The coming melt-down in higher education – I think he underestimates the culture of prestige

The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer)

For 400 years, higher education in the US has been on a roll. From Harvard asking Galileo to be a guest professor in the 1600s to millions tuning in to watch a team of unpaid athletes play another team of unpaid athletes in some college sporting event, the amount of time and money and prestige in the college world has been climbing.

I’m afraid that’s about to crash and burn. Here’s how I’m looking at it.

1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.

Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is? While there are outliers (like St. Johns, Deep Springs or Full Sail) most schools aren’t really outliers. They are mass marketers.

2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.

As a result, there are millions of people in very serious debt, debt so big it might take decades to repay. Word gets around. Won’t get fooled again…

3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.

4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.

5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.

I’m one of the first to say that the next 20 years won’t look like the last 20 years in higher education when asked about the future of education. I even share many of the same sentiments as Godin. I differ in my estimate of the direct of this change.

Prestige will always skew the market and many of these universities sell prestige. Not just the Ivy League schools, but most of the large state schools do this as well. Prestige has both local and global effects. That big State U. generally has a lot of prestige in the local/regional context, whereas the Ivy League schools (not to mention the other more well-known schools) have it on a more global scale. This prestige factor isn’t going to disappear quickly. There is too much invested in it.

Prestige doesn’t just benefit the student and job-seeker. Prestige benefits the alumni all the way to the board room (and into the community). Their educational background is the foundation for this prestige in many cases. It makes them part of a larger, loose network. Prestige is by it’s very nature an illusion propped up by the schools, applicants, alumni, and their interactions with society at large. Change in this dynamic runs deep and the holders of power in this dynamic will struggle to maintain power.

With that said, I agree with Godin when it comes to the fate of those schools lacking the prestige factor (or even those at the lower rungs). They are the ones who will either change or perish. These schools have to offer more for less. The growing education markets both within the country and abroad are beginning to eat their lunch.

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