The Future of Higher Education: A few scenarios

In my previous life as an academic philosopher, I specialized in game theory. To order an essay on game theory, contact In particular, I was interested in how the behavior of groups changes over extended periods of time. Being an expert in game theory changes the way you think. It’s certainly shaped how I think about the future of academia. And it hasn’t made me an optimist.

When you’re a game theorist and you notice some social trend, such as changes in voting patterns, or movements in the economy, you almost reflexively ask a few simple questions.

  • Are these trends self-reinforcing? That is, we wonder whether this behavioral pattern make it more likely that the same behavior will continue, or even deepen.
  • Is the trend countered by some other force? For example, as prices increase, demand will decrease, which will push the prices back down over time. We wonder whether some other dynamic will cause the trend to slow down, stabilize, or even reverse.
  • Is the pattern short-term or long-term? If it’s a short-term pattern, then it may have been caused by a recent event, and that gives us some reason to think that it might go away over time.

The state of higher education in the United States (I don’t have enough experience with other countries to say anything about them) has been experiencing a number of disturbing trends that have been noticed by anyone who’s paying any attention at all. These trends include at least the following:

  1. Very fast increases in tuition at all levels, which greatly outpace inflation.
  2. A diminishing number of tenure-track and tenured faculty positions.
  3. An increasing reliance on short-term positions such as adjunct or visiting professors for meeting a university’s teaching needs.
  4. Diminishing state support for public colleges and universities.
  5. Increasing numbers of administrators relative to both students and faculty.
  6. Lowering faculty salaries and increasing administrator salaries.

I could go on. What bothers me as a game theorist is that all of these trends point in the same direction, they are long-term trends, they reinforce each other, and there is no countervailing force working against them.

To see what I mean, let’s consider why faculty salaries are going down in real, inflation-adjusted terms. The reason is not, as my former colleagues were fond of claiming, because of the financial crisis of 2008. The financial crisis certainly didn’t help, and it probably accounted for some temporary downward pressure on salaries, but this trend was well-established long before 2008. And furthermore, if it had been caused by the financial crisis, it should have reversed by now. But of course, it hasn’t.

Why are faculty salaries going down? Obviously, the diminishing level of state support is partly to blame. But why hasn’t the decreased contributions from the state also had the same effect on administrators, college sports (which is greatly subsidized by taxes, contrary to popular opinion), or additional student amenities on campus? The reason is that the lack of state funds is only one reason among many.

The main reason is the availability of cheaper labor in the form of adjuncts and other temporary positions. Adjuncts are paid a criminally low wage for crushing workloads, and are more easily kept in line by administrators because they fear for their jobs. Faculty pay and the number of adjuncts are intimately related.

Furthermore, as faculty pay goes down and the number of adjuncts goes up, universities get used to having fewer faculty positions. This creates a glut in the available labor force, further driving down salaries. If you get a job as a faculty member, you have virtually no bargaining power to negotiate salary or benefits because there are literally hundreds of other highly-qualified people lined up to take your job if you don’t want it.

When there are fewer faculty, it becomes easier for administrators to take advantage. Tenured faculty form a de facto labor union. They should have tremendous negotiating power as a group because of their job security. But in practice, they don’t. Part of the reason is that there are fewer of them. Like any business, the best way to undermine a union is by bringing in non-union employees. The more of them a business has, the stronger the negotiating position of its leadership and the weaker the position of its union. Just as CEOs and other executives can get away with giving themselves huge salaries at the expense of their workers, university administrators can do exactly the same thing. And as administrators become further emboldened, the pattern just becomes amplified. They have a strong enough position to increase tuitions, lower salaries of everyone else, hire more adjuncts, while simultaneously giving themselves raises.

So what happens next, not just over the next few years, but over the long run? There are a few scenarios, which I’ll briefly discuss.

Scenario 1: Improvement and stabilization

In this scenario, universities manage to claw back some of their funding, the number of faculty positions increases, the percentage of adjuncts decreases, and tuition stops increasing. Imagine that the condition stabilizes somewhere at pre-2008 levels.

Personally, I find this the least plausible scenario. It’s very pleasant for faculty and students to imagine that our universities’ terrible state is a temporary result of poor economic conditions, but there’s no evidence to support this. And if these problems are not the result of a temporary condition or isolated sequence of events, there’s no reason to think it’s going to reverse course.

Scenario 2: Universities stabilize in a bad state

As pessimistic as I am, it’s still not reasonable to think that universities will continue to go downhill forever. The downward trends have to stop sometime. So perhaps things continue to get worse for a few more years and then the downward slide comes to a stop.

I think there’s some truth to this scenario. The downward slide into oblivion will definitely end somewhere. The question is whether it ends before an actual crisis occurs. By “crisis”, I mean economic or military crisis. Without a viable university system, the economy will experience a terrible series of shocks. Universities are responsible for building an educated workforce, maintaining an informed citizenry, and for keeping our research pipeline filled with people capable of continuing to work on the hard problems we face. These needs are already not being met, but it hasn’t caused irreparable harm to the economy yet.

If universities stabilize before this happens, we’ll end up in a bad, but not catastrophic situation. But again, the question is why they would stabilize without some countervailing dynamic causing them to stabilize. Personally, I don’t see this happening.

Scenario 3: Crisis and federal intervention

This is what I think will actually happen. Eventually, it will become apparent that the United States will lose its global leadership position without a viable university system. To an extent, of course, this is already happening. But we still have the luxury of living in denial for quite a few more years.

Eventually, this state of denial will become impossible. The only actor powerful enough to reverse the downward spiral will be the federal government because there simply isn’t any other entity with the economic and political power to do so. This will be precipitated by a crisis or by the sudden realization that a crisis will soon be upon us.

This may sound overly dramatic, but there’s excellent precedent for exactly this scenario. I’m referring to the Soviet Union’s detonation of a hydrogen bomb, followed by the launch of Sputnik. The United States was shocked by the first and humiliated by the second, and it caused a huge investment in education — especially science education. Science became a highly respected field that we encouraged children to study, and huge federal investments were poured into education, research, and other grants for universities. There’s no reason this couldn’t happen again. Just as the federal government poured billions of dollars into the economy following the financial crisis, billions would be poured into the economy — and into higher education in particular — if we were shocked into action.

Place your bets!

Personally, I believe that such a shock will occur, although I can’t possibly predict when or what form it will take. The game theorist in me is pretty confident that we’ll continue to chip away at higher education, followed by some crisis that causes federal intervention on a huge scale. There are mechanisms in place already for getting dollars from the federal government into universities — those mechanisms include the National Science Foundation and, more importantly, the Pentagon; they also increasingly include the National Security Agency and the rest of the intelligence community. So if you want a picture of what universities will look like in a couple of decades or so, imagine a world in which university priorities are determined by federal institutions like those.

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