When we look at the factors that most threaten U.S. higher education today, it is reasonable—even logical—to look within our institutions because there are so many dangers inside academia at this juncture in its history. It might sound alarmist to say so, but academia really is standing on a cliff.
First and foremost, the economics of higher education are no longer sustainable, neither for colleges and universities nor for the students who study there. Costs are exploding for institutions, and the burden of tuition and room and board is driving families and students into deep and sometimes unrecoverable debt.
As schools search for financial solutions to reduce or at least manage costs, they are faced with a myriad of equally destabilizing risks: new technologies that are redesigning the delivery of courses; a changing economy and job market; a soured opinion of the value of higher education (with compelling research to back this view up by scholars like Richard Arum); and states and a federal government reluctant to be partners in financing.
There is also a far less obvious but potentially more dangerous threat outside of academia. It is not, however, the for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix that have worried us for years, nibbling around the edges at our enrollments and threatening our monopoly. They are not a significant threat because they have, for the most part, adopted our model and with it our problems.