Higher Ed is kind of a sham. But not entirely.

I’ve worked in higher ed admin since 2004, when I became a student worker. In 2007 I moved to full time and have worked in higher ed since, in varying capacities of Institutional Research, process improvement, analytics, and data management. I’m sort of a hybrid in that I have no real programming training, have done extensive front-line work but I’m also a self taught SQL user with the ability to understand and speak in terms programmers understand and prefer. Here are the essentials of the state of higher ed from someone working from deep within:

  1. Overall enrollment has probably peaked: http://money.cnn.com/2016/05/20/news/economy/college-enrollment-down/

Higher ed professionals have long believed the mantra “as the economy improves, enrollment declines.” This trend is true, but it misses the forest for the trees if mistaken as a holistic explanation of current trends. You’ll notice it unravel as a feasible explanation as enrollment continues to decline and universities and community colleges experience budget crises.

2. The current system can be cumbersome and difficult to navigate and doesn’t best serve the largest needs of an aging population with difficult life circumstances and the need to change career fields.

Education is currently too expensive, cumbersome, and inflexible to meet the demands of a workforce which needs quicker transition between fields and irregular life circumstances. It’s fantastic if you’re a roughly middle class person with a relatively stable family and know exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life between the age of 17–20. It’s designed extremely well for those things. Solid online course offerings for many in demand degree paths are also all over — developer/programmer curricula are well established and knowledge of programming languages is constantly in demand.

For most people, that description does not fit, but that’s what education mostly serves right now and federal and state spending on education has largely slowed its evolution. Things are changing, and there are tons of professors and administrators working extremely hard and competently to improve important aspects of higher ed (often with the circumstances working against them) — better connecting it to industry needs, improving curriculum in ways that increase completion and success rates, highlighting and marketing very desired and well-paying careers which require less time, and improving availability and access to student services and necessary assistance.

No person deserves to be maligned — people who suck should be replaced. Sometimes our higher ed system sucks. But it still has some great people in it, and it’s a habit of people (usually on the right) to say unproductive things in generalities because, yes, some of the folks in higher ed suck.

3. Higher Ed is data and system obsessed.

I really can’t tell you how many projects I’ve been a part of that work the way Randall Munroe described above. Often the way folks ascend the ranks in higher ed is by implementing incredibly complex but great-sounding solutions that end up creating tons of nuance and complication for front-line staff (often without their input and guidance based on the realities of the day-to-day interaction with students). I’m a massive fan of automation and push it whenever it is feasible. But frequently it’s automation or overcomplexity for its own sake and the priorities of the institution are either too opaque (too many initiatives, too many priorities with no hard choices made on what not to focus on) or simply poorly chosen.

Colleges show off and market themselves (and well educated higher ed professionals market themselves) by pushing the envelope of analysis and a “data culture”. This is a well intentioned impulse, but can end up sucking up resources and man hours that probably would have been better spent improving current process workflows to ensure that students are given the best tools and clarity of course selection to succeed. Figuring out the maze of higher ed represents overhead to the student which harms students who are taking care of family members, children, or trying to shift careers and are having to work 30+ hours a week. At SPC, a large majority of students work more than 20 hours a week in addition to courseload.

Frequently processes or administrative procedures are so arcane they represent a barrier to this success. Yet, projects or input which would solve those problems is usually ignored or pushed aside for higher profile initiatives.

To be clear, most of this is born out of a desire to be able to measure and quantify success rather than just assuming what we’re doing works. That’s good. But the granularity of higher ed research often sounds like attempting to squeeze a turnip for an additional <2% efficiency even while students sometimes have to look in 3 to 5 different areas just to figure out clear information on what courses they are supposed to take, paperwork obligations, financial aid requirements, etc. Many good people walk students through this, but many students become frustrated or have difficulty taking time out of their lives to physically meet or call multiple people to handle all these various tasks.

Also, often institutions will adopt policies meant to prod students on to success when in fact they’re just filtering out students (which is sometimes warranted). If you require that students take freshman composition in the first 6 credits (2 courses) and that they begin and finish their math sequence as quickly as possible, more students will fail out and drop out early, since Math and writing-intensive courses tend to be the places students fail, then don’t continue on.

