I’m sure you’ve seen headlines like this from Business Insider: “One of the big three rating agencies sees college enrollment down as much as 20% for colleges this fall.” Behind the headlines can be discerned conflicts and uncertainties as well as opportunities.
Will some students elect to take a gap year? Will college adjuncts, the wage slave backbones of many colleges and universities, return to classroom teaching this fall? Will aged, fully tenured Boomers refuse to step into classrooms? Will colleges without large endowments, those dependent on tuition dollars, be forced to file for bankruptcy? Will Covid, in brief, thin out the number of American universities?
I can’t imagine that a number of eager entrepreneurs haven’t already begun dreaming and scheming up alternatives to higher education. Consider some very obvious truths: much of higher education leans on a bloated loan industry; few students really learn that much at college; the party experience, for those unfortunately committed to hedonism (which is to say, most college students), can be decoupled from the college campus; most courses could be offered in different forms (MOOCs being one already existing example); the class of administrators has grown appreciably since the 1980s and is largely unnecessary; and so on. In short, just as Napster unbundled music, so Covid could help to unbundle education.
Covid, after all, is simply what exposes, to students and families, the raw deal we call “the college experience.” Surely, entrepreneurs see an opportunity to rethink education.
Could there be more, say, one-off online AI courses that provide successful students with certificates that they can show to tech startups that are hiring? Could there be more homesteader programs that teach students how to live off the land? How about deep-dive apprenticeships in certain scientific investigations? What about the “folk high school” tradition that has been so popular in Scandinavia? Or could we see former academics turn to Teachable where students can learn about philosophy or religion in a more intimate, more engaging manner? Will there be small-scale guilds and academies?
I don’t know why people continue to hope that life will get back to normal. Normal sucked. I mean really sucked a lot and for a lot of people, and institutional education in particular has largely been miseducation. Oh, and life after formal education–namely, gainful employment–not only sucks but also fails to promise what it used to more readily deliver: success, money, and status.
Since our current institutions are unraveling all around us, we should take this time to think seriously about how terrible they were and about how much better we can do.