You're hearing it more and more: There's a higher-education bubble. Remember bubbles? They're those things that pop and cause catastrophes. In 2008, the housing finance bubble popped and we're still dealing with the effects. Personally, I think the 4th straight year of economic molasses has a lot to do with long-run trends in technology and the negative effect of the internet on aggregate demand. People who spend all day surfing and tweeting and playing just don't buy as much stuff. They're certainly exposed to a lot less advertising. But still, even when long-run trends are downward, the economy tends to contract via bubble-pops, not smooth decline.
Why is the university system in the US about to pop? I first thought about this future back in about 2000 when I was working at a Cal State school. The tone of the place was entirely vocational. There was no student life. No spirit. No mentoring. Nothing that I would associate with higher education. It was a group - albeit a large and at times hard-working group - of young people seeking a certificate by the easiest possible means. A university in name only. Naturally, the thought occured that the whole thing could be done online at a fraction of the cost. And that someone out there would do that. And when they did, the Cal States of the world would go under.
Apparently these days are upon us. I've heard that 3,000 US colleges and universities will fold within the next 10 years. This gloomy forecast comes from the people who sell grotesquely overpriced textbooks to these schools. What a small lifeless campus can do, Phoenix University Online can do better. Thus, good-bye Direction-State University; good-bye Dead-Guy's-Name College.
Moreover, a good chunk of a big university's money comes from cash cow courses (the 1100 students in Economics 101), and these are easily done online as well. Revenues at big university will contract dramatically. There will be cutting; there will be blood on the tile. All those hyphenated departments, majors, and programs, created only to satisfy political demands or the power-lust of big-name professors, will go away.
The contraction in higher ed has distinct consequences for young people hoping for an academic career. If your advisors are telling you to ignore all this, follow your passion, and everything will be fine, my advice is: Find new advisors. Everything is *not* going to be fine.
How do you best protect yourself? First I think you have to recognize how much sheer luxury there is in the current academy, and how much of thta luxury will be pruned away. The primary luxury is in what I would call "the presumption of scholartude." We have hundreds of thousands of people with the title "Professor" and darn near every one of them (me included of course) thinks of himself as an Aristotle. "My job is to think, reflect, ponder, and then declaim truth." As if. Let's face it. All that cogitating and declaiming produces far more crap than truth. I don't mean to denigrate the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake; in fact I think it's wonderful and critically important. The thing is, only 100-200 people worldwide have brains sufficiently marvelous to *earn* that kind of life. The rest of us are just worker-bees in the sphere of knowledge. We have some aspiration to an insight now and then, but for heaven's sake it's not like we're junior Leonardos! Just because we've been given the luxury of Leonardo's lifestyle so far does not mean that our fellow-citizens will indulge us thusly forever. Indeed they almost certainly will not. For the main glory of capitalism, and our largely for-profit university system here in the US, is that unearned luxuries eventually get carved away. Europe will live on with its bloated systems for some time until a major collapse happens, but here, we'll have a correction. And the correction will involve getting rid of professors who just sit around and think and write.
Professors who don't actually know how to do anything will be shown the door; who remains will be professors who can do things. The mere reading of texts and writing of opinions (including reading aloud at conferences opinions that you already wrote down) will not be sufficient to keep a job. The world has no interest in your mere musing. Unless you are really insightful or really funny, the mere articulation of your thoughts will not put bread on the table. Therefore, learn how to do things that the world needs and is willing to pay for. What are those things?
Teaching is doing something. There will always be a small, high-quality market for face-to-face mentoring, old-to-young. Wholesome small campuses that take in loco parentis seriously will want good teachers. There will also be a few slots for rockstar teachers, those whose messages transfer well via video and interactive interfaces. Some mix of religious colleges and online universities will always want teachers.
Empirical analysis is doing something. Professors can do research that actually helps people in the real world solve problems. Fields that teach such things will remain in demand. The critical constraints are, the methods and results have to be either intelligible and persuasive to smart laymen, or, obviously transferable to some form of useful technology. If you can learn how to do this kind of work, there will always be a market for it. Statistics; data; experiment; observation; analysis.
Creating is doing something. Professors can build things, like symphonies and dresses. Professors can write novels and poems, they can offer sermons and software. If you cna learn how to make things that people like, you will be safe.
Just what you do depends on your own tastes and skills, of course. Readers of this blog will be more inclined to pursue games and virtual worlds and social networks. Just make sure you know how to make these things, or analyze them quantitatively and empirically. Don't think you can just have an opinion about games and be well off as a professor. Who will pay for it?
I'm sorry if this comes off as terribly commercial - think of it as cynicism if it helps. Ya gotta eat, kid. If working for other people's money was good enough for Micheleangelo, it's good enough for you. So, don't look at your professor's lifestyles and assume they will be open to you. They won't be. Just reading and thinking and writing won't be enough. Mere expertise won't keep you alive. Instead, figure out how to do something that the world needs, and flourish!