more higher education bashing or the end of univerisities as we know them?
In the past couple of weeks, two journalists who I enjoy reading wrote controversial diatribes about the travesties of contemporary higher education. Both Matt Taibbi and Thomas Frank, each in their own brilliantly polemical ways, compared higher education to the housing bubble that led to our last serious financial crisis. Both writers attacked the integrity and ethics of the administrators of the current regime of academia. Both bashed a system that would allow students to acquire more debt than they could possibly pay given the job prospects for which their education prepares them. These are real nuggets that academics ought to consider seriously. Ignore, if it offends you, the abrasive rhetoric, but at the heart of both of their arguments is a logic that ought to resonate with our sociological sensibilities.
Here is Taibbi:
[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.
First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments. For these little regional economic empires, the federal student-loan system is essentially a massive and ongoing government subsidy, once funded mostly by emotionally vulnerable parents, but now increasingly paid for in the form of federally backed loans to a political constituency – low- and middle-income students – that has virtually no lobby in Washington.
Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system, an estimated $184 billion over 10 years, a boondoggle paid for by hyperinflated tuition costs and fueled by a government-sponsored predatory-lending program that makes even the most ruthless private credit-card company seem like a “Save the Panda” charity.
And here is Frank:
The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a nineteenth-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.
Now, consider the seventeen-year-old customer against whom this predatory institution squares off. He comes loping to the bargaining table armed with about the same amount of guile that, a few years earlier, he brought to Santa’s lap in the happy holiday shopping center. You can be sure that he knows all about the imperative of achieving his dreams, and the status that will surely flow from the beloved institution. Either he goes to college like the rest of his friends, or he goes to work.
He knows enough about the world to predict the kind of work he’ll get with only a high school diploma in his pocket, but of the ways of the University he knows precious little. He is the opposite of a savvy consumer. And yet here he comes nevertheless, armed with the ability to pay virtually any price his dream school demands that he pay. All he needs to do is sign a student loan application, binding himself forever and inescapably with a financial instrument that he only dimly understands and that, thanks to the optimism of adolescence, he has not yet learned to fear.
The disaster that the university has proceeded to inflict on the youth of America, I submit, is the direct and inescapable outcome of this grim equation. Yes, in certain reaches of the system the variables are different and the yield isn’t quite as dreadful as in others. But by and large, once all the factors I have described were in place, it was a matter of simple math. Grant to an industry control over access to the good things in life; insist that it transform itself into a throat-cutting, market-minded mercenary; get thought leaders to declare it to be the answer to every problem; mute any reservations the nation might have about it—and, lastly, send it your unsuspecting kids, armed with a blank check drawn on their own futures.
We could accuse Taibbi and Frank of simplifying the story. They don’t pay attention to the nuances of status and economic rewards or how economic outcomes vary between different degree-granting institutions. They don’t appreciate that some kinds of Phd programs are predatory, while others are really advantageous to students (despite their being subsidized by the hyperinflation of undergraduate tuition). They ignore the fact that in most universities new buildings are paid for not by student tuition but by wealthy donors. And as Frank himself is aware, people have been predicting the university’s demise for a couple of decades, and yet the university as an institution is still in a very strong position. But both made me wonder, how long can this current state of affairs sustain itself? What are the long-term consequences of student indebtedness for our society? What are the long-term consequences of the professionalization of university management? Will faculty voices and interests eventually be squeezed out entirely?
The other big concern I have is that we seem to be moving toward a world of big winners and big losers. We can think of the entire university system as akin to the college football race. Every university wants a top notch college football team because of the advantages it gives to recruiting new students and donors, and so most Division I universities are investing heavily in these programs, but only a few universities actually realize the benefits that come from having an elite team. There are only so many national championships to go around. Those perennial middle-status teams are not realizing the same returns from their investments. And those schools in the lower tier conferences probably ought to stop investing in football altogether if they really want to be efficient. The losers of this status race have a lot to lose, which is why schools keep spending more money, seek more donors, and raise tuition.
Here are some past orgtheory posts about the state of higher education (the end of higher education as we know it; the “future” of higher education; betting on future of higher education; questioning the higher education bubble; the u-shaped theory of higher education. Fabio has written so much on this topic that I’m sure I’ve left some out, but it will get you started if you’re interested in reading more on the subject.