Chemistry Blog



Dec 02

The HigherEd Bubble Part 5 What Can We Do about It?

by azmanam | Categories: chemical education, opinion | (21667 Views)

The views expressed this week are those of this author only.  They are not necessarily the views of the author’s employer nor any other author at

Is there anything we can do to avoid having the higher education bubble collapse? Well, if the collapse is going to cause us all to shift our paradigms, we could just have the paradigm shift ahead of the bubble burst… Many of the suggestions I’ve read on how to prevent the bubble collapsing are a lot of the consequences I read about the post-bubble world. Many suggest that student should simply make smarter college choices, even if that means not attending a 4-year school or not attending college at all.

Several suggestions centered on increasing online learning opportunities. An explosion of valid, credible online course offerings could completely readjust the pricing model for higher education. Many schools, traditional or for-profit, are already starting to do this. Brigham Young University, Idaho campus, plans to offer 20% of its courses online. Students will be able to choose from 120 online courses.

Another way to revamp the system that has been proposed is to make universities more operationally efficient by extending the school year to a 12-month calendar. Rather than the traditional September – May academic year with two semesters, offer a 3-semester, September – October July academic year. Two former college presidents suggest this could increase productivity as much as 15% without adding infrastructure. BYU-Idaho is also adopting this approach. The school runs three, 14-week semesters, with class in session for 42 weeks of the year instead of the traditional 30 weeks of class. Students still only attend two of the three semesters, but they can choose to attend all three on the “fast grad” track if they want.

An always contentious solution that’s usually proposed whenever anyone decries any downside of higher education is to completely revamp – or outright scrap – the tenure system. I don’t really think I’m going to touch this one. I’m too close to the situation, and there are many articles already written on the subject. But if the tenure system were changed, and if those changes led to a more realistic higher education market, and if those changes and market corrections could occur before the bubble collapsed, some have suggested this as a solution.

Schools could rethink their priorities about what tuition, room, and board dollars provide the student. Instead of bidding up prices by luring students with more and more amenities, competing universities could enter a price war to see who can undercut the other – while still offering the education the student needs. True, the health and fitness center probably won’t get updated elliptical machines in the near future, but we’re trying to avoid a market bubble collapse, remember.

Some other suggestions: straight cutting expenses by cutting salaries or reducing staff. Universities could link presidents’ salaries to cost reduction measures and student affordability programs. The government could increase appropriations or grants to institutions, essentially subsidizing higher education from the university’s end. The government could also institute partial or total loan forgiveness, a favorite rallying cry of the OWS movement. The government, or lenders themselves, could arbitrarily cap the amount of student loans a student can take. I think this last suggestion might actually accelerate the market crash, but whatever.

Still others had some more radical suggestions. Jon Bischke suggests getting rid of the GPA/degree metric of determining a person’s worth in a job market. Rather, he proposes a reputation graph: a virtual representation of your skills, education, social reputation, and other metrics. It’s almost an online word-of-mouth promotion technique.

If the problem is over-leveraging, then one radical solution would be to remove the complete federal guarantee from the loans. No matter what happens to the borrower after graduation, the school has already gotten paid. But if the school faces a financial penalty when one of their graduate’s defaults, schools may show more of a concern for the amount of debt students accrue and what students do with their time while they’re in school. Schools wouldn’t financially be able to repay the entire loan balance, but making the school responsible for 10-15% of the loan balance is proposed to make the higher education experience more equitable.

Finally, one person is individually trying to reshape public opinion about higher education. I already linked to a page of wildly successful household names who never finished school. Well, Peter Theil (PayPal founder) setup the Thiel Foundation. The foundation awarded 20 students $100,000 to quit school and start their own company. You can read the students’ proposals at the Foundation’s website. Theil has said that a few of the students told him they would quit school to start their company regardless of whether they won the $100,000 or not. Thiel is trying to poke holes in the idea that a person needs a college degree to succeed, and he’s putting a large bankroll behind his initiative.

Will any one solution solve the problem? Of course not. Nothing this complicated ever has a simple solution. Will any of these measures ever be adopted and tried out? I doubt it – at least not before the market forces some realignment by a bubble crash or other market force.

The biggest dilemma for me in this mess is a moral and professional dilemma.  On the one hand, I’m an un-tenured professor, so it’s probably in my best interest to keep the boat as calm as possible.  But I teach at a private, liberal arts college where a semester’s worth of tuition and fees is more than $15,000.  To protect my job (and my industry), don’t I need as many warm bodies coming through the gates as possible?  But I have really strong feelings on student loan debt and there is the lingering of ‘should everyone go to college?’  Am I contributing to the problem by encouraging as many people onto campus as possible?

