Does the University Have a Future?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006
From The New Republic:
Three key American enterprises have seen costs rise much faster than inflation over the past generation, and all three are enterprises in which America leads the world: housing, health care, and higher education. Houses have grown bigger and better, as anyone who has looked at contemporary bathrooms and kitchens knows. Doctors do things they could not imagine a generation ago. Costs may have risen faster than quality, but there is no doubt that quality has risen, and risen substantially.

Higher education is similar--on the cost side. Benefit is another story. There is little reason to believe that undergrads and graduate students are better educated today than a generation ago. More likely the opposite. Teaching loads of senior professors have declined; probably teaching quality has declined with it. The culture of research universities has grown ever more contemptuous of students, especially undergraduates, who are seen as an interruption of one's real work rather than the reason for the enterprise. Which means that, year by year, students and their parents pay more for less. That isn't a sustainable business plan.

I wonder if the underlying point here is not whether the modern research university is an aberration anyway. Operating mostly on looking at universities for the last 30 years, and reading about them in the preceding 100 (see, eg, Henry Adams' autobiography) it would seem to me that the modern university in the US is largely an unexpected side effect of the massive government research support that followed WWII.

Certainly that seems to have a lot to do with the rise of the highly paid "celebrity" professor who doesn't actually teach or even publish scholarly work any longer (Stan Fish and Cornell West, call your offices.)

In the mean time, though, I can download whole MIT technical courses into my iPod, and access a virtual library of Alexandria from my living room.


Barry Dauphin said...

I do wonder (sometimes) if I have been swimming in the ocean and climbed on board the Titanic. Having been in private practice a long time, I recently accepted a tenure track position in a psychology department. Now we are responsible for both undergraduate and graduate education, so research is important as well as teaching, but my university (University of Detroit Mercy) is far far removed from being a research Mecca (a play on words for a Jesuit University). I wonder about the viability of many university situations. I say this not because of my specific situation, but how the landscape is changing. Since so much content is and will increasingly become available via the internet, the university must offer enough more than that to cut it. It will have to involve the importance of interacting with other students and with "live" faculty members. It will have to be because of more personalized education. We have fairly small class sizes here. But some unviersities have hundreds of students in introductory psychology. That is a whole lot of tuition money for a very impersonal expereince. If the educational expereince is going to be impersonal, then you may as well do it cheaply. It will become better and less expensive to get content on the web and simply hire a Ph.D. to provide you individualized (or small group)tutoring. You will learn more, have a better experience and it would cost less. If this analysis is correct (who knows?), then that is exactly what will happen.

There is a need to do "high powered" research, and some of the advances in medicine are connected to research taking place in universities. Also some of the technological developments of the last 30 years are connected to research at the bigger universities. But I suspect that the educational innovations will have to be on a smaller scale not bigger.

Morgan said...

It seems to me that universities are an expensive (and slow) way to learn. And that degrees are an expensive (and inaccurate) way to say to someone "here's what I know".

Do we really need the big, beautiful, buildings and lovely green spaces in order to learn, to get fired up about what we're learning, or to be around people from whom we can learn a great deal?

I think we're ripe for a shift in the way we obtain education and communicate the fact that we have certain skills. Maybe universities will become research centers, serving an educational role only to the extent that they are visitied by people who want to obtain research skills through something like apprenticeship.

Knucklehead said...

I was wondering what the "Bew Republic" was ;)

Since I don't subscribe to TNR Online I can't read the article. I find the listing of the three areas that the US leads the world (without stopping to think about whether these are the three and only three) an interesting way to look at this sort of issue.

Housing, health care, and higher education. Housing is, as far as I can tell, fully subject to market/economic realities. There's very little "artificiality" in the housing market. It almost certainly meets very measurable and predictable supply-demand-quality sorts of cost curves.

The other two seem to have slipped the market/economic leash. That makes them, IMHO, even more interesting.

How health care could slip the economic reality leash is somewhat understandable. Staying alive, if not staying healthy, has a tendency to trump all other realities. We want all the "health care" we can get our grubby little mitts on - at least in an overall sense (clearly many among us ignore our personal health care to varying degrees). It seems that demand will always outstrip supply regardless of cost. Even forgetting for a moment the enormous elasticity in the definition of "health care" (and how do we measure the "quality" of such a nebulous entity) it seems, to me, that it would be nearly impossible to determing the supply-demand-quality cost curves for health care.

