The Anatomy of a Failing University

Photograph Source: John Loo – CC BY 2.0

American universities are failing. They are private or public schools. They could be religiously-affiliated or not. They could be in the east, west, north, or south of the United States.  They traditionally emphasized liberal arts. They are facing an enrollment and budget crunch for several years, seeing that the declining number of eighteen-year-olds in the coming years poses an existential threat. It has a modest endowment. It is not an elite school. It is a school like the one that many professors teach at.  It was failing before Covid-19. It may not be around in five years. With COVID-19, it may be around even less than that.

Years ago, I argued that higher education had a failed business plan, one that planted the seeds of its own destruction. It was a plan following the failures of K-12.  Now the reality of the failed business plan is imminent .

The reasons for failing are many.

For years it relied on the same demographic of white students to recruit, except that demographic is disappearing.

For years it raised tuition at percentages that far outstripped the cost of living and increases in median household incomes, and now many students cannot afford to go to college.

For years it raised tuition to convince people that the more expensive it was the better a school it was.  Except the school did not invest the money in academic programs.

For years it played the U.S. News & World Report college rankings game.  Except all the other schools played too and all it accomplished was elegant dorms and rising tuition.

For years it spent increasing amounts of money on lavish meals and events to recruit students.  Except all the other schools did the same.

For years it encouraged students to borrow, except now with student loan debt at nearly $2 trillion they are tapped out.

For years  it chased adult Baby Boomer learners who wanted additional credentials or thought they had a novel in them.  But this demographic is gone.

For years  it jumped on the bandwagon to create pricey graduate programs such as MBAs to subsidize the liberal arts school.  Except this balloon busted.

It adopted a corporate, private-sector orientated model for governance, creating high-salaried vice-presidents for every task or problem it encountered.  Except when the financial crunch hit it opted to lay off or reduce faculty and cut back on programs that generated revenue instead of trimming back middle and senior management.  It also then hired a new vice-president or a consultant to manage the finances.

When enrollment and retention dipped it hired a new vice-president instead of new recruiters or admissions staff.

It reduced the percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty and replaced them with part time contingents. Except it found that the latter, no matter how well meaning, do not have the same time  to provide all the advising and other services full time faculty do.

It expanded sports programs as a way to attract attention and recruit students.  Except few sports programs provide a positive return on investment.

It experimented with on-line degree completion programs.  Except it did so at the same time everyone else did across the country and therefore it faced a new group of schools competing for the same students.

It lowered admissions standards to maintain enrollment but could not then figure out why the retention rates went down.

It cut requirements such as foreign languages, music, or the arts to make it easier for students to get in and graduate into jobs.  Except in doing so it undermined its mission as a liberal arts institution and the reason why students should go to it and not a community college.

It made it easier for high school students to enter with advanced placement credits.  Except it then realized that these students could graduate early and therefore did not pay as much in tuition.

As its competitors added certain programs it duplicated them as opposed to defining what it was good at and focusing on it.

As the job market changed it developed new programs to chase the trends.  Except the new trend was always one step ahead of the school.

It jumped on buzz words and slogans such as high impact learning or stackable to sell itself, yet it did little to really change course offerings or programs.

It invested heavily in learning technology letting it drive pedagogy, instead of vice versa.

It talked about the reality of a coming new student demographics, but it did little to change its marketing strategy or services to support them.

Its administrators and university presidents froze faculty salaries or cut their benefits to make money, trustees gave them bonuses for doing that and then wondered why professors were dispirited  and disillusioned.

It hired presidents who promised big change but kicked the real tough choices down the road to avoid taking responsibility for what might happen.

It said that we have to be more career-focused like community colleges, except it forgot that  an expensive four-year school cannot price compete with a two-year school.

With Covid-19, it is facing an existential threat that has accelerated the problems it has faced for years.

Now the trustees, administrators, and faculty sit around in meetings and wonder why the university is failing.  Perhaps they need to hire an expensive consultant to figure it out.


David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.