What implications does this have for how I conduct myself at recruitment and retention efforts?  What implications does this have when I have that student in my office genuinely struggling with classes, who may not be motivated, who may only be there because it’s expected?  How am I supposed to conduct myself given what I know about this market, this industry, and this student loan mess?

These questions have haunted me since I started talking about this with colleagues at a pedagogy seminar a few weeks ago.  They’ve been haunting me ever since I started preparing this series, and they still haunt me now.  Someone help me answer them! :)

Well, this wraps up our week-long discussion into the higher education bubble. It may have seemed a little out of place on a chemistry blog, but, well, this is the only platform I have! And it probably affects us all by one or two degrees of separation. If you’re not in the higher education field, you probably went to school with someone who is, or you have a child who is or will be a college student soon.

I certainly don’t claim to have any answers here, but this is an important conversation to have, in my opinion. It absolutely has a direct impact on my livelihood as an un-tenured college instructor. My job may depend on the direction higher education takes in the next decade. The best thing we can do is start talking about it. The worst thing we can do is pretend nothing will ever change and then be completely blindsided when the market turns.

Thanks for joining me this week.

Part 1: The State of Higher Education
Part 2: Is Higher Education a Bubble
Part 3: Student Loans
Part 4: What If the Bubble Pops?
Part 5: What Can We Do about It?


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  1. Matt

    OK – so what can you do to help stave off the bubble …
    That’s a good question and one the I’m trying to get at myself.
    The best way to do this, I think, will also work in the best interest of your job. You need to help give your students added-value in their education. What I think this means is restructuring your curriculum in a way where they can point to your classes as a reason why they are better prepared for the job market. And, not only do the students need to see this, but hiring representatives need to see this as well. So you need to develop two things: 1 – your educational approach and 2 – your relationships with chemistry recruiters. I think that, given a reasonable amount of time, both the student and their employers will see that the education that you (and your department) provide give the students clear advantages over others.
    … At least, this is a generic approach (without really getting into the specifics) for what I’m trying to do at American. And, knowing where you are, I think that your department has the potential to do the same thing. There are so many departments at big schools pushing for the best research. What can we do in smaller departments to be recognized as producing the best graduates. I think that there are real possibilities there.
    And, while it doesn’t answer the larger goal about the economics of the education bubble, it does give you a way to personally add value to your student’s education.

    … just my thoughts. take them with a grain of salt.

    1. azmanam

      This is a really great comment.

      I’m hoping to do this to my students with my syllabus day speech. I refer back to the points I made that day often. First topic in spring semester is spectroscopy. I’ll tell students that, I know, they’ll never have to read an NMR again (probably)… but they will have to read an x-ray, CT scan and blood work to figure out what’s going on with your patient.

      Hopefully this is how I can help add value to their degree. Getting them out of the ‘regurgitation’ mindset into the ‘application’ mindset.

  2. mevans

    I like the idea of a “reputation graph.” My boss and I have floated the notion of introducing badges into our organic chemistry course, but there are two issues holding us back:

    1) Scale. I envy you, azmanam…I really do. It is really tough to manage the true skills of 200+ students in one semester. Technology helps, but is definitely not a panacea in this area.

    2) Folding badge/reputation systems into current grading models. This has to be done, in my view, to appease the “powers that be.” My intuition says badge systems should be introduced in parallel with traditional grades. Imagine a gradebook that lists skill sets, as opposed to problem sets!

    Large schools with research-focused graduate programs would definitely benefit from this information with concrete evidence to accompany it. Graduate education is in many ways messed up right now, and one of the reasons why is professors (and students) have no idea what they’re in for when they take on students/enter graduate school. Schools and professors need hard evidence that students have what it takes to succeed…and grades are simply not sufficient when high-quality research is the goal. I’m sure you know examples of students who dominate the classroom but fail miserably in a research environment.

  3. mitch

    The upside to a bubble crash would be that as the supply of chemists decreases the salary of chemists should start increasing.

  4. Ryan mercer

    Heh I say they do away with all their stupid sports programs and put it towards science, the U.S. is by no means the cream of the crop anymore when it comes to producing brilliant minds, and that’s just not acceptable. Instead of buying astroturf fields, why not pour that into the science programs.

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