As we hide out at home, scolds like Rosanne Cash remind us that “when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” I suspect few of us are doing anything of the sort, particularly with the distraction of watching our own Lear bloviate daily on national television. Trump whipsaws from one position to another, dissembling about what he said or thought or did or didn’t do, and – like Lear – always more “sinned against than sinning” and prioritizing fealty above all else. If you’re sufficiently fawning – see e.g., the CEO of MyPillow – go straight to the front of the line. Trump looks much more like Lear than anything remotely resembling an effective leader from the pages of history or Harvard Business School. The first draft of the history that flowed from our Lear-like leadership has already been written. Predictably, it's a tragedy.
Since I’m neither watching nor writing King Lear, I’ve had some time to read. After re-reading The Plague by Camus, I opted for The Decameron – a less nightmarish pandemic pick than Stephen King’s The Stand. (Sorry, but all three are currently listed as bestsellers, so I’m not the only one.) Written in the mid-14th century, The Decameron is a hundred different tales recounted by a group of young men and women as they hid from the plague in a secluded villa near Florence. The stories are less interested in religion or morality than “earthly” values, which helps explain the immense popularity of secluded villas near Florence.
Speaking of earthly values, journalists are also not writing King Lear, but rather articles predicting a coronavirus baby boom. After completing assigned reading for Plague Book Club, trapped couples are expected to act as though they’re in secluded villas near Florence, which will produce a surplus of births next winter. If so, admission into the Class of 2043 at top colleges and universities will be punishingly difficult.
But admissions in the spring of 2039 is a high-class, long-term problem for colleges and universities. The immediate challenge is fiscal. Moody’s downgraded the entire sector and a flurry of reports are questioning whether, in COVID-19, American higher education has met its Waterloo. It’s understandable that a fiscal crisis could emerge for public colleges and universities if cash-strapped states cut appropriations. And if students can’t visit campuses, or – God forbid – if campuses can’t re-open by fall, that spells trouble. But let me see if my math is right:
1) Entering perhaps the biggest recession in nearly a century (and the most sudden in history),
2) for a sector that has always been counter-cyclical (i.e., enrollments increase as people return to school),
3) and where one-third of respondents to a new Strada survey say they’ll “need additional education or training to find another job with the same wages or income,”
4) everyone is predicting unprecedented enrollment declines?
Something doesn’t add up. Last week, Northeastern University’s Sean Gallagher hinted how higher education’s math has gone awry when he tweeted that “searches for and enrollment in various online COURSES is booming but so far I’m not seeing an uptick in ‘online degree’ searches.” As a result, solving higher education’s immediate crisis will require solving the long-term challenge for the Class of 2043.
Both problems boil down to product-market fit. Even before the pandemic, the market of prospective students was increasingly focused on employment outcomes. A generation ago, only about 50% of students enrolling in a degree program indicated that employment was their primary or sole motivation. Recent surveys consistently reported that number north of 90%. And with tens of millions of Americans newly unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19, the market of potential students is now even more employment-centric.
What does it take to get a good job these days? A shedload of different skills. Facing an avalanche of resumes for each open online job posting, employers have taken to adding dozens of skills to job descriptions, hoping a tighter net will do a better job of filtering out unqualified applicants. Way back in a different era (around the time our King Lear said he had “pretty much shut [COVID-19] down coming in from China” AKA February), I highlighted a marketing manager position with 45 skill requirements and a cybersecurity analyst job with 33 requirements. Many of these skills are digital, and with a much larger pool of available talent, employers are likely to become even more finicky.
In contrast, from a product evolution standpoint, higher education is about where automobile manufacturers were a century ago. When Henry Ford famously said of his Model T “a customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black,” he might have been talking about colleges and universities in 2020. Ford’s Model T offered 2-door and 4-door versions, as well as roadsters and town cars, but all essentially the same black-painted car. Similarly, colleges and universities offer different majors, but their degree programs are isomorphic per the most important criteria for employment-centric students:
1) Time: at least several years = major life-altering time commitment
2) Financial: choice of paying out of pocket or taking on debt = significant risk
3) Employment: limited connectivity to employers and jobs = no guarantee
While community colleges do offer faster and cheaper certificate programs (although these represent a minority of community college offerings), the essential value proposition of the current universe of degree programs is pay upfront and work full time for 2-6 years for a chance at getting a good job. The COVID-19 experience of current students – now paying up to $60,000 per year (out of pocket, or by incurring debt) for a remote learning experience that falls far short of what they bargained for (and even shorter of the skills they’ll need to land a good first job) – simply accentuates risk awareness. (As Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens said in the New York Times, “By quickly moving classes to the internet and telling students that online delivery would be credited and billed exactly as face-to-face delivery, elite schools raised big questions about their core business model.”) For a market now firmly set on achieving a positive employment outcome in as little time and with as little financial risk as possible, it’s no wonder we’re not seeing an uptick in searches for online degrees, and why colleges and universities are as nervous as cats in a roomful of rocking chairs about how many students will show up this fall, and for future falls.
More and more students are searching for faster + cheaper pathways to good first digital jobs. As COVID-19 has also laid bare the gap between digital haves who can work remotely, and non-digital have-nots who must show up at a physical location, students will increasingly insist on pathways with a high probability of landing them in the former category. Some of these pathways may continue to require tuition. Others may not guarantee employment. But many will provide an improved value proposition for students along not only the dimension of time, but also financial and employment. Colleges and universities can continue to make Model Ts and ignore product-market fit, or they can get in the game and differentiate with new onground and online pathways. Because it cannot be the case that the primary or sole message to the economic victims of COVID-19 is re-enroll in a degree program, and borrow tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of sitting in classrooms for years on end at an accredited, Title IV-eligible college or university.
When (surviving) colleges and universities finally get around to solving the immediate issue, getting into the Class of 2043 won’t be such an ordeal. Students will be able to select from among multitude of postsecondary pathways of different durations and modalities, some starting at age 18, some starting earlier or later, and many different financial and employment options.
After Rosanne Cash tweeted about Shakespeare writing King Lear, she followed up “AND he did it without toilet paper,” I suppose to scold those who found hoarding toilet paper a better use of their time than Plague Book Club. As far as higher education is concerned, here’s hoping Rosanne stops tweeting for a moment and sings her country hit If You Change Your Mind, because it’s the message colleges and universities are about to hear from prospective students:
If you change your mind
And leave the past behind
You know where you'll always find me
Once we’re through the worst of COVID-19 and states begin cutting higher education spending in a mad scramble to balance budgets, while employers slash training budgets (including tuition reimbursement, higher education’s darling revenue stream of the past few years), the reflex to raise tuition and fees (i.e., 2008 redux) is exactly the wrong approach for students and for enrollment. Elite institutions aside, the colleges and universities that stick around to enroll the Class of 2043 will be the ones that come to terms with the risk of self-cannibalization and begin developing innovative faster + cheaper pathways to the economic security of good first digital jobs. If our colleges and universities can move quickly enough for the benefit of our future workforce and electorate, they may play no small part in preventing the crowning of a second American King Lear.