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Behind all these controversies, however, lay an ambitious “external agenda” that Wingard had intended for the Philadelphia institution. “When I joined Temple in the summer of 2021, our board and senior administrators were aligned on a common vision,” Wingard declared before resigning. “I believe that vision is still possible.”
He’s right: It is still possible — not just for Temple, but also for the larger world of academe.
Wingard’s recent book on the future of higher education serves as an excellent introduction to an ambitious vision shared by a host of higher-education reformers. The book advocates a turn away from traditional curricula toward alternative pedagogies that emphasize marketable skills. The future it sketches teems with business-minded academic reforms, outsourced course content, and the substitution of high-cost human teaching with cheaper technological alternatives.
It might be tempting to dismiss the writings of a failed university president as irrelevant, but that would be a mistake. Wingard’s book advances a broad program that extends beyond the deans, presidents, and trustees who promoted his career through the academy. That program is supported by high-level policymakers from both major political parties, by CEOs and financial executives who serve on university boards, by influential investors, and by sympathetic intellectuals and academics.
These ideas will not die with a single resignation. Unless a broader coalition mobilizes to stop them, they will continue marching across the landscape of higher education like zombies, transforming the content and purpose of curricula in the image of our post-industrial, financialized moment.
The diminishing ROI of college degrees, Wingard believes, stems from the “misalignment between market needs” and an anachronistic curriculum. “Comparative literature is exciting and soulful,” he muses, “but will it help me into the career I seek as a software engineer, doctor, investment counselor, social worker, researcher?” With its “strictly linear” learning process premised on “the expert professor” imparting knowledge, liberal-arts pedagogy has persisted, “without any fundamental alteration, for a period of some 70 years or more.” Today, it fails to equip students with what the World Economic Forum calls “21st-century skills.” Like an overpriced egg rotting on a supermarket shelf, college education has “gone past its sell-by date.”
Happily, to Wingard’s view, solutions are at hand: ed-tech enterprises that deploy online platforms, apprenticeships, bootcamps, gig skilling, and self-guided courses to develop marketable competencies validated by alternative credentials like nanocertificates, digital chips, and microbadges. The question driving The College Devaluation Crisis is how the academy will respond. “Will higher education pivot and adapt,” Wingard asks, “or will it resist change and be replaced”?
Much of the book guides readers through this alternative educational “ecosystem.” First are the “college partnerships.” Noodle, which calls itself “America’s most innovative ed-tech leader,” uses “in-house learning designers” to develop university courses — outsourcing content creation to “raise capacity and resilience, lower operational costs, and leverage opportunities.” Practera, “a fast-growing experiential education-technology and programs company,” provides a “customizable platform to author, launch, and manage experiential learning programs,” and provides students with “more automated interventions.” By shifting the role of faculty from teacher to coach, Wingard enthuses, Practera helps make experiential learning “more scalable.” Then there is Handshake, a job platform that provides university career centers with a “seamless process to connect potential employers to students.” As of January 2022, it had a $3.5-billion valuation.
Next are the “employer partnerships.” ZipRecruiter, valued at $2.7 billion on its 2021 New York Stock Exchange debut, is an “online employment marketplace” that uses “artificial-intelligence-driven algorithms to determine whether candidates are good matches for jobs,” and helps potential employees “upskill in the right direction.” A company called Degreed offers a “suite of skill-measurement tools” to help employers make sense of the various nanodegrees, microdegrees, and badges in job applicants’ résumés.
For all these changes, we are still told that our graduates are unprepared for the workplace. So what, precisely, are universities doing wrong?
Then we enter the world of “solo disruptors.” General Assembly helps students “make a case for the unique value proposition they provide to employers” in part through “reskilling partnerships to train laid-off workers.” It was acquired by a giant multinational company for $413 million in 2018. Udemy, “one of the largest online learning marketplaces,” employs “instructional design and learning and teaching experts” to deliver “course content in easily digestible, bite-sized videos.” A 2021 initial public offering valued Udemy at around $4 billion. “Anyone can teach on Udemy,” its vice president for learning brags, “you just need to be an expert in what you know.”
After touching on a handful of “bridge-builders” — companies creating the infrastructure behind the ecosystem of alternative education — the tour wraps up.
The alternative educational world Wingard portrays functions in narrowly economistic terms. Here, people are their own entrepreneurs, rationally investing in skills that make them competitive in the marketplace.
This world is an open, dynamic place. College graduates here are not thrust into an economy where salaries have stagnated for decades. Nor do laid-off workers fall into situations of terrifying precarity just because a company is trying to juice its next quarterly results. No, unemployment here results from ill-prepared workers with outdated skills. But with sufficient gumption, they will scan the marketplace and launch into “an ever-widening field of upskilling, reskilling, or de novo learning possibilities, not just matching skills to a job but also looking at potential new roles, or gig-work projects that might be of interest.”
