Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education

A Survival Guide for the New Normal

by James Ottavio Castagnera (Author)
©2018 Textbook X, 138 Pages


The Fifth Wave in higher education is breaking on American shores. Unlike the four waves that preceded it from colonial times through the post-WWII mega-versity expansion, this wave is disrupting all sectors of the higher education industry. It will sweep away those institutions—be they public, private non-profit, or for-profit—that fail to recognize and meet the threat. Harvard professor Clay Christensen, the father of "disruptive innovation," predicts that as many as half of all American universities will close or go bankrupt within the next 10 to 15 years (See Inside Higher Ed, April 28, 2017).
Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education: A Survival Guide for the New Normal charts the dimensions of the Fifth Wave challenge and offers numerous general and specific suggestions for surfing the wave and surviving its tsunami-like impact. Part One of this concise handbook explains why our industry is in treacherous waters and outlines the impact of the Fifth Wave to date on all three major sectors of American higher ed. Part Two offers a range of practical responses, including ways we might break out of the tuition-discount "death spiral" and the facilities "arms race," as well as identifying our prospects for removing the albatross of onerous federal regulations from around our necks before it drags us under. If you have time to read only one book about today’s crisis in American higher education, Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education is the right choice. If you plan to research the topic in depth, Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education is the perfect place to start.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One: The Challenges
  • Chapter 1. The Five Great Waves: An Overview
  • Chapter 2. The Fifth Wave: A Deeper Dive
  • Chapter 3. The Decline and Partial Resurrection of Public Higher Education
  • Chapter 4. The Decline and Crippling of For-Profit Higher Education
  • Chapter 5. The Decline of Not-for-Profit Higher Education
  • Part Two: Some Possible Solutions
  • Chapter 6. Addressing the Cost of Instruction
  • Chapter 7. Addressing the Facilities “Arms Race”
  • Chapter 8. Capitalizing on a Potential Window of Regulatory Relief
  • Chapter 9. Some Real-World Solutions

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At least for me, 2015 went down as the watershed year. The year began with Sweetbriar College, a tiny school for women in northern Virginia, announcing it intended to close its gates in June, only to be hauled into court and ordered to remain open. Next came the gutting of once mighty Corinthian Colleges by the U.S. Department of Education, leaving some 16,000 current enrollees wondering where that left them…other than saddled with student-loan debts and lacking diplomas. Next, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the CEO and CFO of ITT, another major player in the for-profit sector of American higher education, for fraud.

The drumbeat of institutional destruction rattled into the ridiculous, when a for-profit business school in north Jersey—revealed as recruiting the homeless into its student body—threw in the towel.

Meanwhile, further south in the Garden State’s mid-section, my own institution—a private, not-for-profit university of some 4,000 students and 600 employees—was just coming off its Sesquicentennial celebration and sustaining an operating deficit for FY 2015–2016. After announcing a third year of no raises for its staff, along with a cut in pension contributions, and negotiating a new contract with AFSCME containing similar flat wages for its clericals, the administration turned to the faculty for additional relief. ← 1 | 2 →

When the American Association of University Professors, which has represented the faculty, librarians, and coaches since 1974, declined to proffer any concessions in midcontract, the president and his cabinet pulled the trigger just days prior to the October 31st deadline for declaring a faculty layoff…the first in the 40-year collective bargaining relationship. The announcement at a “town meeting” attended by perhaps 80 percent of the workforce ignited a predictable firestorm of protest from faculty and students alike. Fourteen programs were targeted for closure with a concomitant release of a like number of full-time faculty, some tenured, and a somewhat larger number of adjunct teachers, some with seniority rights.

The president and trustees weren’t bluffing. But they did welcome the union’s capitulation. Significant wage concessions, combined with an excision from the collective bargaining agreement of several onerous articles that stifled innovation, resulted in a rescission of the furloughs and closings…at least for the time being.1

A dozen years earlier, I had published a journal article entitled “The Next Great Wave in American Higher Education.” In it, I charted four earlier waves of innovation in our industry, beginning with the founding of liberal arts colleges as early as colonial days, progressing through the establishment of the great public land systems starting soon after the Civil War, followed by the creation of the equally distinguished and influential private research universities bearing telling names such as Carnegie-Mellon, and finally the megaversity movement of post-WWII.

My article postulated—not an original prognostication, I grant you—the fifth great wave, a wave generated by new technologies, most notably the computer and the Internet. Twelve years later, that wave has broken upon our shores and, like the tsunamis so powerfully presented in several recent feature films, this wave is threatening some edifices of higher ed once thought impervious to such changes in the environment of our enterprise.

This little book is aimed at assisting my colleagues, who must keep their heads above the maelstrom or drown, in understanding the onslaught they face and, I hope, in their coping successfully with it. Survival is the imperative, smooth sailing the ideal.


1. These events and their sequel are recounted in greater detail in Chapter Nine.

← 2 | 3 →

Part One

The Challenges

← 3 | 4 →

← 4 | 5 →

· 1 ·


An Overview

Four distinct epochs or waves can be discerned in the history of higher education. This chapter argues that a fifth wave, perhaps the most revolutionary of all, is currently cresting, posing a unique challenge to higher education administrators and faculty. The four previous waves can be summarized briefly as follows:

In the 85 years between the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War, some 800 liberal arts colleges sprang up across the United States. My own alma maters are typical. Franklin & Marshall College owes half its name to a modest amount of seed money donated by the great Benjamin Franklin in 1787. Case Western Reserve University first saw the light of learning as Western Reserve Academy. “The undergraduate college took…the essential step necessary for a broad education for general citizenship.…These institutions were of a size and scale that could be created by a group of private individuals—not requiring great fortunes or state support” (Cox, p. 14).

The end of the Civil War until the turn of the last century was the era of the great land-grant institutions. This expansion of higher education led to the first shakeout. “By 1900, only 180 of those first 800 small colleges remained active; larger, subsidized state universities consumed ← 5 | 6 → market share by offering more educational services, subsidized prices, and often more pragmatic and career-oriented curricula” (Cox, p. 14).


X, 138
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 138 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

James Ottavio Castagnera (Author)

James Ottavio Castagnera, J.D., Ph.D., has spent more than 30 years in higher education. He has published 20 books, as well as some 50 professional/scholarly articles and book chapters. Dr. Castagnera’s teaching has taken him to the University of Texas-Austin, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the Widener University School of Law, and at present Drexel University’s law school; he also does about 30 webinars per year on higher education topics. Currently, he is Associate Provost and Legal Counsel for Academic Affairs at New Jersey’s Rider University and the managing director of his own consulting firm. In these dual capacities he regularly conducts internal investigations in sexual harassment and assault cases; advises on and develops student policies and adjudicates student disciplinary cases; develops new academic programs; manages international-student legal issues; supervises services for students with disabilities; and handles a wide variety of other regulatory and legal matters.


Title: Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education
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150 pages