

    Thanks for this post.

  17. Swamp Yankee

    Well, this one strikes close to home, so apologies in advance for a long comment. My position, teaching history and politics at a community college in Massachusetts, was cut along with other positions among faculty and staff and even administration, post-COVID. The school was already a basket-case on the brink of financial insolvency before COVID; I don’t see how it survives this intact.

    I imagine the same or similar scenarios are playing out in thousands of small colleges, especially public and community colleges, across the US right now.

    As for me, in some ways I view it as a blessing in disguise. I’ll be fine — I have a B.A. and a Ph.D. from well-regarded institutions, and Massachusetts has the best unemployment benefits in the country. The job was enormously wearing, five college classes a semester, every semester, while the administration, if you can believe it, was actually worse than most places in that the college is municipally-owned, one of very few across the country that is, and therefore the city’s political machine ran the administration as a sinecure for incompetent and unqualified hacks and apparatchiks*.

    It had no resources, technology and other snafus were daily. The students, as a cross section of the local working class and working poor and sometimes the not-working poor, are my people, and I loved teaching them; but I ended up doing a lot of social work for which I have no training whatsoever. The Nullification Crisis is not foremost in the mind of the pregnant 21 year old who comes in with a black eye and her arm in a sling after her boyfriend beat her, nor the Missouri Question of passionate concern to the heroin addict in the back (is this student asleep, or did they OD?). I even had to have one student committed for a while. They don’t teach you about that in grad school seminars.

    So it’s time for new pastures. Meanwhile, I’m planting potatoes and onions.

    *The person who destroyed the nursing program was made head of nursing despite having no background whatsoever in nursing, medical education was limited to an Associate’s in Business Administration from our very school — nothing against that degree, but it has no place in nursing.
    She just happened to be — wait for it — the sister-in-law of the Mayor and the sister of both the Chief of Police and the State Senator!

    She eliminated all pre-reqs for incoming nursing students, while the school engaged in a heavy and cynically dishonest marketing campaign in poor neighborhoods, urban, rural, and suburban, about nursing being the route out of poverty. Thus you end up with students who are literally illiterate or innumerate, or can’t speak English, or who have no basic science education, trying to become nurses, and they just do abysmally on the state exams. So abysmally the Commonwealth of MA steps in and suspends the program after a failed probation period. It was a terrible blow for the school and the students most of all.

    What happened to this administrator? She was promoted to Registrar, where she routinely produced three competing and divergent academic calendars (faculty and students and staff actually given three different calendars)!

    She survived the COVID layoffs, somehow.

  18. Glen

    I, like many above was able to work summers, and put myself through college at the University of California (Davis) the rest of the year, and get a first class education. I know those days are gone. The costs of college are too high, and the quality of the education is falling.

    I do not envy the younger generations, they have had it much, much harder than I did, and the opportunities once you have a degree are much much less. I’m not sure I would bother getting degree now, or if I did, I would do it overseas, and leave the US.

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