As an explosion of new residential and office construction turns University City into a western extension of Philadelphia’s urban core, some thinkers have begun to suggest that cities like ours may be betting our futures on a dying business model.
Recent news stories raise the question of whether academe as we s now know it is sustainable. A report in The Wall Street Journal argues that fiscally, it isn’t – students who graduate with six-figure debts only to take jobs they could have gotten with a community college education end up behind, not ahead, after four years, and just as the housing bubble burst after debt levels reached a tipping point, so will a higher education bubble. Private college enrollment is on the decline, and even elite schools have not been spared the pain: Moody’s recently downgraded Haverford College’s bonds over concerns whether it could continue to attract enough students at the prices it charges. Smaller private schools have even had to lay off faculty and staff, and critics of the current higher-ed model point to pervasive administrative bloat at schools large and small nationwide.
Meanwhile, technology that makes “massively open online courses” (MOOCs) widely available could do to the Harvards and Berkeleys of the world what Craigslist and free content did to the New York Timeses and Washington Posts. Brick-and-mortar campuses will disappear no more than print newspapers or telephones have, but they will likely change form and function as a result of easily accessible online learning – and could shrink in size and importance just as campus bookstores have done. An article on The Atlantic Cities points out that several colleges are already reimagining traditional dormitories, lecture halls, computer labs and libraries, blending elements of each into live-work spaces, and experimenting with new living arrangements that blur the line between town and gown.
For cities like Philadelphia that have come to rely on “eds and meds” to fuel economic growth, this could be bad news indeed. We can no more count on Penn remaining Penn, Drexel Drexel, and Temple the University for Everyone in their current form than we could on the Baldwin Locomotive Works lasting forever. But with the right infrastructure, we might be able to negotiate the transition from Old Academe to New Academe with less disruption than critics fear. In fact, a prototype of such infrastructure already exists in Northern Liberties; all it needs is the right university to give it purpose.
Degrees of Value: Making College Pay Off (The Wall Street Journal)
Could The College Campus Go The Way of The Bookstore? (The Atlantic Cities)