A friend of mine who is a full professor sent me this article from the radically leftist site Vox. I was so surprised to find that I agreed with the author – a university professor – pretty much across the board. See what you think of some of his points about how higher education needs to be reformed, and then I’ll comment at the end.
He complains about the university bureacracy and the office politics, then says this:
I realized not even students were too invested. When my best friend visited my campus to give a talk, he observed one of my lectures. I’ve got many shortcomings as an academic, but lecturing isn’t one of them. I’ve been on TV, radio, podcasts — you name it. By professor standards, which admittedly aren’t that high, I could rock the mic. But while my friend sat there, semi-engrossed in the lecture, he found himself increasingly distracted by the student in front of him. That student, who like all in-state students was paying $50 per lecture to hear me talk, was watching season one of Breaking Bad. In a class with no attendance grade, where the lectures were at least halfway decent, he was watching Breaking Bad.
Later during that same visit, my friend asked me, in total sincerity, “Why aren’t you doing something meaningful with your life?”
“This is important,” I insisted. But there was no passion behind my words. I was a priest who had lost his faith, performing the sacraments without any sense of their importance.
So why are there so many students who have no interest in university who nevertheless attend in order to get the credential? After all, university is very expensive.
Here is his explanation:
As recently as a year ago, I remained willing to work inside that fractured system of pay-to-play higher education. If students wanted to take out federal loans to buy degrees, who was I to stop them? Let the chips fall where they may; graduate them all and let the invisible hand sort them out.
But that system is unsustainable. Liberal arts programs, and the humanities in particular, have become a place to warehouse students seeking generic bachelor’s degrees not out of any particular interest in the field, but in order to receive raises at work or improve their position in a crowded job market.
Once upon a time, in a postwar America starved for middle managers who could file TPS reports, relying on the BA as an assurance of quality, proof of the ability to follow orders and complete tasks, made perfect sense. But in today’s world of service workers and coders and freelancers struggling to brand themselves, wasting four years sitting in classes like mine makes no economic sense for the country or for the students — particularly when they’re borrowing money to do so.
See, this is not going to make any sense to my readers who have STEM degrees or vocational training. When STEM or vocational training students are in class, we learn, because we expect to have to do the job shortly after. We were not preparing for easy “talking” jobs, we were preparing for “doing” jobs. We were there to learn how to do something for money, not to have fun. We were there to learn how to produce value for customers, not to be indoctrinated by liberal professors holding red marking pens. Many liberal arts students are not there to learn to do a job, they are there to get a credential. In fact, many of the graduates of liberal arts programs these days have to be retrained by their employers.
The author of the Vox article has a solution:
Our federally backed approach to subsidizing higher education through low-interest loans has created perverse incentives with disastrous consequences. This system must be reformed.
When I started out, I believed that government regulation could solve every problem with relatively simple intervention. But after four years of wading though this morass, I’m convinced these solutions should be reevaluated constantly. If they’re not achieving their objectives, or if they’re producing too much waste in the process, they ought to be scrapped. We can start with federal funding for higher education.
The quickest and most painful solution to the crisis would involve greatly reducing the amount of money that students can borrow to attend college. Such reductions could be phased in over a span of years to alleviate their harshness, but the goal would remain the same: to force underperforming private and public universities out of business. For-profit universities — notorious for their lack of anything resembling good academic intention — should be barred altogether from accessing these programs; let them charge only what consumers in a genuinely free market can afford to pay for their questionable services.
Without the carrot of easy access to student loans, enrollments would shrink. Universities would be forced to compete on a cost-per-student basis, and those students still paying to attend college would likely focus their studies on subjects with an immediate return on investment. Lower tuition costs, perhaps dramatically lower at some institutions, would still enable impoverished students eligible for Pell Grant assistance to attend college. Vocational education programs, which would likely expand in the wake of such a massive adjustment, would offer inexpensive skills training for others. The liberal arts wouldn’t necessarily die out — they’d remain on the Ivy League prix-fixe menu, to be sure, and curious minds of all sorts would continue to seek them out — but they’d no longer serve as a final destination for unenthusiastic credential seekers.
I agree with this idea, in fact I blogged about it before. This is the right solution to the problem. The problem of higher education costing too much will be solved when we stop attaching taxpayer money to students and urging them to attend university. If they want to get a job, then they should be trained to do a job. Only the students who are really interested in liberal arts should be there, and they should have to weigh the costs against the benefits. Maybe we should be taking the student loan decisions out of the hands of the government, and back in the hands of bankers who actually expect the money to be paid back. Or maybe we should give a tax credit to private sector businesses who agree to stake a student through his education, in exchange for working for them for some period after graduation. Anything is better than the mess we have now.