But how on earth has higher education slipped the leash? There doesn't seem to be any shortage of supply. A man can't swing a dead cat without hitting a college or university. And demand for higher education, I speculate, is subject to what should be darned accurate statistical analysis. How has higher education slipped the supply-demand-quality cost curves? What is the artificiality in play? I suspect it lies in the "quality" aspect. Demand and supply are, perhaps, out of whack when "quality" is considered.

There is more demand than supply in the case of the "pedigree" level of quality. If one goes and looks at the entry criteria for top schools (SAT/ACT, GPA) it is obvious that there are far more students who meet those criteria than there are positions within the top colleges. So the second-tier of what we recognize as "quality" gets a boost. There is, perhaps, and "artificial" demand of sorts that exceeds supply.

But there's something else at work here. I think the cost of higher education in the US bears one of our greatest "hidden taxes". Those who "can" (afford to pay tuition) are carrying an enormous portion of the cost for those who cannot afford it. A very large portion of the cost is "discounted" to those who can show they cannot meet the payments. This discount is picked up, at least in large part, by those who can pay full freight.

Another thing that perplexes me is the mountain of endowment money that a lot of schools are sitting atop. The endowments possessed by the Ivies, IIRC, are typical far more than enough, considering only the interest generated, to meet the total tuition costs of the entire student population. Not only are they able to command astonishing prices for their "product" but they could be giving it away if they so desired. The whole economic model of US higher education is baffling. It just keeps going up at rates that exceed common economic sense. Fascinating.

David Thomson said...

I contend that a liberal arts degree in many universities is simply a reward for being a well behaved intellectual slut. The numbers of those agreeing with me are growing. Marketing to the general public will become more difficult in the upcoming years. And yes, the financial costs have grown out of control. There’s just no justification for it. Prospective students are beginning to think twice about spending the extra money for lavish buildings and quasi-professional sports teams which lose millions each year.

Knucklehead said...


I contend that a liberal arts degree in many universities is simply a reward for being a well behaved intellectual slut.

I realize you qualified that statement but it is, nonetheless, a bit overly harsh. The purpose of a liberal arts education isn't to make one an expert about anything but, rather, to provide a solid educational foundation for a lifetime of learning. The point of it is for one to learn how to learn.

We wouldn't be any better served, as a society (and probably as individuals) if all higher education was of the "vocational-technical" sort. Gaia help us if all our higher education is of the technical sort. We don't need a society of nuttin' but hard scientists and engineers any more than we need one of nuttin' but generalists.

The numbers of those agreeing with me are growing.

Perhaps, but concensus isn't the same thing as "correctness".

Marketing to the general public will become more difficult in the upcoming years.

Is there some evidence for this? Are fewer people applying to, or matriculating into, colleges in particular or liberal arts in general?

And yes, the financial costs have grown out of control. There’s just no justification for it.

This certainly seems true. Whether or not whatever mechanism is at work is "justified" seems, at least for the past several decades, hard at work.

Prospective students are beginning to think twice about spending the extra money for lavish buildings and quasi-professional sports teams which lose millions each year.

Some are and others aren't. Re: the quasi-professional sports teams... That is a small percentage of higher education emporiums. The vast majority of schools have nothing that even remotely resembles quasi-professional sports teams. The ones who do are, to the best of my knowledge, not losing money on them. The big time football schools make money hand over fist on their football programs.

I don't know about the "lavish buildings" thing. I don't claim to have done an extensive survey but... I suspect this is more a case of "lavish building programs" more than one of lavish buildings. The buildings around the Princeton campus, for example, are quite pretty, and historic, and reek of "centers of learning" but they really aren't lavish. They are just old, pretty, architecture. Schools far and wide, however, most certainly are pouring incredible amounts of money into building facilities. The money comes from somewhere. They are "growing". That doesn't support the idea that the demand for them is shrinking.

I've never had any feel for why people give so much money to colleges and universities. One of the things my Better Two-Thirds and I get a kick out of every year is that shortly after we ship off the insanely large tuition payments we will get a call seeking a donation. We just laugh and inform the caller that we're "donating" all we can at the moment, thank you very much.

I find the idea of giving donations to quite wealthy schools right there, in perplexitude, with people donating to "for profit hospitals" to build their new "whatever wing". Ummm... you're in business to make money and you're asking people for a "charitable contribution"? What am I missing?

Seneca the Younger said...

Knuck, that article, at least, is available for free registration.