God and man and supply and demand
While many today might still balk at some of Buckley’s suggestions, there can be little doubt that he was addressing a problem that remains unsolved. The seemingly complete immunity of colleges and universities from market signals that might influence their business practices, as well as the near total lack of transparency about their behavior, is just as bewildering today as it was then. Buckley was surely correct that most mid-century Americans would not willingly have sent their children to schools that openly sneered at capitalism and religion to quite the extent Yale did, were those elements advertised openly.
Similarly, many of today’s parents might balk at the excessive tuition rates if they understood why those rates are so high. But unlike the Yale of Buckley’s day –which at least, in his words, prepared its students for lives as in-house economists in government bureaus – today’s colleges and universities arguably do not do even that, and most do not have the illustrious name that helped Yale survive Buckley’s expose.
A recent Pew survey found that between 1986 and 2013, a period when U.S. productivity rose 72.5 percent, median annual wages for college graduates between the ages of 25 and 32 only increased by 1.6 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment for college graduates hovers around 3.7 percent, the highest that number has been since 1992.
Faced with this dismal record, you’d think colleges would be dropping tuition rates, firing nonessential staff, increasing the quality of the teaching they offer and trying to funnel more graduates into useful professions. Instead, one sees precisely the opposite behavior. Adjunct faculty and teaching assistants are replacing full professors, tuition is rising, and between the years 1987 and 2012, colleges have added an average of 87 administrative staffers every working day. Something has clearly gone wrong.
Of course, when these problems get raised, one usually hears either unconvincing disavowals or counter-claims that the critics, themselves, are enemies of liberal education. Even some conservatives are prone to make the latter claim, even as the most skilled instructors see their jobs cut to support administrative staff and unsustainable salaries for tenured teachers long past their prime. The third-party payment problem in colleges and universities does not immunize scholars from the vicissitudes of a fickle market. It simply ensures that new scholars get thrown into an even more fickle one.
A deeper problem, given the massive number of students attending colleges and universities today, is that the demand for a useful education far outstrips even the most optimistic estimate of what suppliers could offer.
Imagine that subsidies and/or access to federal student loan dollars were confined to those schools with the highest average starting salaries for graduates. Setting aside the difficulty of tracking such statistics, even perfect implementation of this system would result in massive scarcity. Not everyone can get a Harvard (or even a University of California) education. This is not just because elite schools impose artificial scarcity to keep their acceptance rates low. There is simply not enough space at America’s elite colleges to house and educate every child in America who would want to attend. But even if the top 201 national universities and liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report suddenly embarked on a campaign to build massive, sprawling dorm complexes, and there were enough seats for everyone, the problem of useless educations would still persist.
It’s certainly true that, in most universities, STEM classrooms are nowhere near as full as they could be, with the likes of CalTech and MIT being presumptive exceptions. But there are, nonetheless, finite capacities on the ability of universities to expand these departments. It tends to be more expensive to expand facilities for STEM education, because STEM facilities require technology for experimentation and high-level research. It is also the case that – especially in engineering – attracting PhDs to teach requires winning a fierce bidding war with both government and private sector research departments. This tends to be less of a problem in the humanities.
Even if those problems can be overcome, finding students who are actually capable of not merely declaring a STEM majors, but successfully completing the course of study, is a thornier problem than simply pushing out government subsidies. There is no way to fake your way through STEM classes, and the stereotype of the biology major who switches to English after a few too many disappointing tests exists for a reason. All the subsidies in the world cannot stop an intellectually outclassed student from failing out.
It is these hard supply problems both at both the student and faculty levels that help foment creation of essentially valueless fields of study like the various “studies” departments or the much-maligned “underwater basket weaving.”
It simply isn’t realistic, absent some combination of huge and costly investments STEM faculty and facilities, along with grade inflation and the easing of course requirements, to graduate all of the students accepted to a STEM course of study. And that’s just the status quo; imagine how poorly schools would accommodate hundreds of thousands of more students.
In conceiving of a college degree as a necessity and/or a perk of citizenship, we have created a system that might be called “graduate inflation.” The supply of college graduates has increased drastically, but individual graduates’ value has fallen as millions of them graduate without a degree from a respectable institution, or without marketable skills, or without either.
College is rapidly in danger of becoming the new high school, except that high schools don’t usually require the assumption of a life’s worth of debt. Perhaps the best idea would be to shift the onus of caring for millions of students onto the system that was supposed to do it – i.e. our secondary education system, which desperately needs a spur to reform – rather than onto the colleges and universities whose degrees were never meant to be for everyone.