Starting my new book project: Peak Higher Education

Bryan Alexander 2024-03-06

Greetings from somewhere over the United States.  I’m flying from DC to LA, and will take this lofty moment to announce my next book project.

I introduced the peak higher education concept way back in 2013.  It was a scenario describing one path for colleges and universities.  Since then I’ve developed the model in presentations, articles, a book chapter, and workshops.  Meanwhile, the past decade largely embodied what I projected, with enrollments declining along with a steady stream of institutional cuts, closures, and mergers.

Now I’d like to announce a full length, scholarly book project developing the model even further.  I just signed a contract with Johns Hopkins University Press to produce Peak Higher Ed: How to Survive the Emerging Academic Crisis.


One of Midjourney’s visualizations of the idea.

What I hope to do in this book is to trace out the peak model first as it played out historically, examining the causes and contours of how American academia reached, then passed a certain height.  Second, and to greater length, I plan to extend this model forward in time as a scenario.  I’ll do that by some trend analysis, identifying the forces which drove the post-secondary sector into and past peak, then extrapolating them forward. Next I broaden the picture to address three grand and emerging challenges to higher ed: automation, climate change, and a deep division about how we consider the future.  The book concludes by recommending some ways institutions and individuals can best survive and thrive through the scenario.  Readers will be familiar with my thoughts on some of these topics.

In some more detail, here’s the current table of contents, with some details attached to each chapter:

  1. Introduction – The story of how the peak model came to be. Methodology (scenario, trends analysis) and scope (to 2045, primarily the entirety of United States academia).  Relationship to two previous Hopkins books, Academia Next and Universities on Fire.  Hails the audience and what this book might do for them.
  2. Peak higher ed, the first decade – Analysis of enrollment changes in the late 20th and 21st centuries, with historical and demographic contexts. Program cuts, queen sacrifices, mergers, and closures. Broken down by disciplines, campus numbers, and institutional types. Rising financial stresses on many institutions, including state funding declines, rising discount rates, rising costs. The important shift to online classes. Potential early signs of peak scholarship.  Comparison to the bubble model.
  3. Forces pushing academia further downslope – How the forces which drove peak’s first decade may continue to operate. The stark demographic data and projections. After Nathan Grawe’s cliff.  Challenges to academic wage and wealth premiums.  COVID-19 effects.   Challenges to scholarship (productivity, discovery, citation struggling; replication crisis).
  4. After the consensus shattered – The rise and fall of college for all, looking back to the 1970s and ahead to 2045. Declining faith in higher education: partisan and bipartisan. Governments and businesses fighting the paper ceiling; attitudes against credentialism.  Do we believe  retraining works? Anxiety about education’s economics. The Turchin argument: higher education as contributor to political instability.
  5. Automation comes for the campus – Quick introduction to emerging AI. Colleges and universities use or compete with digital tutors.  Campuses respond with new career and life preparation curriculum and pedagogy to several ways AI might transform the labor market: a surge in new, post-AI jobs; “cyborg” jobs, where AI is intertwined with every position; a more competitive market thanks to AI-driven underemployment.  AI depresses higher education’s value or makes it more valuable. A possibility for the humanities to rebound.
  6. The Anthropocene is here, ready or not – The climate crisis increasingly impacts higher education across the multiple domains outlined in Universities on Fire. Some institutions fail to respond to global warming and suffer damages and costs, losing students and reputation.  Roiling social and political crises, involving and to some extent accentuated by the climate crisis, reduce support for higher education.  Academic responses to global warming can elicit off campus opposition; these responses can involve teaching, research, a campus physical grounds, and community relations.  Academics may perceive climate action as competing for scarce and shrinking resources.
  7. Academia and one giant argument over humanity’s future – Two competing models for the next 200 years which are now emerging around the world and how they can impact higher education. Model 1: we accept shrinkage, shifting institutional strategies from an emphasis on student quantity to quality of experience, reducing the number and size of campuses.  Academics contribute to the development of new political economy systems, such as donut economics and no-growth, as well as to projects of social healing and repair.  Model 2: we double down on accelerating innovation, emphasizing growth in knowledge, economy, civilization, technology.  Academic footprint does not grow but transforms towards the posthuman.
  8. The next colleges and universities – What might higher education look like after it adjusts to being overbuilt? Two decades after peak we may see a ratcheted-down sector with fewer campuses, students, faculty, and staff.  Major political possibilities: resurgence in the public good; expanded state support in some areas; rise or fall of international students as part of immigration. Declining rural towns and ghost campuses.
  9. Controlled descent – what can academics do to mitigate decline or try to reverse peak?  This chapter includes: expanded international student recruitment; launching new institutions; state universities increasing recruiting out of state students; growing online teaching; current events curricula; expanded recruitment of older students; cuts, closures, mergers; relocation. Economic strategies: new pricing forms, subsidized tuition and fees; differential prices; faculty, staff, student labor organizing; sharing services. Improving student experience.  And more.

I’ve started writing and hope to turn the whole thing into my long-suffering publisher a year from now.  I hope to share the process here.

A few caveats: yes, after writing one book about global higher ed I’m returning to focus on the US. That’s because American higher ed is not only globally important, but also very different from the rest of the world and benefits from distinct treatment.  Also, this book is about a scenario, which means one possible future.  I hope American academics and, well, Americans as a whole are able to respond in such a way that we avoid sliding further downslope.  It’s possible factors I haven’t foreseen will make that happen; I’ll try my best to anticipate them in this volume.

Any requests for topics I should address?  Any campus stories you’d like me to share, either openly or pseudonymously?

Here’s hoping the airplane’s WiFi will successfully transmit these bits.  <-the 21st century version of Chaucer’s “Go litel boke!”