The higher education bubble is very, very real

As the number of university graduate programs in, say, medieval literature declines, the number of PhDs needed to staff those positions will decline as well, leading to a further reduction in departments, repeat ad nauseum. (We select this field because we hold it in very high esteem here at Via Meadia; we don’t want to confuse a discussion over the fate of academia with a discussion about the value of particular subjects or approaches.)

So the elements are in place for two different but equally real sets of changes. The first set are the long-term and structural transformations that will see many institutions close and more change beyond recognition in the next half-century. But there will also be very quick, short-term changes that could hammer a number of departments and disciplines extremely quickly.

Beyond that, the likelihood is that at the undergraduate level prices have gotten out of whack. Harvard and Yale and a handful of other institutions are excellent buys at almost any price because of their reputations and the doors they open; but schools that lack either prestige or a demonstrated ability to teach specialized skills are vulnerable to rapid changes in consumer behavior. Strategies like taking two years in community college before facing the ferocious and largely unjustifiable costs of many four-year institutions, and downshifting from obscure private schools to cheaper public ones to minimize debt will proliferate. Expensive private colleges without a strong brand or a large endowment are particularly poorly placed in this environment and could face existential challenges very, very soon.

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