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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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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,...

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