There was far too much mourning in 2020, but one thing no one’s mourning is Quibi. Co-founded by Hollywood bigwig Jeffrey Katzenberg, Silicon Valley bigwig Meg Whitman, and a big ($1.75 billion) pile of cash, Quibi aimed to be a mobile-first video streaming service positioned between YouTube and actual video streaming services. What that meant was content divided into six-to-ten minute chapters (called Quibis), so viewers could watch on the subway, or really long elevator rides.
Launched last April, Quibi announced its closure in October. While Covid undoubtedly reduced subway and elevator riding, it’s indisputable that Quibi burned through most of $1.75 billion in six months of life by letting talent do pretty much whatever they wanted. Nowhere is that clearer than the first episode of the Quibi series 50 States of Fright, starring Emmy-winner Rachel Brosnahan as The Girl with the Golden Arm:
Doctor: The tests have come in. It’s pulmonary gold disease. As long as your body keeps absorbing the gold through your skin, there’s very little I can do. You’ve got to take off that prosthetic.
Girl with the Golden Arm: No. I can’t take off my golden arm. Ever.
[Cut to deathbed scene]
Husband: It’s OK.
Girl with the Golden Arm: I had a dream. A terrible dream. Promise me something.
Girl with the Golden Arm: When I die, bury me with my golden arm. Promise. Say it.
Husband: I will bury you with your golden arm.
Nearly all of the media coverage of Quibi’s demise – and the loss of 200 jobs – was glib. The Ringer reported that Katzenberg suggested newly unemployed staffers raise their spirts by listening to the song “Get Back Up Again” from the animated film Trolls. The New York Times ran the headline How to Blow $1.75 Billion in Six Months and suggested that Quibi lasted about a Quibi.
The Times’ glib treatment of Quibi could not be more different than its reporting on failing colleges and universities. Last week, it ran an elegy for Indiana University of Pennsylvania – one of fourteen regional publics in Pennsylvania’s state system (PASSHE) – lamenting the impact of Covid-induced budget cuts on the “precious bonds between teachers and students.” The article, by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, extrapolates from a relationship between a single student and faculty member (the professor “feels like family” to the student) to lament the loss of “an experience widely shown to move people into the middle class,” and that “can have a profound impact on the lives of… students.”
In a sector where tradition is celebrated much more than innovation, how America reacts to the demise of schools like Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) will be key to whether colleges and universities will spend this new decade making meaningful progress for students, or mourning the higher education equivalent of The Girl with the Golden Arm.
The level of schadenfreude in the coverage of Quibi’s downfall was proportional to the chutzpah of its co-founders. But it may take as much chutzpah to run a university like IUP. Annual tuition, fees, plus least expensive room and board runs $23,000 for Pennsylvania residents and $28,500 for out-of-state. The financial burden demanded of IUP students and families is partly a result of Republican budget cuts – as the Times points out – but primarily due to the fact that IUP has been trying to maintain a high level of spend on a declining base of enrolled students.
IUP enrollment declined by 35% in the past 8 years, from 15,668 to 10,067. New enrollments are down by more than half over the same period, from 3,820 to 1,817; at current prices, IUP’s 140 majors are no longer sufficiently attractive to prospective undergraduates. Another reason more students aren’t enrolled is that only 53% of IUP first-time freshmen graduate (unmentioned in the Times dirge). Either IUP is admitting students who aren't prepared (93% acceptance rate) or is failing to motivate and retain them.
As for those who successfully run the gauntlet, it’s likely IUP graduates are facing underemployment. IUP doesn’t track employment outcomes of its graduates – not even surveying graduates to see if they’ve obtained paid employment. Given the increase in hiring friction due to remote hiring, remote onboarding, and remote work, it’s possible most new IUP graduates are underemployed. The Times elides this by citing Edmit to claim that the average IUP graduate makes $89,000 after 14 years. But this is highly misleading. First, even if true, it reflects students who graduated before the Great Recession. The labor market has shifted dramatically since then. Second, it’s probably not true. Edmit gets this from PayScale, reflecting respondents who complete 30-question PayScale surveys i.e., not representative of all IUP grads, particularly those not on an optimal career trajectory. Interestingly, Edmit also reports a more representative number that the Times omits, ironically from the Times’ own analysis of Raj Chetty’s IRS data: at age 34, the median income of IUP graduates is $38,800.
