Teaching Inside the Higher Education Bubble

I have tweed reveries.

In these daydreams, the tweed is in the form of a blazer, with leather patches on the elbows, creating a trite but emblematic vision for a future where I become a college professor. (In New England, of course, where tweed not only protects against the year-round chill but seems necessary to be part of the education establishment – the one that exists in my head.)

As of late, though, my visions have been threatened by public suspicion of a bubble.

A bubble is no longer the delicate, floating wonder from childhood. A bubble is now the defining term for the overvaluation of an industry or commodity. And just like in childhood, we watch a bubble and wait for it to burst – except here, it brings upon rapidly deflating values for that industry or commodity and leads to economic chaos all around.

With the housing crisis of the last few years barely in our collective rear-view mirror, reporters who missed those clues are eager to identify the next. Recently, their attention has been squarely fixated on one target: higher education.

The story of a higher education bubble, as it's been told so far, is fairly straightforward and convincing: the high and steadily increasing costs of higher education has led many students to take on far more debt than they can repay once they meet a job market with few high-paying prospects.

If a bubble burst here, the consequences could be dire. We could see past and current students defaulting on their education loans, a vast majority of our college-aged population being unable to afford higher education, the decline of their potential future earnings, and universities experiencing drastically lower attendance with untold scores of schools being forced to close, just to start.

However, one important aspect of this story has been missed so far: the impact of a presumed bubble on professors and higher education teaching staff.

From inside the bubble, these individuals share a different viewpoint.

"I think there are some people that need to have a 'bubble' somewhere and higher education is the current, convenient scapegoat," says Dr. Tracy Worell, an Assistant Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. "There is legitimate concern about the rising costs of tuition and students repaying loans. However, higher education is not on the verge of 'popping.'"

A postdoctoral fellow from a selective private university, who wished to remain anonymous, shares similar thoughts.

“For me, and [others working in higher education], the bubble is not a bubble at all,” she says. “It is . . . more of a trough.” (The trough being the current slump in hiring for higher education teaching professionals.)

Whether a real or imagined, a bubble or a trough, the speculation surrounding the state of higher education has already had some very real consequences for those working within it. One is the same problem their students encounter: jobs.

The volatile nature of the current higher education job market can help explain why the post-doctoral fellow requested anonymity for this article, as she is currently on the job market herself.

“There are few tenure-track faculty jobs around, and the competition is quite fierce,” says the postdoctoral fellow. “My field is doing better than others and there are still 200 applicants for every opening.”

An explanation for the lack of tenure-track jobs could be the increase in non-tenure track academics. According to the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors, 75 percent of instructional staff was comprised of full-time non-tenure track and part-time faculty members in 2009. Tenure improves a teacher’s ability to be academically and financially stable, but costs the university more. So universities have opted to fill more positions with a more temporary type of teacher.

But even those with secure positions are being presented with further challenges.

“Professors, just like many other profession[als], are being asked to do more with no additional compensation,” says Dr. Worell. “I don’t get stock options or a bonus if I hit a quota of butts in my seats.”

With students and parents paying $50,000 for a single year of education at a university, the public’s sympathies may not lie with professors and their pay grade. But the AAUP reports that most higher educational instructors make well below six figures and, as of late, yearly salary increases have not even met the rate of inflation.

The perception of being in a bubble impacts what happens inside the classroom, too.

“[Students] are paying a lot of money to be here and there is a certain amount of pressure to perform in ways that make them feel like they are getting their money’s worth,” confides the postdoctoral fellow. “It does change the discourse around performance evaluation and can also impact discussions about which classes to offer and how those classes cover the required material.”

No longer is it good enough to proficiently teach a course topic and have your students understand and retain this knowledge. In this new education environment, learning for learning’s sake is passe. Instead, professors must adjust what and how they teach to meet the needs of their students’ highly selective future employers. This means pushing beyond theoretical conversations and into practical, applicable business-world skills. And those who haven’t updated their offerings to students are met with concern.

“I see a lot of [the] more senior faculty giving advice that is no longer viable,” says the postdoctoral fellow. “That’s not helpful to anyone.”

With viable employment after college graduation no longer a given,  professors have to be savvy career counselors on top of being sophisticated educators. And the number of roles they are asked – or feel beholden – to take on doesn’t stop there.

“On a regular basis, I am an aunt, a cheerleader, a mentor, a counselor, and an educator, not to mention all of my other responsibilities of research, publications and service to my university,” explains Dr. Worrell.

Clearly, professors are invested in the future of higher education. And they may be the best place to start to solve its current problems. Many of them see a way for these institutions to move forward instead of being left behind.

“There are a number of positive changes that are happening in higher education that will help to reinforce the already strong structure of many institutions,” says Dr. Worrell. “More and more universities are looking to reduce costs and tuition, publishers are working to make textbooks more affordable, many universities are offering free and reduced cost online classes.”

“Higher ed is . . . a very slow turning boat,” adds the postdoctoral fellow. “It might take a while, but I do believe a transition [to a more sustainable education model] will happen. Maybe the tuition structure will get an overhaul. Maybe the value of state school education will become more important than the pedigree of Ivy League institutions. Maybe tenure will go away, freeing up some resources that are currently locked in to cover guaranteed senior salaries.”

As for my tweed reveries, they dim with confrontation of this new reality. I can’t see myself being happy teaching to the faceless class of online students, or working in an environment where what you teach is measured by cost instead of impact. Right now, I can’t see much of anything – the picture painted for this future is just too murky.

Despite this, Dr. Worrell isn't downcast about being a professor – and won’t let me be about my prospects, either.

“Really, I think I have the best job in the world,” she says.

When I ask if she sees herself teaching in 10 or 20 years, she replies with the simplest response, a single word that says it all  – “Absolutely.”