Dec 23, 2011

The future of higher education in the US?

Imagine the (not unlikely) scenario in which more and more state universities shift to a two and two model: almost all undergraduates spend two years in low cost community colleges and then the best of them go on to two more years at a university. It is hard to see why the humanities departments in the community colleges would need to be staffed with holders of Ph.D degrees — in part because it is overwhelmingly clear that most students need basic skills in community colleges rather than advanced courses. There might be a small “honors college” with something like the traditional structure of a 20th century university faculty, but demand for Ph.D’s would drop precipitously and the majority, possibly a very large majority of existing doctoral programs would close their doors. That would further diminish the demand for Ph.D’s, and would lead to another round of cutbacks in doctoral programs. In the end we might have a small number of excellent programs, producing a relatively small number of top scholars capable of doing important work — as opposed to large number of mediocre scholars most of whom don’t produce anything that even their fellow specialists and academic colleagues value. 


  1. Hmmm, I doubt that higher education will trend this way in the foreseeable future; it is possible. Regardless, I am not sure I concur with your hypothesis regarding the closure of Ph.D. programs. In my opinion, graduate, Ph.D. education in the humanities and social sciences, as it stands today, is inefficient. I would estimate that only 1 out of every 4 students who enter a history Ph.D. program for instance become tenured, university professors. The "survivors" are often not the brightest in their class; instead many of them are simply lucky (happen to locate a good intellectual niche or make the right connections). All the while, the nation suffers as some of its brightest minds spend years in a Ph.D. program before dropping out with a M.A./M.S., or they obtain the coveted Ph.D. only to fail to obtain a tenure track position. The lost opportunity costs both to the nation and to individuals, is enormous.

    On top of that, only about 1/2 (or less) of the Ph.D. programs in any field are good. The rest tend to produce mediocre graduates. As such, we already have a situation in which resembles the one mentioned in the final two sentences of your post.

    Finally, the current, higher education infrastructure lends itself to ossification and elitism. It might benefit from a paradigm shift.

  2. Thanks for the response, Anthony!

  3. Well, Higher ed in the US should aim to provide a more professional approach and learning to students. Some of those that can be called "higher education" is professional developments mostly offered by e learning Courses that is widely offered in the US today.