Profitability or liberal arts? This is the dilemma facing a growing number of small and medium-size four-year colleges across the US, especially in rural areas. One such example is University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where degrees in history, French and German will be eliminated while resources will be invested in career-focused programs. Many American colleges are struggling financially due to the impact of declining public funding and demographics, and their chosen survival strategy is to diversify markets and services in various directions, such as promoting majors with clear career paths, attracting midcareer adults, or developing apprenticeship and nondegree programs. In many cases, liberal arts majors fall prey to these restructuring efforts. In the words of Greg Summers, the Stevens Point provost, “the higher-ed climate has changed profoundly and it’s not going back to the old normal.” Students in Rural America Ask, ‘What Is a university Without a History Major?’, Mitch Smith, The New York Times, January 12, 2019.

Science Ph.D.s on a global rise. Despite the perceived difficulty of accessing an academic job with a Ph.D., the number of doctoral degrees awarded across the world keeps growing. Among those, the highest growth rates are seen in the scientific disciplines (from 58% in 1977 to 76% in 2017 in the US, and a 22% growth in the UK between 2013-14 and 2017-18). What partly accounts for this paradox is the fact that the demand for scientific Ph.D.s. outside academia is growing. Another factor is the increase in international students, who are vastly more drawn to a scientific education (e.g. Australia). Not so for humanities and social sciences. As the demand outside academia for Ph.D.s in these fields drops, so does the global offer for such programs, which in turn are more and more shunned by students at undergraduate level. Why are science Ph.D.s rocketing ahead?, Times Higher Education, 14-20 February 2019.

Is the online mega-university the university of the future? As many colleges struggle with shrinking enrollment and tighter budgets, others are building national brands based on huge online enrollments and they are thriving. Many of these don’t even have physical campuses. Among them, Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University have grown their enrollment figures from under 10,000 in 2007 to around 90,000 in 2017. These so-called “mega-universities” disrupt traditional higher education practices by, among other things, targeting adults over high-school graduates and providing competency-based education that grants credits for life experiences and proficiency in a given subject. In particular, they focus on the huge market of Americans who have some college credit but never graduated (30 million). That seems to be in tune with what Americans are looking for today in a college degree: convenience, practicality, low cost. Mega-universities have the potential to literally change the shape and purpose of higher education, bringing the latter ever closer to a mere gateway to a job or a promotion. But this transformation requires huge marketing investments and the capacity to cater to adult students, which many institutions of higher learning simply do not have, and it can be hampered by internal resistance to change, especially among faculty. In addition, this market has already become so competitive that new players would find it difficult to carve a niche for themselves. However, critics see these outlets as a poor substitute for the education that a traditional brick-and-mortar institution can deliver. Online education, especially aimed at adults, offers none of the on-campus interaction between students and faculty and exposure to scholarship and research that traditional colleges do. Advocates argue, nevertheless, that given the uncertain future of work with the rise of artificial intelligence and automation, this is the wave of the future for higher education. The Rise of the Mega-University, Lee Gardner, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1, 2019.

Authors: Corinne Mellul
Date of the document: April 2019
Theme: More