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March 8, 2009

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The Uncertain and the Genuinely Bad

There are two reasons why people lose economic confidence. In the first case, there’s enough instability that you just don’t know what’s going to happen. In the second case, you have a pretty good idea about tomorrow, but you know that things are going to be genuinely bad.

If you know things are going to be genuinely bad, then given sufficient resources, you can prepare for them: save money, make a budget, gather information and make plans. In particularly, if you know (for example) that your income is going to drop or your rent is going to go up by a preset amount, you can budget accordingly. But if you really have no idea about tomorrow — whether you could get your pay cut, or get outright fired, whether gasoline prices could halve or double — then you just lurch from day to day, not knowing quite what to do, afraid to spend, afraid to save, generally, afraid.

This is where colleges and universities are now:

Colleges — facing a financial landscape they have never seen before — are trying to figure out how many students to accept, and how many students will accept them.

Typically, they rely on statistical models to predict which students will take them up on their offers to attend. But this year, with the economy turning parents and students into bargain hunters, demographics changing and unexpected jolts in the price of gas and the number of applications, they have little faith on those models.

“Trying to hit those numbers is like trying to hit a hot tub when you’re skydiving from 30,000 feet,” said Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio. “I’m going to go to church every day in April.”

As the article points out, this uncertainty generally favors students — colleges are throwing the kitchen sink at applicants, throwing aid packages, higher admit rates, etc. — except in those cases where universities (like in California) don’t know whether they can seat everyone they admit in the event of a budget failure.

It’s also pretty hellish on teaching applicants, too. I’m on the academic job market this year, and as the first wave of the economic catastrophe hit endowments and state budgets in October and November, schools cancelled tenure-track searches, suddenly uncertain about whether they could invest in long-term positions. Don’t worry, everyone said. There will be plenty of visiting and term-limited positions — after all, the schools still need someone to teach the courses, right? Then, the enrollment projections got all screwy. Before, schools weren’t sure whether they could take a chance on hiring you for a lifetime. Now they don’t know whether they can hire you for a year, or if there will be one or ten dozen students when you get there.

On the other hand, both of the two schools where I already work are unusually aggressive in getting me to stick around for next year. I’d like to think it’s just because I am so awesome, but I know that economic catastrophe puts the entire already-migratory part-time teaching corps in flux: folks content to work for not a lot of money suddenly find their spouses out of work or forced to move. Some places know that they’re going to have way more students and less time and money to devote to them — so any teacher they can count on to reliably fill a classroom for adjunct money is like a U.S. treasury note: sure, it’s not ideal, but where else are you going to put your cash?

It’s all gone screwy, and nobody seems to know what’s going to happen — in the one industry where we still enjoy a competitive advantage with the rest of the world. And it’s made an already weird job process a hundred times weirder.

How is it affecting your industry?

Posted March 8, 2009 at 6:41 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Snarkonomics, Society/Culture
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