Redefining Higher Ed

By Patricia Melton

Yesterday Cities of Promise looked at the closure of Sweet Briar College and asked if it was a canary in a coal mine, falling by the wayside because of a “student loan bubble” which now has grown to 13 figures. Yes, a trillion dollars — a level not reached from either U.S. credit card or auto loan debt.

Today we look at the future of college given the market factors that are playing out. We look no further than this morning’s New York Times, in which Joe Nocera has featured a new Kevin Carey book entitled “The End of College.”

Carey, the director for the education policy program at the New America Foundation, takes a sledgehammer to higher education but remains optimistic about the future of education. Perhaps as a parent of a four-year-old, he has to be.

Nocera writes that Carey has “been thinking about the role of universities in American life for virtually his entire career” as both an education writer and policy analyst. David Leonhardt of the New York Times has called Carey “one of the sharpest higher education experts out there” while Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews is even more narrow, calling him “the best higher education writer in the country.”

Carey has been focused on how technology and higher education can be intertwined, yet moving in opposite directions. Technology has created opportunities across the planet while college costs have widened the privilege gap which encourages young people to take enormous risk on future, unguaranteed earnings.

He now feels that universities are “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence, creating the seeds of a new world to come” and that this new world will redefine education in cheaper and more useful ways.

The arms race for fancier campuses — and the status and prestige that go with them — has been shouldered by students and families, but Carey sees a revolution where one’s education becomes more consequential than one’s degree. Organizations like Coursera — where former Yale President Richard Levin now serves as Chief Executive Officer — are building huge catalogues of college courses which are now available online.

Carey believes future learning will come from the “University of Everywhere,” which he recently explained on NPR:

“Historically you went to college in a specific place and only studied with the other people who could afford to go [to] that place, in the future we’re going to study with people all over the world, interconnected over global learning networks and in organizations that in some cases aren’t colleges as we know them today, but rather 21st-century learning organizations that take advantage of all of the educational tools that are rapidly becoming available to offer great college experiences for much less money.”

But how, exactly, will this impact football?

Patricia Melton is the Executive Director of New Haven Promise

A Canary In A Coal Mine?


There was reason Sweet Briar College’s announcement that it was going out of business came as such a shock last week. There was little indication — not even government metrics designed to warn against college instability — that the Virginia school was in dire straits.

But officials decided that waiting for the lights to be shut off was the least desirable way to cope with the inevitable. Sweet Briar — which has served its students for more than 100 years — will cease operation at the end of the school year.

In response to the news, Mark Cuban — the entrepreneurial billionaire who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks — tweeted, “This is just the beginning of the college implosion.”

Those who have been following Cuban know that he has been warning of the “student-loan bubble” for years. He expressed his concerns on last summer, but has also been writing about it since at least 2012.

He was so intent on ringing alarm bells, he developed a college loan debt clock, which shows students owe $1.3 trillion on college loans. Credit card and auto loan debt stands at $1.6 trillion with college loans closing fast.

“We freak out about the trillions of dollars in debt our country faces,” Cuban wrote three years ago. “What about the TRILLION DOLLARS plus in debt college kids are facing?”

“At some point it’s going to pop,” Cuban told Business Insider. “When you’re 18 years old and you don’t really understand all the nuances of what it’s going to cost to pay something back — it was almost inevitable.”

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, told Inside Higher Ed that “idiosyncratic” institutions — places like women’s colleges, historically black colleges and colleges of denominations — face unique challenges while larger public institutions will likely become the norm. Perhaps the challenging attributes unique to Sweet Briar — an all-woman liberal arts college in rural Virginia — extend far beyond the student-loan bubble, but Cuban’s “canary-in-the-coal-mine” fear is too great not to consider.

In fact, he isn’t the only heavy hitter trying to bring attention to a looming national crisis. In the week before Sweet Briar’s stunning announcement, six U.S. Senators — including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren — penned a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticizing a system that suffocates students. “It is not the job of the Department of Education to maximize profits for the government at the cost of squeezing students,” the letter said.

Cities of Promise — which highlights programs trying to battle an unsustainable system (even lotteries couldn’t keep pace) — welcomes opinions, solutions, possibilities and anything else that can help push the conversation. What will colleges do to adapt? And when? If your business model is founded upon easy credit in a rapidly-changing environment, waiting is not an answer. Expecting young people and families to shoulder the burden will prove unwise.

As for Mark Cuban, we’d love to talk to you.