Monday, September 17, 2012

What does the history of newspapers suggest about the future of higher education?

Worriers about the future of higher education sometimes suggest that American colleges and universities will follow newspapers in their rapid fall from great prominence to insignificance.  They extend the analogy one step further, arguing that it is technology that will make brick-and-mortar colleges as irrelevant as the newspaper itself.  The proof  is the rise of online course content, which has supposedly made learning free in the same way that social media has made information free.

As analogies go, this one has provoked relatively little discussion, by which I mean it is taken as an absolute falsehood or an absolute inevitability rather than an opportunity to think.  This is too bad, because a fuller look at the history of newspapers suggests a far more interesting set of opportunities for higher education than for newspapers.

Let me start with a thumbnail sketch of the history of newspapers in the US, dating back to the 19th century  (rather than the 2000s where most of these stories start).

In the 19th century, the United States was  a newspaper nation. By this I mean four things:

  •  first, that the nation was awash in newspapers, with hundreds circulating in New York City alone; 
  • second, that newspapers reflected the nation's political and ethnic diversity in that they spoke for particular groups or viewpoints rather than trying to objectively report news; 
  •  third, that most newspapers were local or parochial in outlook, and 
  • fourth that their parochialism and ideology formed a key component of the American democratic system, in the same way that local bosses, ethnic networks, and civil society did. 

Several things weakened the position of newspapers in American society and civic life in the 20th century.  The availability of information via other media (radio, TV) was one.  Another was the rise of national newspapers, both that handful of newspapers with national influence (the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and much later USA Today) and in the national perspective of local papers, whose lead stories increasingly focused on the national rather than the local.  A third was the emergence of objectivity as the goal of reporting, replacing as it did ideology.  And a fourth was the decline of major American cities, which had been home to the majority of newspapers.

The industry's response was consolidation, as represented by the emergence of investor-held major newspaper chains, and by the sharing of operations between ostensibly competing papers.  So, by the end of the 20th century and before the attack of the internet, the newspaper industry was centralized, profit-focused, homogeneous, and already in decline.

Contrary to the regular narrative, then, newspapers weren't toppled by the internet. They were toppled by consolidation, by nationalizing their viewpoint, by seeking profits for investors rather than for owners, and by failing to respond to media who had copied them. If anything, the internet re-created in electronic form the model of news that existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries--hyper-local, ideological, biased, parochial, and democratic. Radio has done the same. And TV is on the same path.

So what might this history of newspapers suggest about the future of higher education?

 First, that if higher ed is in decline, it is in decline on a path that is wildly different from that of newspapers.  Newspapers were in decline in number and readership long before the internet.  Both the number of institutions of higher education, and enrollment in college, is on the rise, and has been for some time.

Second, that organizations that sponsor colleges and universities--states, churches, donors, etc.--ought to oppose consolidation and homogenization, preferring instead diversity, localism, and ideology as the basis of colleges and universities.  We will certainly see declines in enrollment at some schools--rural liberal arts colleges, church schools closely tied to declining denominations, decent small schools with curricula pretty much like dozens of others.  But we will also see the emergence of new institutions, only some of which have the internet as their sole delivery model.  Witness, for example, the emergence of health and wellness-affiliated colleges and universities, set up to respond to the needs of particular industries; and sustainability-focused schools, intent on responding to our environmental crises. My guess is that the next wave of institutions will focus wholly on the new college-going demographics.  A few schools will emerge entirely online, but those who survive will find an online niche, rather than becoming the facebook of online education, particularly since there is yet to be a good business model for such types of schools.

(If I am right and that the future of higher ed is more diversity in institution type, in ideology, in content area, and in delivery, then we will also need to see a greater diversity in pricing.  Colleges tend to price themselves in narrow bands, with most state institutions of a particular type offering similar tuition charges to students, and most private institutions offering tuition in alignment with their peers.  Older schools are close to locked into this pricing model; but new schools will be free to charge what their markets bear--most of them probably less than today's norms, but some much more.)

In short, I am arguing for a decentralized, localist, less-regulated, less-objective future for higher education, both as a means of keeping the system as a whole healthy, as a way of ensuring that people who want an education can get one, and as a way of ensuring that higher education can provide the sort of civic spark that newspapers once did.

This, more than the warning that place-based schools will die in an online onslaught, is the lesson that the history of newspapers has for the future of higher education.

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