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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 3. The Decline and Partial Resurrection of Public Higher Education


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Not so very many years ago, I belonged to a loose-knit organization of higher-ed labor-relations professionals. Most were employed by unionized, public universities in the United States and Canada. We held our annual conference each October in Clearwater, Florida. They traveled from as far away as California and Alberta to compare notes and, often, to commiserate. All 50 to 75 annual conferees represented the management side in collective bargaining and contract administration. Much of the commiseration revolved around the faults of full-time faculty and their labor unions.

But not far behind this perennial complaint was another increasingly bitter grievance that could be (and often was) summed up as follows: “We used to be state supported. Then we were only state affiliated. And now we are only state located.”

The point, of course, was the ever-diminished amounts of public funding being allocated by a growing number of state legislators to their public colleges and universities. According to one authoritative source, “[S]tates have reduced their support by anywhere from 14.8 percent to 69.4 percent between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 2011” (Mortenson). This source identified the biggest losers as follows: ← 31 | 32 →

• Colorado reduced its support for higher education by nearly 69.4 percent, from $10.52 (per $ 1000 of state income) in fiscal 1980 (and a peak of $13.85 in fiscal 1971) to $3.22 by fiscal 2011. At that...

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