Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Higher education" today: something's gotta give

We've been having a family debate about the status of higher education today, which has led to the exchange of some pretty substantial and provocative rants. Here's one from my son Jamie, which I thought you might enjoy. Feel free to comment:
One of the problems is that colleges serve two purposes (btw a great, very brief post on this is by Douthat of the NYT). First, the purpose they were originally designed to serve, to educate the small, aristocratic elite of the nation with the kind of cultural formation in the arts and sciences they would need to govern well, which required them to have a depth of understanding and wisdom regarding the human condition. But given American egalitarianism, it soon became clear (and rightly so) that this ‘glass ceiling’ kept the 99% of society (including all women, minorities, etc.) from upward mobility, so the pressure was on to give equal access to this ‘stepping stone to the middle class’ to all Americans. This has guided developments over the past century or so. But this shifts the purpose of colleges, or rather adds a second purpose, to teach job skills and enhance job placement, which (given the needs of an information society) means technocratic know-how, i.e. science and mathematics, business and engineering, etc. Hence the great schisms which rack most colleges like my own, between the dreamy, ivory tower liberal arts professors like myself who still think their purpose is to instill a deep sense of the human condition, and the realpolitik business and engineering professors who know that college (like real estate and retirement plans) is really a financial investment – put $30,000 in and over your lifetime you’ll get four times that out, so long as you know how to navigate the economic and professional spheres, which it is their business to train you how to do.

The biggest predictor of financial success remains, more and more every decade, a college degree. So colleges feel justified in doubling and tripling the price, as the financial payoff of a college degree rises. Also, massive increase in student populations, especially when these are not the highly-motivated yuppies of privileged households but the huddled, starving masses of a thousand demographic groups, raises immense complications for the ‘student life’ offices. Now we need to entertain these people, given them clubs and athletic activities, enforce disciplinary codes, monitor them with RAs and RDs, etc. So the biggest increase in COSTS for universities is administration. At some major universities DEANS almost outnumber faculty. And those guys get oodles of money in salaries. And that cost gets passed on to students.

I have always thought that we need two different types of colleges, liberal arts colleges and professional colleges. Liberal arts colleges can have very high admission standards, no quotas, and continue to recruit only the ‘best of the best’ American youth, and can dispense with most ‘babysitting’ administrative offices, all varsity athletics, etc. Professional colleges, whose chief purpose is to get young people jobs, can simply teach business skills and basic math. The latter can generally function online, like the University of Phoenix, which does a perfectly good job with this sort of thing – and again, you can dispense with all the administrative functions, get rid of dorms/residencies, get rid of varsity sports, etc. The latter could become dirt-cheap, potentially even free (i.e., taxpayer-funded), since running an online curriculum costs almost nothing.

The problem is that most state universities want to be all these things at once – a babysitting service, a professional sports team, a liberal arts academy, a research facility, and a job training agency. That’s massively expensive, hence the problems.




Today I heard an earnest young lady speak on why scholarships for athletes are not enough, since it is grossly unfair to expect softball players to finish their degrees in four years. Especially in the STEM areas. Now justice requires scholarships that cover four years of sports PLUS the additional year required to finishing academics with a high GPA. So you see how things develop once you start giving credence to the 'total education' mindset. I can no longer muster arguments against such a tidal wave of sincere grievances supported by our governing class. I say fine and fund it, all and everything! Let's just see how long it works. If it does, hey, terrific. Maybe the one percent does have enough money to educate the masses, feed all the school children their breakfasts, build the highways, fund the research, prop up the military welfare culture, and provide universal healthcare to a rapidly aging population that wants botox into their eighties. The can't really take much from me, so why should I keep carping. But I doubt the USCCB will keep its tax exempt status for long...