Get Out While You Can
By James D. Miller
TENURE WON'T SAVE us from a higher education collapse. Start
making alternative career contingency plans now because this
collapse could be sudden and catastrophic.
Among middle- and upper-class Americans, almost every intelligent,
hard-working person attends college. Knowing this, many employers
use college as a cheap and efficient sorting device and consider
only college graduates when hiring for professional positions.
Not having a college degree sends a negative signal to employers.
Unfortunately for professors, this signal could dissipate. To see
why, consider an extreme example in which students go to college
only because of signaling concerns. If something happened to cause
fewer highly capable high school graduates to attend college, the
stigma of not attending college would slightly decrease.
But as this stigma fell, fewer people would pay for college, which
would cause the stigma of not going to college to fall further,
which in turn would reduce the percentage of highly capable people
who went to college which would…. In a world in which college
functioned purely as a signal of quality of the graduate, the
percentage of people who attend college could quickly plunge.
The self-made technology billionaire Peter Thiel, who wrote a book
attacking political correctness at Stanford, is attempting to
weaken the negative signal of not attending college. This
billionaire held a competition to find 20 of the smartest,
hardest-working and most accomplished people under age 20 and is
paying them to “stop out of school.” Although these 20 couldn’t
make a difference per se, Thiel is using them to send a message
that talented young people shouldn’t need to pay (in cash and
time) for a college degree. When evaluating Thiel’s chances of
success, keep in mind that he was the key financial backer of
Facebook and LinkedIn.
Computing technology poses an even greater threat to colleges than
Thiel does. Computing power is driven by the well-established
trend known as Moore's law, an implication of which is that the
amount of computing power you can buy per dollar approximately
doubles every year. Let's say you're 40 years old and are
wondering what kind of artificial intelligence programs you'll be
competing with in 20 years. When deciding this, take into account
that 20 years from now computers will likely be around a million
times more powerful than they are today. Over the long run you
don't want to go up against Moore's law, yet I fear that this is
my profession’s fate.
If you think that students will always prefer live, human
performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many
18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something
that came out of the technology used to create this.
Don't let your childhood memories of this
fool you into underestimating the mortal threat information
technology poses to our occupation.
Many governors face enormous fiscal shortfalls, forcing them to
choose which public employees to anger. Tenured professors, I
suspect, have a lot less political clout in most states than do
policeman, nurses, prison guards and public school teachers. If
online education keeps improving, then I predict that some
governor is going to propose firing most of the tenured faculty at
his public colleges and replacing the high-priced teachers with
online courses. Since Republicans consider academia to be a
creature of the far left, many Republican governors would
undoubtedly take joy in decimating the traditional higher
Students gamble on the future when they fund their education with
debt. Our current economic difficulties, however, are making
Americans pessimistic about the long-term fate of our economy, and
it wouldn't surprise me if many parents are no longer willing to
let their kids load up on debt. That is especially true if the
parents have sent another child to college only to see him moving
back home after graduation and taking a job that didn't require a
college degree. Unfortunately for professors, every capable kid
who doesn’t go to college reduces the stigma of not pursuing
If you have tenure and therefore think that your college would
never get rid of you, consider what would happen if most of your
school’s peer institutions replaced expensive tenured faculty with
cheap online courses and used the savings to cut tuition by 50
percent. Even if your school has a healthy endowment, many members
of your Board of Trustees or Regents probably have business
backgrounds and would consider it financial malfeasance for the
school to bear costs that the majority of its competitors had shed.
I'm far from certain that the higher education market will
disintegrate. But the reasonable chance that it might should be
enough to get young and middle-aged tenured professors to think
about what we would do if forced out of academia. And bear in mind
that if academia suddenly collapsed, the job market would be
flooded with former professors, making it extraordinarily
challenging for us to get jobs, such as editing and teaching high
school, that are well-suited to many professors' skills
Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much
networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that
professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set
of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The
best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in
touch with some of our former students, especially those who would
make good bosses.
James D. Miller is a tenured associate professor of economics at
Smith College and is currently writing a book speculating on the
future economic impact of enhanced human and artificial
intelligences. He hopes the book will land him consulting work
that he could use to provide for his family should Smith College
terminate his employment.