If U.S. Colleges Fail to Invest in Faculty (Including Adjuncts!), Online Colleges Could Bankrupt Them in a Decade

How can traditional colleges survive?

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If U.S. Colleges Fail to Invest in Faculty (Including Adjuncts!), Online Colleges Could Bankrupt Them in a Decade

Half of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will go bankrupt in ten to fifteen years. That’s the prediction Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen offered after analyzing the disruptive effects of the rise of online learning.

Christensen points out that over the last decade or so, schools such as Phoenix Online have steadily drained the pool of students attending traditional institutions of higher education, and to meet that demand, a host of the country’s largest colleges have also built out extensive online offerings. The shift will shutter small schools that depend on tuition for revenue, and a recent study co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s concurred.

I’m not out to bash online schools here. Many are good schools, and the format offers appealing features that the traditional format can’t, especially for non-traditional students in search of more flexible, accessible, or affordable systems. The best online schools, it’s worth noting, aren’t the for-profits, but the online offerings from established state institutions. Also, the net increase in enrollment that online schools are driving means more people are going to college, so even if they catalyze a massive and painful overhaul of the traditional system, isn’t that a good thing?

In some ways it is, but not necessarily. Here’s why the shift to online learning should be stemmed (not stopped), and how traditional colleges can regain their footing.

Hint: Start teaching again.

Face Facts

The size of the overall student pool is indeed increasing, but according to numerous studies and surveys, students enrolled in online classes fail and drop out at significantly higher rates than in classes on traditional campuses. What’s more, you still have to pay. A lot. As of September 2015, eight of the top ten debt-hole schools were for-profit colleges with mostly online access. Number one was, you guessed it, the University of Phoenix, where more than a million of its former students owed a total of $35.5 billion (billion), and in second place was another for-profit online school called Walden University.

Soon enough, those online schools—along with the larger and wealthier colleges that opened online systems—began to dip into the traditional enrollment pool. Small private schools (not eligible for much government funding) depend mostly on tuition and alumni donations for revenue, and they can’t compete online, so when enrollment slumps, so does their ability to invest in things they believe attract students: special programs and amenities like rock walls and reiki massage chairs and flatscreens all over the damn place.

But what about the education? Does that attract students anymore?

At first blush, it seems like it doesn’t. Online classes have a reputation, deserved or no, for being easy, both in the challenge of the work and in the challenge of just getting your ass into a seat every other day. Combine that with all the money that colleges drop on extracurriculars and amenities and it wouldn’t take a cynic to imagine the value of an actual education is swirling around the toilet bowl, both for the students and the universities: Students don’t want to go to college simply to learn; they also demand a good time while they’re there. Colleges need the money, so they invest in fun and ease up on the rigors of the coursework.

In short, online schools have diverted more students, who are taking on more debt but graduating at a lower rate (with arguably sub-optimal educations), and because these schools draw students away from traditional schools, the whole system takes a hit. This could be bad news both for the quality of U.S. education and, consequently, the level of education of the U.S. workforce.

Before you weep for your alma mater, though, remember that this is their own fault. But there’s a solution: Instead of cutting budgets, traditional colleges should at minimum re-appropriate the money they have, if not spend even more. Given the above information, this probably doesn’t make immediate sense to you unless you’ve been an adjunct professor.

Song of the Adjunct

Alumni donations help keep schools afloat. For instance, last year alumni saved Sweet Briar College in Virginia with donations.

So why do alumni give to schools? Turns out it’s largely because of one-on-one relationships with professors and other mentors.

Problem: Most schools don’t care all that much about student-faculty connections. Most don’t care about their faculty at all. They don’t hire faculty at the rate they higher on the business end: From 1987 to 2012, colleges added over half a million administrative positions. The California State University system over a 34-year period increased their number of faculty by about 3%, but over that same period increased the number of administrators by 221%. And guess what? Administrators are expensive, and, many have argued, they drive up college tuition.

The popular counterargument goes that you need more administrators because students have a wider array of “needs” that schools have to meet these days. Those “needs” don’t seem to include education, which is the reason colleges exist. But the people running colleges might have this backwards. Although a student might choose one college over another because one school’s gym sucks, a shitty gym likely won’t lead her to opt out of attending college altogether for an online degree. In other words, fancy amenities might attract students, but they don’t anchor students. Enrollment is down at many schools because students are after other things. Such as, say, a valuable education.

This brings us to the second half of the administrative bloat: Faculty hiring.

Not only have higher education institutions increased administrative hiring at the expense of faculty, they’ve also slashed the amount of money they pay their faculty, shifting to hiring adjunct (part-time) instructors in order to save money.

Today about 75% of college faculty are “contingent” (aren’t tenure-track), and more than half of higher-ed faculty nationwide comprises part-time (adjunct) instructors.

Adjunct work is a special kind of hell. I was one.

Adjuncts usually get paid per course, and, to put it mildly, they don’t get a lot. Adjuncts average about $2,700 per course, and you’re lucky as hell to get a four-course load. If you land three courses, normal for both full-time and part-time faculty, at $2,700 per class that course load would earn you $16,200 in an academic year. How much is that per hour? If you’ve got a good teacher, you don’t want to know. Small wonder that 31 percent of adjuncts live near or below the poverty line, as I did for four years.

Another telling statistic is the cost per course per student. I’d routinely have 20-25 students per class. You can do the math as well as I, but at my salary, each student paid me about $100 per course for a 15-week course, or $7.50 a week, or $3.75 per class. Compare that to the cost of tuition per course, which depending on your school runs several hundred to thousands of dollars and… holy hell. (This is also weird: Schools with the highest tuition don’t necessarily hire fewer adjuncts.)

More: Only 10.4 percent of all faculty positions are held by underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Of these positions, about 7.6 percent (which is about 73 percent of the total minority faculty population) are “contingent” positions. On top of that, somewhere around 20% of adjuncts have access to health insurance through their institution. Plus there’s no job security, often no offices, no parking, no perks, etc etc etc.

Also: There’s no national adjunct union.

So step back and take in this one fact: More than half the college teachers in the United States of America are paid on average less than a fast food employee who didn’t go to college.

What message does this send to teachers? To students? To parents? Colleges don’t value their biggest asset: The actual education.

Wait, what? It’s not the climbing wall?

Christensen, the HBS professor, pointed out that alumni donors are motivated mainly by personal “life-changing” one-on-one connections to faculty and mentors. Moreover, those donors said it wasn’t necessarily a professor in their chosen major who changed their lives, but simply an individual faculty member. Such as, say, an attentive adjunct who opened new doors in a first-year course. Today, though, less than one percent of faculty accounts for creating these lasting influences.

“Maybe the most important thing that we add value to our students is the ability to change their lives,” Christensen said. “It’s not clear that that can be disrupted.”

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