In this world, gig work does not result from corporations’ relentless drive to casualize labor and shed the cost of expensive benefits; it sprouts from workers’ desire for “flexibility.” Here, power relations between giant corporations and individual workers are symmetrical. Poverty and unemployment are not structural features of the economy (and certainly not the result of employers’ refusal to pay their striking workers a living wage, then denying them access to health care to force them back to work). No, the problem here is a communication failure in which education and work are “misaligned.” The solution isn’t political or labor organizing; it’s the “skillification” of agile workers.
Alas, I have some doubts that this is the world we live in. One hardly needs a nanocertificate in data analytics to realize that in any world, Wingard’s or mine, if you hold wages stagnant for decades while raising the price of college tuition exponentially, the ROI of a college degree will collapse.
Let’s stop for a moment to ask why, in our world, students are paying so much for higher education. There is a straightforward structural background: our cruel “era of neglect.” As sociologist Dan Clawson wrote in Science in 2009: “Thirty years ago, state and local governments put in $3.99 for every dollar that students and parents paid for higher education; today, states put in $1.76 for every dollar,” a trend that continued over the following decade. This savage disinvestment in higher education shifted the cost and the risk of paying for college from society to the individual. With college tuition rising relentlessly, graduates routinely begin their adult lives burdened with crushing student debt.
Faced with this vicious wave of disinvestment, Wingard and his fellow reformers don’t advocate for a greater public commitment to education. Instead, they double down on the privatization, subcontracting, and outsourcing of the tottering remnants of our once-great public system.
There was, of course, an existing model. But these intrepid governors “boldly embraced a lot of new thinking,” creating a private, online institution with a curriculum designed to serve the market. Today, Wingard explains, “employers’ needs become the basis for WGU academic credits.”
Wingard is not WGU’s only admirer. The Obama administration championed its innovations; former secretary of education Arne Duncan held it up as a model to be emulated. Like them, Wingard touts the affordability of WGU, with its “flat rate” tuition, which now runs around $7,500 per year. “Students can complete as many courses as they are able to within each of its six-month terms at no addition cost,” he enthuses, as though talking about an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Las Vegas casino.
But is WGU a good deal? Tuition and fees in the California State University system are about the same, as are those for in-state residents at the venerable City University of New York campuses. (And these institutions, by the way, allow working parents and others who can only attend school part time to pay by the credit.)
If WGU’s sticker cost is on par with these public universities, its instructional budget differs dramatically. CUNY’s Hunter College spends $9,842 on instruction per student. Cal State Fullerton spends $6,668. Temple spends a whopping $15,661. WGU, meanwhile, spends just $2,824 per student.
Where do the savings come from? Not from the salary of WGU’s former chief marketing officer, who, per the university’s most recent IRS filing, earned more than $1 million from the institution and related organizations. Rather, savings come from the low salaries of its instructors — not one of whom has tenure — and from the remarkably high faculty-student ratio. To disruptors, such cost savings are a strength, allowing the institution to offer degrees “at scale.”
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic. In 2017, an audit by the Department of Education’s inspector general concluded that most of WGU’s key classes did not provide “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” Many faculty members, it found, could be better classified as tutors, coaches, or mentors. On that basis, the report determined that WGU should not be eligible for federal funding and recommended that it return over $700 million it had received from the government. That recommendation was overruled during Betsy DeVos’s term as education secretary, however, and WGU kept the taxpayer money. Today, the institution boasts more than 128,000 enrolled students. Scale indeed.
But even as universities do what they’re told the job market wants, it’s never enough. Technical and professional offerings keep expanding, often in partnership with for-profit entities. Universities lurch into the world of “stackable credentials, microcredits, or other nondegree options.” College career offices hire expensive gurus fluent in Silicon Valley jargon. Students, warned against studying impractical subjects, shift en masse into fields like computer science, engineering, and exercise science. And yet, for all these changes, we are still told that our graduates are unprepared for the workplace. So what, precisely, are universities doing wrong?
Let’s revisit the ed-tech executives that Wingard so admires. At odd moments, their goals surprise. One apprenticeship organization seeks “to instill good habits for critical thinking and problem solving.” An executive championing a uniquely structured “Tech MBA” program aims to impart a “growth mindset,” “ongoing learning,” “curiosity,” and “asking better questions.” A legendary ed-tech founder muses that “the best education we have is something like a liberal-arts education that makes you agile and able to navigate disruption in whatever career you’ve chosen.”
It’s up to us — not them — to decide what kind of higher-education system we want.
There is an awfully rich irony here. Confronted with the economic pressures of declining state support and rising costs, colleges enacted ruthless reforms to bend themselves toward alleged market imperatives. Then, after all that, these ed-tech innovators turn around and tell us that the most marketable skills of all are the “soft skills” like critical thinking, communication, problem solving — the very things those dinosaur universities and their archaic curricula were emphasizing in the first place.
So what’s all the innovation-mongering really about? On some level, to be sure, it’s a giant “griftopia”: ed-tech companies and their venture capital and private equity investors plundering what’s left of education budgets, like vultures picking on the remains of our once-great public system. But there’s more to it than that.
