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Jul 10, 2017

The Giant Sequoias and the Universities

Thanks to a vacation trip last week, I have learned that giant sequoias that inhabit the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, have evolved to live through forest fires. They have a thick layer of bark, and their branches are high off the ground. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Their size, age, and adaptability are awe-inspiring. Yet those giants used to be all over the Northern Hemisphere and now they survived only in a few places in California. They could withstand forest fires, but not the Ice age. I am not sure why that is the case, but pines, maples, and oaks did just fine. Not as majestic, and relatively short-lived, they dominate both northern continents.

Universities have been around for a long time, and they survived wars, depressions, revolutions, change of regimes – everything. Moreover, they have been growing, including more and more people in more and more countries; see Martin Trow’s theory of university massification. The only glitch is that no one can figure out how to pay for the last stage, the universal higher education. It is just too expensive. Countries that chose the exclusively public financing have to limit the growth, or they break their budgets. Those countries that use mixed financial models, and rely mainly on tuition, risk creating a financial bubble of unsustainable student debt. The source of funds does not really matter; it is just very expensive to allow the majority of the population to have a full college experience. One unfortunate consequence of this cost dilemma is that students from lower classes tend to receive poorer quality experience. For example, Russia have one of the most universal higher education systems in the world, but half of its students study in a low-quality correspondence/online programs. Instead of equal opportunity, universities can reproduce inequality. The same thing happened to elementary and secondary education in the past – initially intended as equalizers, they became vehicles of inequality.

I am wondering if massification is the universities’ Ice Age. As far as I know, no one has a credible solution. For a while, high hopes were pinned on information technologies. Some hotheads like Clayton Christiansen predicted a total victory of online education. Such predictions were without merit. What most people value in their educational experiences is the human relation. It is the the economics of rationality that creates the enormous cost. There is and will be a huge demand for higher education, and it may or may not be connected to labor market. People just want college for their kids, period. And they will find a way of financing it. The open question is whether the existing universities will be able to figure out a way of meeting the demand, or it is going to be pines and maples, and oaks of some sort – also pretty, but not as majestic.

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