The Shape of (Academic) Things to Come

Peter Wood

A friend wrote us the other day wondering “if someone has done an Alvin Toffler style analysis of what the universities will look like in 10-20 years.” He says he is “thinking about the big picture—tuition, standards, teaching, online, trustees, accreditation, etc.” 

The National Association of Scholars, in fact, knows exactly what universities will look like in fifteen years, and in twenty, but during the years of Steve Balch’s presidency, we abided by his view that it would be too demoralizing to the general public to reveal the future. My own view is that we are fortunate to have this information and should be more forthcoming.  

One more preliminary: reporting the future presents problems with verb tenses. For the sake of grammatical clarity, I will write from the perspective of 2030, putting these events-to-come in the past tense.   

The Great Transition  

In 2024, the movement to close state colleges and universities crested. This movement began in 2017 with the passage of a ballot proposition in California promoted by the taxpayer group, Citizens for Free College. CFC argued that California could offer a free college education to all who wanted it at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of maintaining the state’s public systems. The ballot initiative allowed individual institutions to continue if they could maintain themselves at no cost to the state and if they could afford to lease their land and facilities from the state.  In the end, only the University of California Berkeley survived the five-year phased-in shut-down. Berkeley was purchased by a company based in Shenzhen, PRC, with extensive interests in mining and telecommunications. 

By 2024, eighteen other states had followed suit, and twenty more had opted for less drastic forms of phasing out state colleges and universities. As this shadow fell across the public sector of higher education, the NCAA quickly reorganized as an umbrella group of professional sports teams. Pennsylvania State University became the first formerly public university actually owned by a sports franchise, Nittany Lions, Inc. Ohio State and the University of Michigan found this model attractive and, with a few adjustments, did much the same.  

Online education had been thriving long before this, of course, but the huge new demand for online courses and programs turned online education into something like the railroad boom of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most surprising change was that the new online sector was almost entirely for-profit.  Fortunes were there to be made and numerous start-ups crowded into the market, but it was hard to compete with the giants of the field, DeVry and Kaplan. These two became the Harvard and Princeton of the new era, setting the academic standards that everyone else emulated.  During the period in which Yale was struggling to hold on, it tried to market itself as “the DeVry of the North,” but the market for content-free intellectual snobbery had simply collapsed.    

The closing of Yale in 2021, however, was a true turning point. The last-minute efforts to save it—remember the “Too Yale to Fail” campaign?—focused on the supposedly dire economic consequences for the region if the august Ivy died away. Almost no one predicted the financial renaissance for New Haven in the wake of the collapse.  

As with military base closings forty years earlier, the dissolution of college campuses generally proved to be a huge boon for local and regional economies. Some became entertainment complexes catering to America’s main international industry, casino gambling. Many became assisted living facilities for the elderly. Several proved readily adaptable to youth detention centers and low-security prisons.  But the campus-repurposing movement flourishes with off-beat ideas. A major Hollywood studio bought one whole campus for shooting period films. Another was converted to a large-scale commercial mushroom farm, and its dimly lit lecture halls now sport row upon row of Porcinis, Shiitakes, and Portabellas where students once, perhaps somewhat less attentively than the aspiring fungi, sat IMing each other and playing Minesweeper. 

By 2029, the Great Transition, as President Mark Levin called it, had run its course. The United States then had 250 residential colleges and universities—almost exactly the same number that existed in 1860.  All of the surviving colleges had highly distinctive programs focusing on some combination of the sciences and the liberal arts, and over half of them were rooted in a religious denomination or faith tradition that emphasized the importance of face-to-face community. Graduates of the residential institutions, of course, faced some obstacles in the job market. The question naturally lingered whether people educated in such an old-fashioned way could match the virtual talents of normal online graduates.  The “virtuosity of the virtual” was the educational buzz phrase of the time.    

Casualties  

The Great Transition had numerous casualties. Back in 2009, there were 703,463 full-time faculty members in the United States. In 2029, there were 108,670.  Part-time and casual faculty employment in higher education also fell, but not so steeply. In 2029, about a half a million individuals reported teaching at least one college course in the preceding year. The numbers, however, may be misleading.  Most of the 400,000 or so part-time college teachers in 2029 had full-time employment elsewhere and looked upon their instructional work as supplemental income.  

“Accreditation associations” were another casualty. Though they survived in a fashion though the teens, they vanished entirely by 2025. The residential colleges that managed to stay afloat during the online winnowing did so by dint of imaginative reinvention, not by following bureaucratic rules, and the new for-profit online colleges had nothing but disdain for the accreditors, who had done all they could to hinder the emergence of the new technology and new forms of education.  

The collapse of graduate education was much more fraught with public controversy. Who can forget the 72-year-old Bill Gates pleading to Congress that America would be doomed if it lost its graduate schools? He explained that the only way the nation could fill in its technical jobs was by luring bright, ambitious students from abroad with the promise of graduate education. He said we had tried and failed to teach American students the requisite skills and to fire them up with enthusiasm, but that five decades of school reform proved that the obstacles to domestic academic achievement in STEM fields were simply insurmountable. It was a powerful appeal but not enough. The American model of graduate education as a lure for talented foreigners had run out of time.   

The big surprise was how little a difference it made. By 2029, it was clear that there were plenty of opportunities for talented young people to apprentice in privately run laboratories, think tanks, and experimental stations.  Foundation support, private industry, and government grants continued to flow and most observers agreed after a few years that science was undimmed by the change. In fact, the new consensus seems to be that once rid of the academic treadmill, scientific fields have raised their standards. There is much less room for time-servers and mediocrities, much less emphasis on publishing for the sake of counting articles, and much greater scope for imaginative work unshackled by mere credentialism.

