Coming Avalanche?

Michael Metzger

Peruvian authorities ignored the warnings. Eight years later, the worst avalanche in history buried over 25,000 people. Now we’re hearing new warnings of an impending avalanche – this one burying many colleges and universities. But who’s paying attention?

In 1962, David Bernays and Charles Sawyer were mountain climbing in Peru when they discovered Glacier 511 was seriously unstable. They warned Peruvian authorities who felt the climbers were being alarmists. They felt the glacier was stable. Fearing a panic (and a drop in tourism dollars), they had Bernays and Charles Sawyer thrown in jail and released only after the climbers recanted. On May 31, 1970, an earthquake triggered the world’s deadliest avalanche. Glacier 511 collapsed, burying over 25,000 people.

Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, and Saad Rizvi are researchers at the Institute for Public Policy Research and the authors of “An Avalanche is Coming,” a paper asking whether today’s college education will continue to be seen as good value. The answer is no, particularly for the lower rungs of colleges and universities. They will be buried. That can sound alarmist, so the report has elicited different responses.

Insiders, especially those at top schools, see stability. They continue to see strong demand, as in applications. They get good results, as the report notes. “A few in each class will become the next generation of academics and be well-prepared by their undergraduate and graduate classes.” This resonates with Sir Ken Robinson’s contention that the whole purpose of public education is to produce university professors.

Most of the rest of the student body at top schools also gets what it came for: a degree. “If your degree is from one of the top universities, its value is greatly enhanced,” the report goes on to say, as graduates of top tier schools do well financially. A degree is a passport to privilege. Students come less for the learning and more for the networks.

Instability is found in the lower tier schools, however. Like all schools, they claim to offer content, counsel, and community. But “Avalanche” reports that content is now ubiquitous while access to faculty is limited. Barber writes of trying to recall the names of the three Karamazov brothers. Resorting to Google was much easier than finding the book. And Google gave immediate access to a series of considered, thoughtful academic commentaries on the book. Content galore. In a world where content is universally accessible, counsel (faculty advice) is not, and community is rare (students work all sorts of odd jobs in the off hours to cover soaring costs), why go to a lower tier school?

This is the question destabilizing the educational industry. According to a February 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal, total student debt in the U.S. is up 51 per cent from 2008–2012. It now totals nearly $1 trillion. Moreover, 35 percent of students under 30 are delinquent on their payments, compared to just 21 per cent in 2004. They’re behind because a quarter of all recent college graduates are unemployed. The degree didn’t deliver. It wasn’t worth it. Outsiders see this. They warn of a coming avalanche.

Signs of slippage are appearing. Kim Ki-hoon earns $4 million a year in South Korea, teaching English.1 His pay is based on student performance and he’s in high demand. An educator for over 20 years, Mr. Kim spends only three hours a week giving lectures to around 120 students. His classes are recorded and his staff of 30 make them available for purchase online at the rate of $4 an hour. Over 150,000 kids watch his lectures online each year, most of them high-school students looking to boost their scores on South Korea’s version of the SAT. That’s 150,000 high-school students slipping out of seats they used to fill in public and private schools – evidence of a coming avalanche.

Or consider the Georgia Institute of Technology. This year it started offering a $6,600 online master’s degree, a sixth the price of its current degree, in partnership with the MOOC platform Udacity and AT&T. Georgia Tech lists 3,904 residential graduate students. Living in Atlanta, the degree will cost them well over $50,000. A student in Albuquerque can get the same degree for a sixth the price. Same content, equivalent counsel, live in your home community. These courses have no cap on enrollment, so Georgia Tech will quickly recoup its sunk costs and turn a profit. More importantly, every student filling the roster in GT’s online program means one less student filling a seat in a lower tier college or university. This indicates a coming avalanche.

Outsiders see this. Two of them, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, say the nub of the issue is that any sort of entrepreneurism in today’s schools “occurs within fixed bounds.”2 In other words, those inside the academy zealously guard intellectual content, which “is a major source of universities’ value to a fickle, fad-prone society.” But it also caps universities’ capacity for innovation because they disregard what Christensen calls “disruptive technologies” such as MOOCs. Colleges and universities rarely enjoy “a revolution of the type so often heralded in business or politics,” they write.

In a June 2012 speech at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, David Puttnam warned of the consequences of ignoring the coming avalanche. “It’s tragic because, by my reading, should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to ‘protect’ could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.” That’s what happened when Peruvian authorities tried to protect the tourist trade. If colleges and universities try to protect their turf, many of them will likely be swept away. Next week we’ll look at what the “Avalanche” report proposes, including how the various functions of the traditional university might be better served by providers that are not universities at all.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Amanda Ripley, “The $4 Million Dollar Teacher,” The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2013.
2 Clayton M. Christensen & Henry J. Eyring, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 78.


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  2. IIRC, this has been discussed before. The main reason students go to school today is to get noticed when they search for a job. With jobs being more scarce (for various reasons) a diploma has less value. We can talk about the quality of education all day long, but if the result does not better a student financially, the “quality” of the education he receives becomes moot.

  3. Thanks, Mike. Hits home as Melissa and I are considering other options than our local public schools down here for the year to come.

    We have already begun discussions with our oldest child, who will be 17 this year, regarding his continuing education and what options might be available beyond our traditional system.

    How about Clapham U?

  4. Great post as usual Michael. Funny you posted this because on the next day, April 1, I posted something similar (though written a few weeks prior):

    I have been writing about this coming avalanche since at least 2010. Sadly, I can’t get most of my peers to believe it; many mock me as Chicken Little, arrogantly assuming that nothing will ever “touch us.” I keep reminding them that the horseshoe makers and ice delivery men from 110 years ago said the same thing.

    Can’t wait to see your next column.

  5. And I would quibble a bit with Tom’s point. It sounds like he is making the same argument I hear from many—“the point of college is to get a job.” Now, perhaps he is not necessarily saying that (so forgive me Tom if you are not), but that idea is part of our problem in the first place. I am a historian and a pastor, and so I have tried to make this study purposeful for myself. I wrote about that here:

    But the gist is that education historically has never been about getting job, but rather about becoming learned. With the expansion of the mind, that idea of the Liberal Arts, then yes, those people were indeed getting hired into good jobs…but not necessarily because of their degree type but because since they had been in college, the expectation was that they were of a critical mind.

    We lost that idea somewhere in the ’50s, perhaps even earlier, but regardless, many now assume College’s one purpose is to get a job. That is what has contributed to the misguided “college as industry” approach and leads to, among other things, students who are very disinterested in learning and merely want the credits to get the degree. We have divorced college from its purpose, and since it thus becomes purposeless, students don’t really care and professors often don’t seem to really care either.

  6. Carl: If you mean the 1850s, you are correct. That’s roughly the period when Horace Mann introduced the Prussian model of education. Its primary purpose was to produce workers for America’s new industrialized society. The Prussian model replaced the British model, a liberal arts approach to education featuring theology as the “queen science” with meaning and purpose as the main end.

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