Consider Wingard’s charge that the traditional college degree is “vacuous” because it “does not provide the kinds of information an employer is looking for.” Note the language. The problem isn’t that our system is failing to develop the right skills; it’s that the system doesn’t provide the right information to employers. “It’s not just a skills gap,” remarks one CEO, “it’s a skills-assessment gap.”
In moments like this, the mask slips. We glimpse the human-resources technocrat frustrated that colleges won’t label and sort their graduates into preferred, maximally efficient categories for placement. When a legendary ed-tech founder tells him that a liberal-arts education may well be best, Wingard beats a hasty retreat: “As relevant as the liberal arts may still be in the workplace, college programs will also have to offer specific workplace credentials.”
The College Devaluation Crisis even intimates once or twice that the alleged skills gap may not exist at all. At this very moment, Wingard tells us, the country has “a wasteland of directly skilled workers unable to find work.” Well there’s a plot twist to leave readers gobsmacked. Has our system of higher education been creating skilled workers this whole time? One wonders what all the fuss has been about.
This twist raises a set of broad questions. Perhaps economic policy over the last 30 years has not, in truth, sought to generate skilled labor at all. Perhaps it has instead spent its energy deskilling the American labor force: crushing unions, freezing wages, and bullying pesky workers with the temerity to ask for things like living wages, health care, and parental leave.
Then, when the predictable results ensue — stagnating wages and a collapsing middle class — everyone points the finger at higher education. And now these ed-tech innovators sail to the rescue, ready to chart “ways to reskill existing teams and develop clear talent pipelines” and deliver a “competency-based, life-skills-based achievement record” — for the right price, of course. Then they persuade employers to buy their algorithmic methods to “extract skills from raw text within job postings, résumés, professional profiles.” It’s quite a sales pitch: If we buy their new technologies at every stage of this process, making them and their investors rich, we can return to that golden age when workers earned a wage that allowed them to live in dignity.
It’s only near the end of the book that Wingard’s definition appears. In an extraordinary revelation, readers learn that a skill is not what they might have assumed: a body of acquired knowledge, perhaps, or a human aptitude learned through repeated practice, trial, and error. Not at all. It is instead, as one chief innovation officer tells Wingard, “the descriptor of work.” Or, as a government report puts it, “a common vocabulary and an important currency.”
It turns out that these dynamic ed-tech innovators have not so much invented a pedagogy as they have a concept: a universal language of skills by which educators, work-force developers, and talent acquisition companies will all communicate seamlessly. By turning “learning content” into a skills language that enables “interoperability,” job seekers can turn “learned skills into a currency that can be spent in the pursuit of career opportunities.” “The language of skills,” Wingard concludes, is “the heart of our model and the underpinning of everything this book seeks to convey.”
We have moved, here, well past the banal 20th-century idea of education as an investment that should generate a return. No, these ed-tech reformers are doing something very different and altogether more interesting. They are pushing beyond education-as-investment to education-as-collateralization. By turning education into a content-free, artificial-intelligence-generated performance, “skills” can be detached from individual, embodied human beings and turned into pure commodities.
If ed-tech’s deepest ambitions succeed, as one company’s chief learning officer explains, people will “start thinking about themselves in terms of skills,” which “translates to projects, roles, and opportunities.” Laid-off workers who “lack the start-up capital to invest in themselves” can contract themselves out to “merit-based financing start-ups,” gushes another CEO, and use their “skills as collateral,” with “income-share agreements, alt-finance, and performance-based pricing.”
With workers’ skills thus transformed into a fungible digital currency, and stakes in future wages bid up by the high-frequency trader, we cannot be very far away from the day some financial genius — trained, of course, by the most elite private education money can buy — invents a credit default swap on individual future earnings that have been bundled for sale on Wall Street. Perhaps that’s what it really means to leverage skills. Then again, we’ve seen what too much leverage can do to a financial system.
Although Wingard’s presidency at Temple has collapsed in ignominy, like a Silicon Valley bank, his vision for the future of our sector will no more disappear than will the balances of those financial wizards who held billions in uninsured bank deposits. There is too much political and economic muscle behind this worldview for it to die a quick death.
To his credit, Wingard made his vision clear. That he long thrived and ascended the upper ranks of academe is one more sign, if any were needed, that his views cohere with those of the university presidents, CEOs, and financiers who sit on university boards, and the bipartisan policymakers who have collectively spent the last several decades hollowing out the country’s great public systems of higher education.
Having slashed state support, hired corporate managers for leadership positions, made university medical systems indistinguishable from for-profit hospitals, chased revenue through empty certificate programs, amassed giant tax-exempt endowments, paid themselves lavish salaries, transformed the university labor system into gig work, and immiserated students under crushing burdens of debt — now these figures come back to tell us that the only choice we have is to privatize or die.
That is a false choice. It’s up to us — not them — to decide what kind of higher-education system we want.