Is Higher-Ed in crisis?
If you ask my students, most of them would probably say yes. Are they right? I am beginning to think that they are. I have much at stake in this issue. I am university trained, a professional college instructor (adjunct) and am about to earn a Master’s degree from a major research university. I’m invested heavily in this system.
Recently while I was teaching one of my classes at Bellevue College, my class got into a spirited debate about the value of their pending degree. Much of the conversation was in response to a column in the New York Times by Adam Davidson provocatively titled “The Dwindling Power of a College Degree.” I had assigned the column near the end of Winter Quarter and the last class of the quarter was dedicated to discussing Davidson’s premise.
As one of the hosts of the popular NPR radio show and podcast, Planet Money, Davidson routinely takes complex economic, political and social problems and distills them into radio friendly stories. In illustrating the problems facing higher ed, Davidson’s column suggests that increased globalisation and technological automation have made the promise of an accessible and affordable college education the guarantor of a solid and stable middle class life all but obsolete. Davidson also points out that this is not a new problem. That promise has been eroding for nearly forty years.
Like other sacred cows of the American Dream, like home ownership and social mobility, the Great Recession has shown us that we aren’t as secure as we once thought we were–despite how well educated we might also be. When my students read this dismal forecast, they didn’t flinch at all. They betrayed no surprise or dismay. This is the world they have inherited.
One of the older students in the class, an Iraq War veteran, expressed some sadness and surprise at his classmates fatalism but in the end he couldn’t forcefully argue for an alternative viewpoint. After all, he pointed out, many of the surviving comrades he served with overseas were now unemployed.
Davidson’s theory also points out that the work I that do professionally as a teacher is declining in value as well. My place on the educational assembly line is secure only as long as the finished product I am helping build has a viable place in the market. If Davidson is right, then the value of my labor is slipping in direct proportion to the value of the degree. I have become increasingly aware of this over the last five years and it is one of the reasons that I went back to school to get my Masters twenty years after getting my BA. Now along with my students who are paying for their undergraduate degrees, I will have expensive student loans to pay off. Again. Just like I did twenty years ago.
These are tough times in the academy, and the solutions extend well beyond the campus walls. Disruption has been the watchword in many once invincible industries over the last decade–journalism, the recording industry, publishing.
Is education next?
This month “Four Peaks,” The Master of Communication in Digital Media (MCDM) program at the University of Washington and community partners will come together around a series of weekly events exploring the challenges and opportunities confronting the academy. These events are being organized and built mostly by the students in the MCDM program and offer a potential collaborative model for future Four Peaks/MCDM initiatives.
According to student organizer Katia Farage there will be four signature events during the “Four Peaks” month: “We will kick off the spirit of “hacking” with GeekWire’s John Cook interviewing Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh on the importance of higher education, and what needs to change.” This sold out event is cosponsored by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Next week Farage and fellow organizers are teaming up with noted “One Pot” Chef Michael Hebb for a round table dinner and discussion between twelve education specialists and advisors. According to Farage, that event will be documented and shared in some form at a later time. The third event scheduled for the month will also coincide with the University of Washington’s Husky Fest celebrations. Emmy award winning television host (and MCDM Director) Hanson Hosein will bring his “Four Peaks” television show to the University’s “Red Square” for a taping in front of a live audience. Joining Hosein will be several prominent guests from the worlds of education, technology and philanthropy. The month’s events conclude with a special series of presentations from MCDM students on the month’s findings. According to Farage, “a team of MCDM students will report on the big ideas developed over the month and a panel of judges including Peter Diamandis from the X Prize foundation will help us determine which ideas from ‘Hacking Edu’ we should pursue over the next year.
How far will the MCDM/Four Peaks Hacking Edu program get us toward a solution to the problems facing modern education? Well its only a month and according to Adam Davidson these problems began long before many of the current MCDM students were born. We will probably see some clarification of the big issues, some lively discussions and some provocative ideas emerge. But Ivory towers aren’t built overnight.
Stay tuned to this space and catch all of the coverage of Hacking Edu events here at the Flip.