Responding to Galloway’s pandemic reflections

People have been asking me to respond to NYU professor Scott Galloway‘s interview on how COVID-19 will change higher education. I appreciate the request, and now finally have a few minutes to share some reactions.

There is also a recent Galloway video on related points, apparently, but it is locked behind a paywall I cannot access. Similarly there are some Business Insider pieces, also paywalled, and so I can’t speak to them here.

In the interview with James Walsh — that we all can read — Galloway makes some key arguments:

  1. The value of higher ed will decline as people perceive wholly online education to be of lower quality than in-person.
  2. Enrollment will drop, hitting non-elite institutions the hardest.
  3. Many campuses will not close in 2020–2021, but will cling to life.
  4. Elite universities will partner with the world’s biggest companies.
  5. ” ” ” expand massively online.
  6. Governmental support will not return to 20th century (higher than now) levels.
  7. Liberal arts colleges will be attended mostly by children of rich families.
  8. A national service initiative (Galloway offers “Corona Corps” as a name) would be a good thing.
  9. Online learning will improve, especially in terms of technological platforms.

It’s a very snappy and entertaining interview. As befits a marketing professor, Galloway offers some quotable lines:

There will be a lot of zombie universities.

[U]niversities [ha]ve all adopted this narrative of “This is unprecedented, and we’re in this together,” which is Latin for “We’re not lowering our prices, bitches.”

We get a lot of ego gratification every time our deans stand up in front of the faculty and say, “This year, we didn’t reject 85 percent of applicants; we rejected 87 percent!,” and there’s a huge round of applause. That is tantamount to the head of a homeless shelter bragging about turning away nine of ten people who showed up last night.

The interview is also a good example of what I mentioned earlier in the pandemic, of faculty criticizing online learning in a way that discourages enrollment. For example,

I can’t tell you the number of people who have asked me, “Should my kid consider taking a gap year?”

What do you tell them?
I tell them it’s a great year to take a gap year.

So what do I make of all of this?

I think some the ideas are sound: campus enrollment being hammered, students taking gap years, some zombified colleges and universities, state support declining. I’ve made many similar points.

A CoronaCorps could work well. I doubt the Trump administration has the combination of vision and administrative skill to fire one up, especially in this election season, but I can imagine some state governments (think New York, Michigan, California) doing so.

Liberal arts colleges becoming the province of elite families? There’s historical precedent for this. Some LACs are effectively that right now. I can imagine colleges feeling the budget squeeze and deciding to reduce Pell Grant admissions. But I also know liberal arts leaders who believe in social justice, and might have the fundraising power to make it happen.

Partnerships with Apple et al? It’s possible. There are precedents, like Apple joining up with Ohio State University and with Tennessee State. But those are for limited programs, not the kind of strategic fusion or acquisition I think Galloway has in mind. Moreover, I’m not sure Silicon Valley will view higher ed as profit centers in 2020, not without the firms taking a big hand in redesigning universities from top to bottom — something nearly all would resist.

In the middle of the interview Galloway argues that higher ed’s main value is credentialing, not learning. The thing is, this is a long-standing argument. One popular nickname is “the sheepskin effect.” Probably the most well known exponent is Bryan Caplan, who was a great Future Trends Forum guest:

As ever with discussions in higher ed, I wish people would cite sources, or at least describe their interventions in a way that admits other folks have been discussing those ideas for a while.

One problem I see with this series of arguments is that it assumes a nearly perfectly economical understanding of higher education. As Anthony Moretti puts it,

Students are expected to enter these mega-universities simply to become tools for capitalism. Galloway says nothing about college graduates being better citizens, becoming a volunteer soccer coach or bolstering democracy. Nope, it’s all about money, money, money.

There is no room for other motivations for students, faculty, parents of younger students, administrators, or government leaders.

This leads to a second problem: curriculum. Do Facebook et al need the full university’s offerings, from computer science to French and anthropology? Again, Moretti says it well:

Where does the writer, the sculptor, the historian, the journalist, the nurse and other students not in the business or STEM fields fit in this environment? Perhaps more importantly, how do some of those fields — which require intense face-to-face instruction — thrive? Or will those degrees be atrophied until they die in this education/technology arrangement?