With this context, it’s hard to imagine IUP working out well for the student profiled by the Times: she has over $65,000 in student loans and is majoring in journalism, a field which tragically has but a fraction of the good paying jobs available 14 years ago (perhaps in a fit of wishful thinking, also not noted by the Times).
The Times concludes with the news that the faculty member will be laid off. “My heart is broken,” she says, “not… because I’ll be unemployed in May. What I care about is these kids who entrusted us.” While it’s indisputable that she had a strong relationship with this student, even the most dysfunctional failing enterprise has redeeming qualities. I’ll bet Meg Whitman had a wonderful relationship with at least one of her employees at Quibi, or at least warm enough to inspire a tearful New York Times profile from a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist.
The big picture is that the only consistent beneficiaries at institutions like IUP are faculty and administrators, not students. The Times references this obliquely: “Often, these public universities are not just education anchors but the largest employer in the region with the highest salaries for staff and faculty and they go to the local inn or the restaurants.” Until enrollment collapses as it has at IUP, there’s little connection between what’s in the interest of schools, and what’s in the interest of students. 100% of students could graduate into underemployment for a decade, and unless prospective students somehow connect the dots, it’s hard to see negative ramifications for the administrators and faculty at an institution like IUP, where 2/3 of spending is on salaries and benefits.
Dunking on any one school is unseemly; IUP is far from the only higher education institution where the dots have been connected and prospective students are refraining from applying, enrolling, paying eye-watering tuition, and taking on student loan debt that is unlikely to be repaid given employment outcomes. The point is that despite the fact that all these colleges have accoutrements that awaken the nostalgia every journalist has for his or her alma mater, like Quibi, they’re probably not worth mourning.
Outside the wild and wonderful world of higher education, it’s hard to think of a failing product that is so romanticized. In the private sector, there’d be negative Yelp and Google reviews within weeks. In healthcare, if discharged patients from a particular hospital took a turn for the worse at an abnormal rate, it wouldn’t take a decade for payors or the media to catch on. But due to lack of data, confusing data, and information asymmetry, higher education is different. Bad schools can and often do persist for a very long time.
IUP-like restructuring is underway at hundreds of colleges and universities. No one is cheerleading for anyone to lose a job or for any institution to close. But it’s important to recognize that progress on student outcomes – ensuring that Gen Z doesn’t follow in the shabby economic footsteps of Millennials – will require shifting investment away from certain practices and institutions. There’s a reason these schools are failing: they’re failing students. So boundless nostalgia is not helpful. Romanticizing one close faculty-student relationship inhibits change, as does having a heavily indebted journalism student serve as an absurd mouthpiece for the status quo, per the Times: “how could these cuts help Pennsylvania, she mused, if the state eliminates well-paying jobs of faculty charged with educating the next generation?”
No colleges have to die, but they do have to change – in some cases, dramatically. That means certain things will be lost. But focusing first and foremost on what’s lost speaks to the danger of extrapolating from analogies. Whether it’s reporting rare instances of voter fraud, or anaphylactic reactions to vaccines, the Times generally does a decent job of contextualizing how specific occurrences can mislead as to the big picture and lead to dangerous public opinions and bad public policy. If the paper of record can’t course-correct in higher education, perhaps someone there should re-enroll in a journalism course at IUP (whoops, too late).
In the Times article, Dan Greenstein, the Chancellor of PASSHE, comes across as a budget cutting monster who “did not respond to request for additional comment.” But I know Dan, and few people think more deeply about the future of American higher education. Unlike the New York Times, Dan understands that if we care about the next generation, we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, and that talent may no longer be able to do pretty much whatever they want. Because at far too many colleges and universities, the gold is ending up with administrators and faculty, not the ones who are paying a golden arm (and a leg).