Sobering thoughts on higher ed

n+1 has some pretty disquieting thoughts about higher education, student loan debt, and the changing profile of university campuses, both for- and greenback dollarnon-profit.  Author Malcolm Harris compares the spiraling costs of federally-backed student loans to the housing bubble that just blew up in our faces.  He writes:

The result [of increasing student loans] is over $800 billion in outstanding student debt, over 30 percent of it securitized, and the federal government directly or indirectly on the hook for almost all of it.

Yowch.  Of particular interest, if you happen to be or know someone with student debts or probable future student debts, is Harris’s overview of how higher ed has shifted to a corporate-ized model over the last forty years or so.  Tuition costs have exploded, which means students take on more debt–but there’s less and less assurance that when they graduate they’ll have a job at all, much less a job allowing them to pay off $50,000 while also establishing a household and a life.  At the same time, high-cost university courses are more likely than ever to be taught by adjuncts or graduate students, who are paid little and have no job security.

And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.

Double yowch.  And:

If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.

Triple yowch.

In today’s Oregonian (our newspaper around these parts) was a piece about a bipartisan state bill (HB 2732) that was just passed, requiring high school students to apply to university, the military, or an apprenticeship program before they can receive their high school diploma.  There’s no requirement that people actually follow through (although an application to enlist in the military seems potentially binding to me) but the bill is on its way to the Senate.  No word on whether the state will put any more money into actually funding degrees for those students who are accepted.

Image: Burlington County National Greenback Labor Ticket, courtesy Cornell University Collection of Political Americana

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Zombies at McPherson College

Wow…Miller Library at McPherson College has really raised the bar for interesting, lighthearted, student-friendly collateral.  Their Library of the Living Dead comic is irreverent and snappy and well-drawn, thanks to creators Matt Upson and Mike Hall.

There’s a great interview with them by Lizz Zitron over at The Outreach Librarian.

I’m tagging this one “infographics,” just for the heck of it.

Robert Darnton weighs in on libraries, books, and the information age.

After my last post, I was encouraged and pleased to see this piece in the Chronicle by Robert Darnton, Harvard’s university librarian.*  Darnton says a lot of things that I think are absolutely true for many libraries these days.  We’re busy, our chairs are full, we’re more involved in our institutions and communities than ever.  Books aren’t going away anytime soon, though the digital world is on the rise.  The two can coexist.  A very small percentage of what’s published and used for research is available online. Librarians help people find what is there, just as we’ve always helped people find what’s in print.  (We still do that too.)

Or as Darnton puts it (more eloquently than I just did):

A more nuanced view would reject the common notion that old books and e-books occupy opposite and antagonistic extremes on a technological spectrum. Old books and e-books should be thought of as allies, not enemies.

Bottom line:  if a library is getting cut, it’s not because its fundamental services aren’t needed anymore.  The world of information didn’t start suddenly researching and interpreting itself, and delivering itself to untrained searchers in a comprehensible format.  People didn’t wake up knowing how to find census data and copyright-free images.  The need for a space to study, a networked computer, a self-help book, an answer to a question, a kids’ summer reading program–none of that went away.  And chances are very good that nobody else is supplying those needs.

Library for the blind, New York Public Library

*  Thanks to Sarah McDaniel, most awesome Coordinator of Library & Information Literacy Instruction at University of Wisconsin, Madison for sharing this with me.  On Facebook, of course.

Professional future tense.

It’s been a controversial week or two for academic libraries–at least in the American blogosphere.  Here in Oregon, Mount Hood Community College just pink-slipped all three of its full-time faculty librarians, in the midst of a budget crisis and possible faculty strike.  Elsewhere, McMaster University’s chief librarian, Jeff Trzeciak, gave a presentation at Penn State that suggested he won’t be hiring many librarians in future.  Instead, he’ll be looking for people with subject PhDs and technology training–and will be taking librarians out of undergraduate classrooms and supervisory positions, to focus their attention on faculty research consultations.  This has ruffled some feathers in lots of places.

These two things raise important issues with immediate implications for our profession (and in some cases, our livelihoods.)  They bear your consideration–you librarians, you library students.  This is our shared corner of the world, and there’s no question that it’s changing around us.

I think we can agree that we aren’t served by nostalgizing our bygone professional past — maintaining that because once we learned library penmanship and catalog card stitching and print index consultation, that we must continue to learn and teach and do those things  Of course not, right?  No one would suggest such a thing.  The world has changed.  We don’t have any of that stuff anymore.

But neither is it useful to nostalgize our immediate professional past — to maintain that because academic librarians have for many years served at reference desks, that we must continue to do so in the same way.  Or that because we’ve taught one-shot research methods classes for years, that we should continue to do so, absent a demonstrated need.  That might be a little harder to swallow, because those things are closer to where we live now.  Many of us started out in jobs that included those kinds of responsibilities, and many of our jobs still do include them.

That’s fine if our institutions work that way–if we have a busy reference desk and instructors asking for us to teach.  In many places, we do.  In those places, the model of the immediate professional past is still working fine.  It’s the model of the professional present, and probably the model of the future, at least for a while.

In other places that model is faltering, because the traffic at our reference desk is slowing down or instructors aren’t asking for our help, or some other factor is affecting how we do our business.  Those are the places where our future is really starting to blossom.  That’s where we need our leaders to think carefully and humanely about the best disbursement of the vast financial, social, and intellectual investment we’ve made in our libraries over the last hundred years or so.

I respect Jeff Trzeciak’s spirit of innovation, and his willingness to dig in and do the hard work of changing academic libraries.  I don’t entirely share his vision — at least, what I know of it.  I don’t know what to say about the situation at Mount Hood Community College, because I don’t know the behind-the-scenes, but I can hardly imagine a scenario that justifies the sudden firing of an entire professional library staff.

I do think we’re becoming a more digital institution, in a more digital society.  I don’t think we should cut people loose (students, staff, or faculty) on the way to getting there.  I think major upheavals take their toll on organizations–on morale, productivity, even direction.  I think sometimes, in some ways, they’re still warranted.  I think they should be balanced with a plan for more gradual change that takes into account human nature and the persistence of habits and ideas — our own and our patrons’. I think that’s what we might call wisdom, and it balances what we might call energy.

I think change will look different in every library, and that’s a good thing.  A diverse ecosystem is a healthy, resilient ecosystem.  I think the future of our profession, and of the informed and responsible citizenry it supports, is literally in our hands.  I think we should be paying attention and talking to each other, across all barriers and divides.  What do you think?

Crossposted at Re: Generation.