COVID-19, Education

COVID-19 Has Exposed Critical Weaknesses in Global Higher Education

The traditional educational services sector in the United States, and world at large, was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, including institutions of higher education, leading to significant disruptions in learning outcomes and budgets. Notified at the last minute, many students found themselves having to pack up their bags and leave campus dorms—sometimes with nowhere to go. Although the dust is still settling, four-year colleges might experience a 20 percent decline in fall enrollment, accelerating a trend already in place since 2011. In fact, 500 to 1,000 colleges might be put completely out of business.

These new challenges add to already deteriorating outcomes among college graduates, ranging from an all-time high of nearly $1.6 trillion in student debt as of 2020 to a flattening college wage premium. Moreover, a national 2018 survey of employers found that only around 40 percent say that recent college graduates exhibit professionalism, a good work ethic, and have decent oral and written communication, and only 33 percent say that recent graduates possess leadership skills. This is particularly concerning given that soft skills and their combination with technical skills are becoming more important than ever.

One of the potential factors behind these deteriorating outcomes stems from the increasing proliferation of degree programs that are disconnected from the needs of the labor market. In fact, according to data from Burning Glass Technologies, 13 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs were posted online for every unemployed worker in 2016, amounting to roughly three million more jobs than there were workers to fill them. Our calculations using the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau between 2009 and 2018 reveal that the fraction of graduates earning a liberal arts degree remained roughly the same at 20 percent, suggesting that colleges and students made little adjustment to the changing demands of the labor market during these years.

That’s not to say that the liberal arts are irrelevant—the ability to work effectively with others is increasingly important—but perhaps that the definition of liberal arts has become increasingly ambiguous with precarious economic payoffs for some of these degree programs. For example, whereas degrees in women’s studies grew by 12 percent between 2014 and 2017, degrees in economics only grew by seven percent. And yet, a degree in gender studies has a mid-career payoff of $57,100, compared with economics and applied mathematics, which have mid-career payoffs of $107,800 and $113,900 respectively.

While publicly available data does not seem to exist to identify the source of the increasing proliferation of degree programs, many students have been funneled into degree programs without an accurate representation of what they are going to learn and their post-graduation labor market prospects. And Gallup has shown on a sample of 30,000 respondents that the lack of engagement during university is closely linked with a negative perception about the college experience—not to mention experiencing other negative post-graduation outcomes, such as underemployment or low wages.

Despite the increasing ambiguity on college campuses, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Core liberal arts programs provide integral services in the creative economy—as of 2018, 34 percent of college graduates in the arts and entertainment sector had a liberal arts degree (compared with 15 percent for STEM).

Moreover, gross domestic product in the arts and cultural sectors has routinely grown faster than the rest of the economy. While the data is not yet out, it’s likely that these “creatives” have played a key role in providing calming and engaging media content during the ongoing pandemic as well, given that information services “was the leading contributor to the overall growth in arts and cultural production at the national level in 2017, followed by design services.”

But the current teaching model in higher education, particularly the liberal arts, has become increasingly disconnected from the demands of the labor market. That’s perhaps most clearly observed in music programs, which, despite decreasing local infrastructure and shrinking opportunities for young artists, continue to show growth in national enrollment rates with over 3,600 music programs offering training in Voice and Opera in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects zero growth for musicians and singers from 2018 to 2028, yet completions of degree programs in music grew by 3.5 percent between 2012 and 2017 to nearly 27,000 students.

These trends are present in Europe too, which has historically been considered the best labor market for emerging opera singers. The Bertelsmann Stiftung, an independent foundation based in Gütersloh, Germany, conducted a study in 2019 entitled “Opera singers with a  future,” documenting a 20 percent decrease in employment for fest angestellte positions—that is, full-time positions for singers in German opera houses. They attributed this decline to the lack of training they received in so-called “secondary skills,” such as marketing, media training, and networking.

While the German hochschule approach is quite similar to elite degree programs offered in top US schools, like Juilliard, and the musical training itself is considered high quality, both approaches have a fatal flaw: Most do not prepare students for the realities of competing in the current state of the music business. While this may have less impact on German students who pay little to nothing for a semester of education and can easily go on to study other subjects, this is catastrophic for American graduates who pay up to $45,000 per year, only to find themselves unable to break into a saturated job market.

Traditional subjects, such as music theory and composition, are compulsory in many undergraduate programs. And, even if they contribute to the overall academic competency of music students, the data do not suggest that this knowledge gives students a marketable edge when it comes to actually making a living. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that musicians earn a median hourly wage of $30 without any formal education at all.

While elective courses in business and entrepreneurship with respect to classical music are offered in some US degree programs, the pervasive attitude among many students and professors is one of resistance when it comes to integrating business and technology in course offerings. Critics often argue that such skills and/or programs shift the concentration of a student’s training from pure artistry to something less pure—something that is more mundane and practical.