A more lamented casualty of the Great Transition was academic libraries. Of course, we still have twenty large research libraries in the United States and a great archipelago of archives for unpublished and unprinted material. But the disappearance of printed journals (except for a handful of nostalgia-zines) and the omnipresent access to the Universal Online Library have made it impractical to maintain thousands of expensive repositories of old books. There are plenty of us who lament this, but it is hard to make a realistic case for an alternative.   When the J. Craig Venter Institute assembled a microbe that could turn books into jet fuel, the library shelves emptied out in less than two years. The advertising slogan helped too: “Books: They Can Take You Anywhere.” Book-lovers and eBay speculators bought up millions of copies before they were converted to syn-fuel, but the storage problem baffled any larger rescue.       

Cultural Gain or Loss?  

We are, of course, in 2030 in the midst of a ferocious debate over what this all means for our culture, for literacy, for intellectual standards, and for scholarship. Conservative and reactionary groups like the AAUP evoke a lost golden age when tenured professors ruled in the name of “academic freedom,” progressive ideology was the campus rage, and new “disciplines” were born every fifteen minutes. While the AAUP folks seem a forlorn lot, there is some history on their side. If you go into one of those remaining archives you can find evidence that were once whole fields with names such as “Women’s Studies” and “African-American Studies.” (The latter had some connection to an old legal doctrine called “diversity” that promoted racial preferences and that expired unremarked on June 24, 2028.) 

One unarguable consequence of the Great Transition is that young people in 2029 have far more options than their parents. There was a time when it was assumed that bright young men and women who were ambitious to do something with their lives would head off to a residential college for four, five, or six years. To do this, most of them would plunge into significant debt. Fewer than half would actually finish their degrees, but they kept the debt. While at college, they would be either unemployed or marginally employed, and would acquire very little in the way of practical workplace skills. The lost opportunities to develop such skills along with the habits of idleness and profligacy that many developed eroded their character to the point that a great many continued in this vein even after they graduated.  

It is widely recognized today that college back a couple decades, in the zippies and the teens, was often a destructive enterprise. Students acquired a lifelong sense of alienation from their society coupled with an attitude of superiority on matters such as stewardship of the environment. (The past is a different country; you have to imagine an age when it was widely thought the world was running out of energy!) The tenured professors of the age presided over these cohorts of disaffected, under-employed, and unskilled students with a mixture of flattery and derision. The students were told they were impressive “critical thinkers,” all the while being led through a curriculum that would be child’s play to any self-respecting thirteen-year-old today.  

So in one sense, the prevalence of online education has brought with it greater maturity and responsibility among young people, most of whom now finish their first college degrees around age eighteen, when students used to begin college. (The abolition of high schools changed the time line.) Today, students assume that college is one option among many on the path to finding a rewarding life. Many pick up a college degree along the way while embarked on their first apprenticeship or job.  

But the change has also brought a more visible gap in literacy. This has worried our national leaders.  Something very like an old divide between high and low culture has reemerged, driven in part by the nature of online education. The prevailing form of advanced instruction now depends almost completely on the willingness of individuals to commit themselves to long-term programs of personal study. They quickly find their virtual communities of like-minded students and anyone who can’t find the energy and enthusiasm to keep up soon falls away. The result is a large number of people who are culturally-illiterate and sometimes just plain illiterate.  

No one can be happy about this, but proposals to return to mass remediation programs have attracted little public support. What can be done?  The trans-humanists favor mandatory pharmaceutical intervention, which of course can plant long-term motivations and increase basic abilities, but Americans as a whole have soundly rebuffed that idea. “Franken-literacy” is technically legal but exists in its own demi-monde.  No one admits to taking intelligence-altering gene therapy. The trans-humanists may have gained acceptance in fields such as professional sports, but so far they have made little headway in addressing the new literacy divide. 

Online education has also played its part in the resurgence of small towns and local communities in American life. It is hard to say whether this is cause or effect, but there are numerous towns in which a generation or two ago, families would resign themselves to the likelihood that kids going off to college would never return to live. Now that “going to college” has no particular connection to moving away, those towns are seeing much higher percentages of their sons and daughters who choose to build their lives where they grew up. The disappearance of colleges and universities as the ordinary destination of children at the end of adolescence has also changed family structure. It now is common for children to move out of the house at age eighteen—but usually into a nearby apartment complex.    The easier integration of work and higher education also had unexpected influence on family formation and birth rates. One theory is that, relieved of the enormous college debt load that burdened earlier generations, young men and women today feel freer to start families. 

Scholarship, meanwhile, has gained the benefits of being restored to an avocation. Yes, there are a handful of “professional” scholars who are able to make a living as consultants and performers, but most scholarship these days is the work of passionate amateurs.  

I am old enough to remember the old way, and the new way is better. Good ideas get heard. Excellent ideas are celebrated. Everything else just falls away. 

Are we Americans happy with the new order? It is a mixed picture. It is not just aging ex-professors but a great many people alive today who recall their youth as college students with keen pleasure and lament the passing of a more carefree time. The younger generation gets annoyed with this sentimentality and is at ease with the current system.  I have a sense of both loss and gain. I do miss those libraries. The proud alienation and arrogant mediocrity—not so much.   

How Do We Know?

How did NAS come by this detailed knowledge of the future?  One of the advantages of being in Princeton is our proximity to the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program.  Although PEAR ended its Princeton operations in February 2007, it continues as part of the International Consciousness Research Laboratories.  Building on PEAR’s work, NAS has achieved important breakthroughs in pre-cognition, as evidenced by the proceeding report.  

Either that or we’ve made some provocative guesses. Time will tell.

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