4. The Feds have begun stinging institutions with regulations they’ve had on the books, but hadn’t really enforced.

It’s always been true that your financial aid award calculation was only supposed to include courses that contribute to your current degree program, except this wasn’t monitored and enforced except when students had accumulated too many credits. Many institutions are having to tighten up and monitor that at the point of registration or at some point each semester. This is also causing students to cease enrollment and giving teeth to efforts to keep students on track.

This has also empowered movements like “Achieving the Dream”, which emphasize pathways and creating clear, defined pathways to completion. Many current higher ed administrators resist this somewhat, since their educational experience was one of self-discovery, so they value the time they spent more or less wandering.

However, modern students do not have this luxury, and the structure of academic pathways and checks to make sure students are staying on track are forms of discipline that are liberating and prevent students from spending years on a degree path they really aren’t interested in. It is amazing to me that it has taken decades for higher ed to realize that perhaps having your first major specific class three years into your career is not a good idea.

This leads to one of my personal pet peeves.

5. General education badly needs reform.

The notion of a well-balanced student made sense when most students fit a particular mold and careers were mostly lifetime or long term. But when students are accumulating large amounts of debt to spend 1–2 years taking humanities, social/behavioral science, and english literature, decisions have to be made. I have nothing against those subjects, and actually push back on the glorification of STEM degrees based on the facts.

What I support is the right of an academic dean or program chair to make decisions about what is in the program and what isn’t based on their education, industry contacts, and perception of job markets. There are many barriers to fully eliminated compulsory GenEds, and none of the reasoning & evidence is all that good if we’re focused on what is ultimately best for each student.

I actually think this will consolidate and invigorate the study of certain non-stem subjects, since those in those fields genuinely care about and want to research/teach them. But most students need a vocation, they need skills for a job they can feed themselves and live on.

Which leads to my final point.

6. Preparation for employment in particular industries should be primarily influenced by those industries, not the edicts of politicians and distant administrators.

Like I’ve said, Academic Deans and Program Chairs know this, and do try the best they can within the boundaries they are given to try to connect students to industry. But credits are eaten up by general education, foreign language (which might actually be more commonly taught if gen ed requirements were reduced, by the way) and a number of other factors such that their impact on the student’s skills is diminished, even though they are the most equipped to know what the student needs in the present environment.

Thoughtful observers of professional sports have noted that the NFL pays zero developmental costs for its players. The MLB/NBA have legitimate D leagues which represent an alternative path for players who don’t cut it at the college level or simply aren’t built for or care to be in college.

This is at least some balance compared to the NFL, which has an absolutely free (ultimately, if we’re honest, federally subsidized) source of new talent. It’s true that for the most part the books of large athletics departments are taken care of by boosters, ticket revenues, merchandising, etc and some are completely independent. But this is only the top tier of elite programs with massive, wealthy alumni bases.

Ultimately the fact that enrollment is vastly higher at these schools with federal money than without tells you that these athletics programs would be very, very different without the level of federal spending on education that exists now.

Likewise, many large industries have essentially “free” employee development. We fail to be intellectually creative if we really think they wouldn’t develop ways to intern or onboard new talent and develop them in-house if college grads weren’t a dime a dozen (yet still without needed workplace skills). There is a massive amount of dysfunction and disconnect between the needs of industry and the type of prospects colleges are pumping out. The reason is obvious — these are separate entities with very different incentive structures.

Interestingly, the NFL has the same problem. Players are not prepared because coaches want to win college games — y’know, what they’re paid to do — and therefore most programs don’t prepare players for the next level. So there’s a disconnect, and the product actually suffers. But as long as the free pipeline exists, there’s no incentive for the NFL to do seismic, expensive reforms or create a D league.

End note: I actually think “free college” would deeply exacerbate most of the problems above. No solution will come without a painful transition of some kind. We need to allow the much more robust job market than existed in decades past to evolve and steadily diminish how much we rely on higher education regulations and politicians to dictate the future of our country, and leave that in the hands of individuals & their mentors and influencers.

Disclaimer: These statements are my opinion entirely and do not represent the views of my employer.