To disrupt this pattern and deliver better value to an increasingly diverse set of learners, we need a new model of higher education. One such is the New American University by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, but it’s a model that a few institutions of higher education have adopted. If universities of higher learning are going to remain relevant, they need to embrace the challenge of our era and start focusing on driving improvements in student outcomes across the board.

That means abandoning the silos that define the hiring and promotion process in the tenure track; empowering faculty with technology to serve more students at an even higher quality; clearly defining success according to measurable outcomes; working with the private sector to make learning experiential and the educational curriculum more tailored to the evolving needs of the marketplace.

Perhaps one silver lining of COVID-19 is that it may raise competition in higher education. Many of the traditional institutions had a near monopoly on learning—if you want to signal to employers that you’re “the best,” you go to Stanford or Harvard. But the pandemic has led to an explosion of interest in online learning. And many learners are actually asking whether virtual learning provides them with at least as good an experience, if not better (and cheaper), than the norm. Moreover, entrepreneurial startups are emerging to directly work with students and address practical needs and skill gaps. That’s especially relevant for new or recent graduates entering a saturated labor market during a pandemic.

While the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, let’s hope the disruption that is taking place in higher education is the beginning of a broader reform movement that refocuses the emphasis on the learner and how instructors and faculty can empower them to create value in the marketplace.


Christos Makridis is a professor and policy adviser specializing in labor economics and the digital economy with doctorates in economics and in management science and engineering from Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter @camakridis.

Soula Parassidis is an internationally-acclaimed opera singer, specializing in Wagner and Strauss, and co-founder of Living Opera, which creates educational content and serves learners in the opera sector. You can follow her on Twitter @SoulaParassidis.


  1. «That’s not to say that the liberal arts are irrelevant» – Pretty bold statement, looking at results

  2. And yet, a degree in gender studies has a mid-career payoff of $57,100, compared with economics and applied mathematics, which have mid-career payoffs of $107,800 and $113,900 respectively.

    We should not assume that a particular student has the intelligence or the aptitude to reach a mid-career level in all three of these examples.

    A degree in gender studies is easy to get, and a graduate doesn’t have to be especially energetic or intelligent to get one.

    Economics and applied mathematics, on the other hand, are hard.

  3. The real problem is that colleges are WRONG about a lot of things. You pay a fortune to go in order to learn things that are just plain wrong. Why did only a handful of experts see the 2008 crash coming? That’s because the entire field of economics needs a rethink from the ground up. Here are a few of the issues:

    • “relentless pursuit of taxpayer funding has eliminated curiosity, basic competence, and scientific integrity in many fields.”
    • “physics, economics, psychology, medicine, and geology are unable to explain over 90 percent of what we see”
    • “climate, demography, asset prices, and natural disasters—are minimally predictable.”
    • “chronic inability to reproduce research findings.”
    • “progress in developing better theory and forecasting capability has stagnated since the 1960s.”
    • There is a “replication and reproducibility crisis.”

    Even math is at risk because proofs are increasingly too difficult to check properly.

    I’m an American living in Switzerland. My son is going to programmer school at 17 which is free, but you have to pass a test to get in. You only advance by passing tests. Only the top 25% get to go to universities.

    My solution for America: 2yr community college + 2yr university online degree; Or trade school. Universities are too expensive.

  4. On what basis do you make this claim? I’m a geologist and I am genuinely confused by what it could possibly mean that we are unable to explain 90% of “what we see.” From a volumetric standpoint we have certainly identified and explained the formation of well over 90% of the crust’s minerals and rocks. Do you think when geologists map an area, 90% of it is labelled “???” Do you have any reason to expect there’s 90% more to the story on how sediments are deposited or magmas cool? On what basis, and how can you quantify that to arrive at 90%?

  5. I get pretty tired of the narrative that if something doesn’t provide an economic return it has no value. When did we sell out the idea of a university education to the corporations as job training centers? What ever happened to vocational schools? If want to learn a technical skill go to a community college or a vo-tech school for much cheaper and for much more financially measurable results.

    If you don’t think that any of the liberal arts provide value to your life, I think you are missing the point. It is learning for learning’s sake, not because it will have return on investment.

  6. I agree with the authors that online education is the way to go. If done properly, this will be an excellent way to collapse the cost, improve teaching standards, and ease the time burden of earning a degree. My suggestion is disentangling the three distinct roles universities currently fulfill: education, accreditation, and research.

    A central problem with the current model is that professors are hired for their research capacity, and lecturing is thrust upon them, for many very unhappily. A student’s success in a given course will in large part be determined by whether the department happens to have a good teacher for that course. With departments often attracting talent from around the world, students have to put up not only with disinterested teachers, but teachers barely functional in the language of instruction. When my brother was doing his engineering degree, many of his courses were taught by instructors who were entirely incomprehensible. Him and literally everyone else who wanted to pass purchased private tutoring for hundreds of dollars per day. This is waste.

