Actually, Higher Ed is Not That Similar to the Newspaper Industry

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education weekly feature “The Edge,” usually written by Goldie Blumenstyk but this time written by Scott Carlson, is about the “warnings” higher education should heed from what happened with the journalism business. It’s called “What Higher Ed Can Learn From the Newspaper Industry.” Carlson writes:

Newspapers are generally for-profit enterprises; colleges in most cases are not. But the parallels between journalism and academe are striking: We both deal in knowledge and have public service at our core. We have legacy institutions (Harvard, The New York Times) and upstarts (Coursera, Vice Media). Smart, intractable, and often underpaid people — professors and reporters — form the foundation of our industries, taking complex or specialized information and breaking it down for an audience. For many of those people, their academic or journalistic professions are all they ever imagined doing with their lives. To watch their industries crumble is a source of great heartache.

That first point– for-profit versus not-for-profit– is an important difference between journalism and higher ed that unfortunately gets left behind in the rest of the essay. But there are of course other important comparisons. Both journalists and professors tend to think of their mission as a “higher calling” and one that doesn’t necessarily square with everyone else’s views on the purposes of journalism or higher ed. Quoting Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, Carlson writes academics think of themselves as discovering and distributing knowledge, when people just want the credential and a job. “We pin our value,” Littau says, “on things that I don’t think the audience is thinking about.” Carlson also cites a CHE report on “Mega Universities” (tl;dr yet)– places like Southern New Hampshire, Liberty University, and Arizona State University– which threaten traditional universities as their enrollments grow to 100,000 or so students, mostly because of aggressive marketing and robust online programs. And so forth.

This is all something I touch on in my book More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of Massive Open Online Courses, which will (crossing fingers) come out from Utah State University Press in the fall. I think part of what Carlson and (indirectly) Littau is talking about is true. The higher ed “business” is definitely going through a rough time that is comparable to the rough times in journalism and mass media generally. Technology is changing the way both education and journalism are “delivered,” and colleges and universities– particularly the less prestigious ones like EMU– need to innovate in terms of delivery and programs to keep the doors open.  But for me, that’s about where the comparison ends.

I think there were two things that permanently transformed journalism, neither of which has a clear comparison to what’s going on in higher ed. First off, there’s Craig’s List, which I do not think gets enough credit (or blame) for disrupting one of the main sources of income for newspapers, the classifieds. Newspapers– particularly local ones– made a tremendous amount of money from classified ads back in the day. All of those $20 or so a week ads for selling your car or renting an apartment added up. Second, the rapid rise of social media, Google news, and similar forums dramatically changed the way people found, read, and expected to receive news for free.

But beyond that, there are a number of ways in which the “business”/institution of higher ed is quite different from journalism. These are things that I talk about in more detail in the book in relation to MOOCs, but I think it applies to the comparison to journalism as well.

First off, while content “scales,” education and assessment do not– at least not all the time, and not well enough. Certainly higher education has A LOT of content– research, textbooks, tests, writing assignments, etc. But if education was primarily about “delivering” “content” to an interested audience, then the need for schooling– particularly in higher education– would have started its decline with the development of literacy. The real value of higher education comes from the interaction between students and teachers (face to face or online), the assessment of students and their work by experts, and the credentialing of those courses which lead to a recognized college degree. That credential matters a lot. I think Littau is right in that too often, faculty think that our value is the abstract life of the mind, in “discovering and distributing knowledge.” Nonetheless, even if this is what faculty tend to favor and emphasize, we all know students wouldn’t come to universities for the life of the mind and knowledge alone. They certainly wouldn’t pay for it if the credential wasn’t worth something.

Second, I think people who make this comparison to journalism (or who thought MOOCs were going to take down institutional higher education) underestimate the depth and breadth of higher education. In my book, I quote David Labaree (who quotes someone else) about a claim that there are around 85 institutions in the western world  established by 1520 that continue to exist in similar (albeit evolved) ways today. These institutions include the Roman Catholic Church, a few parliaments, and about 70 universities. All of the top 25 universities in the world (as ranked by Times Higher Education) are at least 100 years old, and many much older– Oxford and Cambridge were founded around 1200, Harvard 1636, and comparable “new kids” Stanford and Cal Tech in the 1890s. Lots of universities in the U.S. were founded in the 1800s, including the one where I teach. So why, if higher education is so bad at innovating and if it is an industry “ripe” for disruption or failure, why are so many universities so old?

And then there’s the breadth issue. There are around 4,700 institutions of higher learning in the US– especially if you include all the proprietary schools, cosmetology schools, and the like. That’s almost four times as many newspapers as are published now, and it’s probably more than were published in the 1940s, before the rise of TV and then the Internet.

Third, while most people seeking news don’t like to pay for it, almost all would-be college students (and their families) are more than willing to pay. In the book, I go into some detail about how the cost of attendance has never been the deciding factor new students cite for why they decided to attend a particular college. While COA has always mattered and it matters more now to students than it did in my generation, students still value the quality of the institution and the success of an institution’s graduates more. This is why MOOC providers could not interest traditional undergraduates in taking their courses: even when the costs of taking a MOOC for transferable college credit is dramatically less than taking a course at a more traditional community college or college or university, students didn’t take the MOOC courses in part because the credential wasn’t “worth it.”

Which brings me to my last point for now: as is still the case with MOOCs, the students interested in attending these “mega universities” and other online providers are not the same as the ones interested in attending more traditional colleges and universities. Rather, most (probably a majority) of the students attending places like Southern New Hampshire or Liberty are older students who are coming back to finish their bachelors degree, or they’re starting college later in life, or they’re people who already have an undergraduate degree and they’re now seeking an additional credential or certification. And again, there has always been a lot of “non-traditional” students seeking education or training outside of “traditional” and institutionalized higher education. In the 1920s and 30s, when correspondence schools started to take off in a major way, there were many many more students enrolled in those courses than there were enrolled in institutional higher ed, and a lot of those students were the same kind of non-traditional student interested in MOOCs and online mega-universities now.

The threat of MOOCs disrupting higher education as we know it has largely passed, but more people are enrolled in MOOCs in 2019 than there were at the height of the “year of the MOOC” in 2012. I quote Cathy Davidson’s claim that in 2016, Coursera alone had 25 million students start at least one course on its platform, which is about four million more students enrolled in traditional colleges and universities in the US. My point is the threats to higher education that Carlson and others have identified are not at all new and not actually “threats.”

Don’t get me wrong– there are definite problems in higher education. As has been the case in the U.S. for at least the last 150 years, there will be institutions that will struggle and that will close or merge with others. Regional and opportunity-granting universities– like the one where I work– will continue to face a lot of challenges, things like even further reduced public funding and falling enrollment. Higher education will continue to change. What it means to “go to college” in the 22nd century is likely to be quite different– much in the same way that going to college in the 19th century was quite different from it is now.

But no, higher education is not as similar to the newspaper business. It certainly isn’t as similar as many journalists like to believe.


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