The economics of higher ed are notoriously complicated and even shambolic. Approaching this Byzantine system requires a good amount of research and care just to get started. Which means it’s very easy to write badly about the topic.

Today’s case in point comes from Scott Galloway. I’d like to take it apart not to criticize the guy himself (no malice here, to pick up on his tagline), but to illustrate some common mistakes in his article which readers can spot and avoid. I take my job as a futurist to mean (among other things) that research about the present and recent history should be excellent, in order to improve forecasting. Let’s see about improving things.

The piece is a Medium article titled “Why the Cost of Higher Education Has Spiraled Out of Control” and it makes some good points. Galloway is right to repeat the common wisdom that published academic tuition has soared for some institutions over the past two generations. He’s right to echo many people who see the nearly $2 trillion in student debt as a disaster. Yes, accreditation is a powerful force. Calling out senior administration compensation as excessive is a popular charge, as is arguing for taxing excessive endowments. And I’m glad to see a professor from an elite institution complain that being exclusive runs counter to the democratic promise of access.

Yet the piece makes a series of mistakes that too many others fall prey to.

Confusing a handful of universities for all of higher ed. There are about 4,000 American post-secondary institutions, and they appear in a wide range of forms: public and private, liberal arts and community colleges, arts-centered and vocational, huge and tiny, to name a few. This diversity must be hard to grapple with, because writers so often like to pick on one slice of it, then generalize to the rest therefrom.

“Why the Cost…” has many examples. The title calls out higher education as a whole, but the first paragraph immediately slices it down to state-funded schools: “undergraduate tuition has risen nearly three times as fast: 6.7% a year at public colleges…” A few paragraphs later the author explains all of rising tuition by analyzing “[o]ur best universities” and “our great public universities,” and “the top 200 schools.” Why does this matter? Because different sectors, systems, and individual campuses have different pricing structures. And because community colleges — the largest slice…



Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, educator. Author of the FTTE report, UNIVERSITIES ON FIRE, and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.