Is higher education really in crisis?
January 23, 2013 5 Comments
I received a friendly invitation from Consider Again to comment on his latest post about the higher education bubble. In making my comment, I found I had a full blown post.
Indeed, the bubble exists. There is an “irrational exuberance” on the part of consumers with respect to higher education. For deeply ingrained cultural reasons, demand for the product is highly inelastic. It would be cathartic for the bubble to burst. Better yet, for it to gently deflate.
The idea of crisis or a problem with higher education itself is largely illusory. The real problem is that so many people expect the four year college experience to supplant a maturation process that should have happened while the child was still at home. The problem will resolve only when our culture accepts that college should not be a necessity for each individual’s success.
It seems consumers value higher education for two distinct purposes. First is the classic humanist ideal that education helps you become a better person. Second is the economic utility that comes from enhancing the future marketability of the student’s labor. Our society suffers needlessly for expecting higher education to deliver these two values together. We’d do better to ensure that formation of a good citizen comes first, and is effectively carried out by the K-12 system. Then, if parents and students choose, they may pursue higher education to enhance job prospects or to gain admittance into specialized careers.
The ongoing failure of the K-12 system to consistently produce well-informed citizens is a major drag on higher education. There’s misguided pressure on universities to make up for that failure. The University of California campuses implement some form of a “general education” requirement that is supposed to ensure a well-rounded experience. But why duplicate what should have been done at the K-12 level? At least the system could excuse students who grew up in state and should have already met the state’s basic standards.
Consumers aren’t the only ones to overestimate the value of an education. The producers are just as off-base. State universities are keen to stay competitive with top private universities that thrive off of massive endowments. Neither state nor Federal taxpayer dollars can make up the gap for administrator salaries or luxury dorms in the higher ed arms race, let alone keep up with the steadily rising cost of worker health and retirement benefits.
This reality of course irks those who read a progressive sense of fairness and equality into the land grant mission. But look how land grant universities started. Only a small fraction of the work force utilized the system. In the postwar period, that fraction grew remarkably. Stuck between ever increasing enrollment, a highly competitive environment, and an all around disdain for tuition hikes, land grant schools have become just another victim of rising expectations. It would take a very brave university president or chancellor to level with his or her community and declare the truth that too much is being offered to too many for too little. Something has to give.
Then again, remember the higher ed crisis is illusory. Like the White House’s current gun control drive, this is a propped up anxiety meant as news fodder. The reality is that any prospective student worth her salt has the ability to take stock of a vast array of potential educational options, earn, borrow, or be awarded money for that end, and set goals accordingly. A pricey four-year university education may be what she needs. Then again, some of the happiest and most well off people in our society are those who never went to college.