Higher education – my kind of higher education – is in trouble.
There has been movement in this direction for years. Higher education/student loans have been called a bubble, tuition hikes are seen as highway robbery, and in more and more circles, people are calling for students to go to trade school, do community college for two years, skip college altogether and get a real estate license.
I’m not here to argue about any of that, and I’ve said some of these things myself. I think that for most people (not all), the value of a college education – even the froofy liberal arts education – far outstrips the money you put into it, but I understand the hesitation about paying so much money for something so nebulous.
It seems obvious to me that fewer students are choosing the “small expensive liberal arts” path. The college where I work, year after year, dolefully brings up enrollment numbers at faculty meetings, they are never enough, smaller than last year, we need innovation and new techniques to get students.
Except it isn’t just us – a friend at a smaller school talks about the layoffs, year after year, and how they aren’t sure they will make it to 2025. Sweet Briar nearly closed three years ago. There is a market for small private colleges but that market seems to be shrinking.
Which brings me to my favorite topic: me. I love my job. Looooooove my job. Want to work there forever. I’m also in an unprotected position (non-tenure), meaning if the faculty has to constrict, I am low-hanging fruit. A friend and colleague of mine had his contract not renewed (is that a polite way of saying “fired”?) three years ago. It was a three-year contract, he’s done this year.
I’m a wonderful colleague, get great evaluations from students, passed a recent review with flying colors, and contribute a lot to the overall environment and excellence of the college. I also am the only faculty member who teaches my particular discipline, and it is not crazy to say “we aren’t big enough to offer that anymore.” And my job isn’t protected with tenure.
Another thing: the dean sent me a job listing for another position in student life, for a job I wouldn’t like and don’t want, for seemingly no reason. I cannot help but think that this is the first step in feeling out if they can cut my position in a more palatable way. He swore it was not that, he just thought I might be interested, but…but. My position is vulnerable. And it’s strange to send an employee that you don’t really know a job description that isn’t in their field when they aren’t looking for a job “just because.”
I currently have a five-year contract, so if my contract isn’t renewed, I’ve still got 4+ years left. This is a huge luxury, and in 4+ years, my student loans will be forgiven (hopefully), my youngest will be in public school, our debts will be substantially lower. In 4+ years I could completely reinvent myself, take a coding boot camp, start a new career. Or, I could do my freelancing full time, maybe bring it up to 70K a year, which is a good salary (but no benefits and self-employment tax).
I don’t know that my contract isn’t going to be renewed this year. But I’m vulnerable, in an industry that appears to be shrinking. If it isn’t this year, what about next? And the next? What I do know is that, while I’m not really interested in retiring early, I have even more reason now to get my financial house in order.
I’m reaaaally hoping I can ride this whole thing out – stay in my job for another 20 or so years (so my kids will get free college). I also am not so naive as to think it’s a slam dunk. I’m employable in many different ways, with skills and experience and professionalism and overall awesomeness. Still. If we work according to my spreadsheet, in another 5 years, if I’m not in my current position, I could conceivably scale back and only do freelance, and we’ll be fine. Now it’s time to get back to work.