We Don’t Need No (overpriced) Education
Taking a breather from celebrity nudity and Rob Reiner’s thoughts on health care, the Huffington Post is currently on a tear about college tuition rates. Angry undergrads are protesting tuition hikes across California and other parts of the country; they have good reason to be upset. I’d like to try to explain why tuition rates are reaching this tipping point.
What’s going on, in very general terms, is the states have been gradually cutting funding to their public universities for a few decades now (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, the state universities, instead of tightening their belts, have been in a bit of an arms race with each other to see who can offer the most extravagant perqs to prospective students. Explicitly remaking themselves along the lines of consumer capitalism, most universities are starting to resemble vacation resorts with 24 hour gyms, alumni fairs, and free rock concerts. None of this actually relates to education, but none of them want to back down and the students and their parents apparently buy into the nonsense about college being an “experience” first and foremost.
Freakonomics: “When I visited my undergrad alma mater a few years ago, the chancellor pointed out that three buildings had gone up in the past decade or so that were each larger than any existing building on campus. There was a library, a convocation center (a multipurpose arena), and a huge student gym. The gym, he said, was a top priority because parents and prospective students increasingly think of themselves as customers, shopping for the most amenities for the best price, and the colleges that didn’t come to grips with this would soon see their customers going elsewhere.”
Trust me, they all talk about their “customers” now.
In the future, I hope to study education from Socrates to the present. I am still a pisher in this area. But, my understanding of the history of American universities is this: 1. They were established by the church in order to create clergymen, but fairly quickly became semi-secular. 2. By the late 1800s, they were responding to a need to create a sort of technocratic elite for industry, which was in tension with their traditional mission as authoritative structures of the transmission of sacred wisdom. In other words, the first question that Aquinas asks about Christian doctrine: utrum sit scientia vel sapientia (whether it be skill or wisdom*) is already a question for American universities by the turn of the century. You already have a problem with pedants whose scientia is too specialized to qualify as wisdom and a push on the part of industry for more “practical” education. Universities are already talking about the “skills” that a university education bestows.
3. After WWII, there is a tremendous influx of new students in American universities and much of the writing from the time displays an increasing tension between education as the mass production of “company men” and education as those authoritative transmission chains of higher wisdom. By the 1950s, the transmission of wisdom idea seems to be in decline. 4. So, the 60s student movement, for all of its ugly 70s nonsense about overturning the libraries, also responds quite logically to a sense that education is no longer holistic or dedicated to making the student wise, but is being co-opted of the American military/industrial complex, which increasingly it is. Nevertheless, the student radicals attack the very sort of cultural authority (as opposed to power) that makes wisdom transmission possible, and their critique of “elitist” educated people (the two adjectives being synonyms apparently) resonates widely in the larger culture.
What has happened to the universities in my lifetime is that the idea of wisdom-transmission, already an object of ridicule by the 70s, has been almost totally eclipsed, while the idea of skill-set transmission is increasingly in decline. 5. As the public got sick of funding universities, which they believe produce political radicals (far from it! Your average academic is a company man through and through), the universities increasingly turned to a customer service mission; understandably, since their funding now comes largely from the public. At a university like mine, the central mission of the university is rewritten every single year, in order to respond to the changing demands of the consumers. The idea that a chancellor might know what a university is, instead of having to ask students every year, is seen as “unresponsive” and “elitist”; better to let students tell professors what education consists of. The idea that there might be something enduring and authoritative responding to the term University is dead.**
Along with the customer service model came an army of experts, consultants, administrators, therapists, and party planners. This might explain why most state universities have a seriously top-heavy administrative structure. Part of that comes from all of those “student activities” and amenities; and some of it has to do with state governments treating their universities as make-work programs. It all costs money. And there’s the bizarre (and frankly unconscionable) professional ideal for tenured professors to research every other semester and largely abandon their sacred mission of teaching. And, just like health insurance, student loans have the tendency to artificially inflate the price of academic “services”. Oh, and in all but a few Texan cases, university sports programs are tremendous money-sucking pits.
So, at most state universities, a good accountant with a red pen could cut tuition in half. Sadly, the universities have generally tried to cut their budgets by replacing retiring tenured professors with grad student instructors who barely know the material (like me!). So long as the customers can see Snoop Dogg for free with their student ID, right?
It’s all quite absurd and dispiriting. I often compare higher ed to Enron a few months before the crash. But, if anyone would like to start a cut-rate university offering a truly solid traditional education for far lower tuition rates, please get in touch with me.
*(Aquinas doesn’t, of course, pose this as an either/or question in the Summa Theologica.)
** My goal here is to explain why tuition rates are so high; however, I think this should suggest to a close reader why grade inflation is endemic at these universities.