I can imagine a putatively pro-liberal education company like Apple supporting the full course catalog and research agenda, either because they see all of that as constituting the luxury experience, or because they agree with the liberal arts case for preparing students. But I can also imagine them ruthlessly cutting class offerings and the research agenda back to a narrow pipeline that serves them directly. It’s not clear which model Galloway has in mind.

The biggest criticism I have of the interview is that it’s not really about American higher education, but just a handful of elite universities. Listen to which ones get named: MIT (repeatedly), Berkeley, Oxford*, University of California (I think Galloway means the system, not a single campus), University of Texas (ditto), Stanford, Amherst, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, UCLA. Galloway himself teaches at NYU. Pepperdine and Boston College appear, but only to be knocked down the reputational scale.

In other words, the interview doesn’t address the overwhelming majority of American higher education. Community colleges literally do not appear in the conversation, yet they number about one-third of United States campuses and teach around one half of our students. State universities also count for about one third of the lot, and they aren’t all Berkeleys. For-profits, of which there are almost 1,000, receive no mention.

Galloway and Walsh emphasize the value of a residential experience, which I certainly appreciate, having enjoyed it myself as a student (University of Michigan) and professor (Centenary College of Louisiana). But that’s only a slice of American higher ed, something like 20% of students actually living on site. In an MSNBC interview Galloway focused on 18–21-year-olds, who do constitute a majority of enrolled students, but there are a lot of adult learners as well.

At one point Galloway observes that “the coronavirus is forcing people to take a hard look at that $51,000 tuition they’re spending.” A good and telegenic point… except the supermajority of colleges and universities don’t charge that much. (I think that’s NYU’s tuition, according to a quick Googling)

Is this because the recorded conversation fits that lamentable American habit of assuming Harvard stands in for the whole sector? Or does that focus follow from a truly apocalyptic vision? The subtitle of the piece — “a handful of elite cyborg universities will soon monopolize higher education” — suggests MOOC-hype-like devastation, that the MIT crowd will stand alone after state universities, for-profits, and community colleges perish. I know, I know all too well that authors don’t usually get to pick published titles for their articles, and interview subjects even less so, but this bit of subtitle actually connects with exchanges in the discussion. In a CNN clip Galloway paints a portrait of higher education as institutionally conservative and massively overpriced, therefore due for a reckoning.

So does professor Galloway expect the number of American campuses to drop from 4400 or so down to around one hundred? If not, how will the non-Stanfords fare? Will they also partner up with Microsoft and IBM? Will their non-Latinate tuitions drop? How will the experience differ across institutional types and geography? How does academic research change?

An MSNBC interview sheds some light on these questions. There Galloway forecasts threats to 1,000 lowest-ranked schools (a “death march”) and sees 500 to 1000 of them closing within the next five years.

I am also curious about how elite universities will grow their online enrollment. In the conversation the marketing professor offers this vision:

technology will expand their enrollments and they will come back stronger. In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000.

How would that work? Recent history offers countervailing evidence, as the MOOC revolution largely failed to successfully scale. Meanwhile, the campuses that do enroll tens of thousands online are not the elites. Instead they are Arizona State, Liberty, and Southern New Hampshire; Lee Gardner described them last year as mega-universities. Will the pandemic vault, say, edX or Stanford over these currently successful online enterprises? What programmatic, technological, and pedagogical transformations are required to yield that result? How can they succeed where MOOCs fell short, and so what the elites so far have not done?

I’d be delighted to discuss these questions and more with professor Galloway, either on Twitter, this blog, or the Future Trends Forum. And I am eager to hear everyone else’s thoughts as well, as always.

*Naming Oxford one time is the only sign I can find that the interviewer and interviewee are thinking outside of the US. Otherwise this seems to be really about American higher ed.

(thanks to Brian Pech, Steve Hargadon, Bill Meador, Luba Vangelova, Steve Kaye, Steve Worona, and Robert Gibson for nudges; thanks also to Rob on Twitter for a key pointer; cross-posted to my blog; Medium’s import function is still terrible)

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