Yesterday, I gave some pessimistic outlook for higher education in the United States. Let me give here some more thoughts about it. Let me start by characterizing the current situation. US universities have a strong focus on research, neglect undergraduate education, and are very strong in graduate education. Professors are the best paid in the world and undergraduate students pay the highest tuitions in the world.
Inherently, there is nothing wrong with the best being paid the most, and students paying for their education by borrowing against future income. But are they really paying for an education? Most students do not care for their studies, they go to college for the "social experience." They do not go to class, work little for their courses, and learn little, in particular in their major. Faculty are complicit, accommodate this with few failing grades and could not care less. They only care about research, put as little effort into undergraduate education as possible, and delegate whenever possible such teaching to graduate assistants. Effort into graduate education is much higher, and the results show. The world's best students flock to the United States, which happily accepts them for lack of substantial local talent.
But is all this sustainable? While the current crisis will be over sooner or later, it will have a longer lasting impact on higher education. The reduced availability of credit and in particular the reduced willingness of households to take on debt while make that parents will question more the return they get for their university investment. Currently, in the past, they have been willing to pay for a substandard education because of a myth that a diploma is all that matters, and employers followed along. But they will (or at least should) realize that some people should simply not go to college or they will require much more from faculty. This means that the days of high pay and little time spent on teaching are over, because of lower enrollments and higher accountability.
I realize that the mission of a university is not only to teach undergraduates. Research is very important, but it has become too important, and at least in social sciences and business, with not much gain for society. The best that could happen is that graduate education and research will be concentrated among top institutions, where faculty will be able to justify teaching reductions. For the rest of us, reality has to settle in that we are here to teach undergraduates at reasonable pay.
How long will it take for these "predictions" to happen? In a sense, they are happening now. Even before the crisis, government support has been drastically cut. Some state universities get no state support. Government research grants are not going to be sustained given public debt. And tuition raises will soon not be sustainable anymore.
Ironically, Europeans are trying to emulate US higher education. It is ironic because European universities do a much better job at their mission for a lower cost. European undergraduates are much better educated and do not need graduate degrees to hold jobs in their field. Graduate degrees are not as strong as in the US, but that could easily change with some better structures. And in many cases, universities pool resources to create very decent doctoral programs. Once some European faculty return from the US, they will be competitive.