    Research needs to be divorced from teaching. The model I’m envisioning is that students are educated through a central online hub where anyone can post, rate, and review lecture materials. As always, the small minority of teachers who are most excellent will be the most viewed, and students all over will be able to benefit from their excellence, not just the 200 that can fit in a physical classroom. Students would be able to consume as much resources as they want on any subject for a low flat monthly rate, at their own pace and without pressure.

    Accreditation, however, should be a separate system, controlled by professional societies. They know best what skills and knowledge are relevant, what the needs of the marketplace are, and how many new members are appropriate. While universities have incentive to pump out as many graduates as possible without regard to whether there are jobs for them all, professional societies have a stake in keeping their ranks from swelling until wages are driven down and opportunities become scarce.

    Researchers are then free of the burden of teaching undergraduates. Lost revenue will force them to partner with industry, providing academics with the reality check they need and cutting the fat from academia. Liberal arts will collapse to all but teaching, because they are not real academic pursuits. As pleasurable as it might be to study literature or philosophy, the knowledge isn’t marketable so these subjects should be considered hobbies. The upshot is that a wider variety of people might engage with liberal arts if it was treated like something everyone should know a little about, as opposed to something very few people know a lot about.

  7. I do not miss the point! Because there is no such thing as liberal art. There is art and not art! Not art is this. It doesn’t provide me any value.

  8. A truly ironic reflection of how in the plastic arts the market oriented craftsman eventually replaces the true artist originally driven by their authentic internal expressive urges, the derivative descent from organic reality to kitsch? :crazy_face:

  9. It is not corporations.

    It is the cost structure of colleges themselves.

    Most people are insufficiently affluent for a liberal arts education for humanist reasons. Or, alternately, if you’re not rich enough to just pay for the education, you need an ROI to offset the massive cost of the experience itself.

  10. I heard about him, and I’m not at all surprised. This is the only thing they can say to the world. Therefore, I treat them accordingly.

    Liberal art…

  11. @Stephanie: I agree with the ideas in your post, especially the wider use of online courses, the greater separation of research and teaching, and also some of the points about accreditation.

    However, I believe that the following point may cause problems:

    This sounds good at first sight and would certainly be desirable from the point of view of those who are selected under these circumstances. However, I suspect that this type of access control would have similar disadvantages for the rest of society as the medieval guilds or the encrusted working structures in some Southern European countries.

    Moreover, each professional group could otherwise demand the same protective measures for itself. I would rather accept free competition even in the field in which I myself work, even though at first glance that may entail some disadvantages. Experts and specialists, in particular, should actually have even less need for such measures than less qualified workers.

  12. As the father of two who recently graduated from high school, I can confirm that at least 10%, probably 20%+ of the colleges in the US should not exist.

    As soon as we signed up for the SAT tests, we were bombarded with advertising from 20 or 30 second and third-tier school (the College Board, which administers the SAT, sold our contact information to them). The closer to the application deadline, the more blatant the pitches. The core draw was not “a great education” or “we’ll get you a job”, it was “we’ll get your financial aid”. In other words, “we’ll get you into debt to pay our bills”.

    To be blunt, if you and your family can’t afford the college, going into debt is a bad idea unless (1) you are going to a top-tier school or (2) you are studying for a well-paying career. Far too many who spend a fortune at these second and third tier colleges would be better of going to community college, or going to a trade school. IT techs, plumbers, electricians have better job prospects and better pay than barristas.

  13. Source: How to Tackle the Unfolding Research Crisis - Quillette

    “Scholarly research is in crisis, and four issues highlight its dimensions. The first is that important disciplines such as physics, economics, psychology, medicine, and geology are unable to explain over 90 percent of what we see: dark matter dominates their theoretical understanding. In cosmology, 95 percent of the night sky is made up of dark matter and dark energy which are undetectable and inexplicable. Some 90 percent of human decisions are made autonomously by our sub-conscious, and even conscious decisions often emerge from a black box and have little support. The causes and natural history of important illnesses—including heart disease, cancer, obesity, and mental illness—are largely unknown for individuals.”

    Science is Broken : EmergingRisks

  14. I see, you accepted a claim you read online without thinking about it because it fits your ideological bias.

  15. Here in Oz, although the culture is different, we have some of the same issues.

    People now expect just about every child should go to university. . This expectation is supported by the absurd notion that many entry level jobs that only required a high school education in the past now require a degree.

    Universities have thus dumbed down their courses to cater for the fact that the entry requirements for many of them have gone down considerably with the expansion in the number of places.

    The powers that be have forgotten W.S. Gilbert’s wise words: If everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody.

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