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Riding the Fifth Wave in Higher Education

A Survival Guide for the New Normal

James Ottavio Castagnera

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.

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Chapter 2. The Fifth Wave: A Deeper Dive


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A Deeper Dive

Fast forward to the second decade of our new millennium and meet the voice of higher education’s doom: Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School. In March 2013, Dr. Christensen garnered headlines with his prediction that by 2028 (i.e., in a little more than another decade from now), 50 percent of all American colleges and universities will likely be facing bankruptcy (Castagnera, p. 7).

The professor’s prognostication was prompted by the then-imminent closure of Saint Paul’s College, a historically black school founded in 1888 in Lawrenceville (VA). In the three years since that closure, others have followed in its wake. During the first half of 2015 alone:

• March 2015: Two small, Southern liberal arts colleges—Virginia’s all-female Sweetbriar College and Tennessee Temple University, a Christian liberal arts institution—announced their intent to close the gates (Bidwell).

• April 2015: The for-profit Corinthian Colleges, once one of America’s largest chains, abruptly closed its remaining 28 campuses, leaving some16,000 current students stranded (Zillman).

• May 2015: For-profit Education Management Corporation announced the closure of 15 out of 52 Art Institute locations (Zillman). ← 19 | 20 →

• May 2015: Career Education Corporation indicated its intent to terminate its 14 Sanford Brown College campuses (Zillman).

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