It’s no news to anyone that higher education is under pressure to adapt. Some of the pressure comes from within the university, from either a social-sciency direction (like the book Academically Adrift), or from a humanistic direction (like Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas). These are intelligent, well-intentioned, and interesting critiques of the current ideals and methods of education, and they should be taken seriously. The university is what it is because it grew to be that way over the past few centuries, and it is reasonable to ask whether it needs to change – maybe even dramatically – to meet the needs of our changed and changing society. Okay, okay; this I get, and I support.
But then there’s also pressure coming from another direction, and this pressure is big and nasty, and it puzzles me. This other direction is political. Headline after headline suggests that whenever state politicians turn their attention to higher education, they eagerly propose all manner of ill-formed, misguided ideas. Mostly, the proposals end up pointing toward the goal of turning all colleges and universities into vocational schools, or at least schools funded only by measures of vocational success. Get rid of tenure, get rid of graduate programs in the liberal arts, get rid of majors that can’t demonstrate exactly how they are helping young people get jobs.
Most recently, the National Governor’s Association urged states to wean their universities from relying upon “a broad, liberal-arts style education.” But if states really are interested in producing what employers want and need, this is precisely the wrong direction to go. (For further discussion, see Debra Humphreys’s brief post here, and all the research that has gone into AACU’s “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” project.)
So state policy makers are not listening to business communities. My bet is they’re not listening to constituencies either. I don’t know this for sure; I’m basing this only on the case of my own state, where (from what I can gather) legislators had to back down from making truly draconian cuts to higher ed only out of fear of not being re-elected. So, by appearance, state legislators are trying to mold higher ed without consulting either business leaders or the public, or any available data.
Thus my question: who are these people? Did they go to college? If so, what tragedy did they undergo? Did they, as a class, encounter only wretched and boorish liberal arts professors? I’m guessing that the lawmakers must be, on average, around 55 years old. That would mean they were going to college, on average, in the late 70s. What was happening on college campuses then? Was that the era of “stupid and boorish” humanities professors? Or was it that they followed up their undergraduate experience with some of the early, clumsy MBA programs, which may have twisted their thinking? What is it that is hampering their recognition, seemingly enjoyed by everyone else, that there is genuine value in understanding one’s culture, its history, big ideas, literature in other languages, poetry, and the arts? I really am puzzled.
Speaking for where I am (Wisconsin) our current govenor, while he did attend college, did not graduate. I have to believe that shaped his opinions on the necessity of a college education.
What I like most about this post is that it helps me to see the mechanisms used to evaluate higher education more clearly. It also forces me to create categories for evaluating the different interests:
Group one: Members of the academy
Group two: Consumer / taxpayers
Group three Consumer / students
Group four: Politicians
I think for anyone to really understand the problem we have to break down the mechanism of evaluation.
For the members of the academy, we want more funding – ultimately this motivates either us or our department heads. Funding is what makes program grow. Funding translates into interesting colleagues, more programs of study (and therefore more upper division classes), and increases in salary. We are an interest group that generally maximizes the desire for more funding.
The consumer / taxpayer sees no direct relationship between their taxes and the spending on higher education. Either they are very naive and think that college is paid for by student tuition only, or they are slightly naive and convinced that most of the burden of paying for higher ed falls on someone else. Either this group is those without children or those that make the most money. This minimizes their own contribution to the funding and desire to evaluate what they get for their $ (similar to charity giving). Regardless of the description, there is a great gulf between paying and realizing the benefits — largely assumed to be positive, but with no clear feedback mechanism to confirm this. I think we can all agree that there is waste in academia, but where is it? How do we to root out the waste weed, without killing the educational fruit?
The consumer / student is the most complex. They have mental models that are largely flawed about what it takes to get a job. Most students that I have met would love, absolutely love, a degree that was vocational. What I mean here is that if they stand in front of a mirror and say La Place expansion 100 times, then they get a high paying job which is subject to no competition from cheaper foreign workers. They can learn Aristotle after they pay their bills, they assume. This means that the student will chose a university based on some vague perception that they will get a degree which is a ticket to a job. Again, this system has little feedback in it for most students. The bottom 80% will take a job that requires a degree, but not the specific degree that they earned. It is a rude awakening that after all this education, you still have to find an employer to marry (something we are very bad at playing matchmaker).
The worst group is the politicians. Because these people exist in a world where [M]erit is decided by popularity rather than scientific or market standards, it seems that they are radically ignorant of measurement of any kind that students, taxpayers, or academy members would recognize. This is complicated by the rhetoric and good intentions of public goods arguments. What they want is a return that they can point to — regardless of what that is. So, if you show me that more people are completing college now that 10 years ago, that will work (regardless of the effects it has on quality of education). Note that this increase in education corresponds to the academy member’s wishes for increased budgets. There is a bit of a story here of complicity on our parts. Now that the budget is so large and tax revenue so tiny, why are we surprised that they are attacking the quality of our product?
How to solve? Privatization is no panacea. However, we cannot get where we want to go without incentives. I think the university has to go from being state-funded, to state-assisted. This would require a mission for the university separate from the goals of the legislature. It also means that every department has to justify expenditure based on some clear source of revenue. The university and colleges should compete for funding and win funding by performing well in the eyes of its consumers rather than its producers. No progress, no efficiency, no learning can take place in an environment without incentives.
If this means that all state-funded schools become vocational schools, so be it. That simply means more opportunity for private liberal arts colleges. I fear, however, that were all the gifted students to flea to private schools, the vocational model would collapse. I reckon that going to a state-funded school would not be enough to get a good job and would defeat the only reason the consumer / students go to school in the first place. Should I mention vouchers….? What would the world look like if departments were retroactively funded based on how many students they graduated with a degree from their program? Sure there would be a temptation to lower standards to graduate people, but would anyone take a degree that accurately reflected this low quality? The best degrees would strike a balance of employability and easiness. The biggest objection to this, I guess, would be that professors would have to become better teachers and this might hurt research production. There seems to be no way to measure research production in a funding model based on job placement of students. Competitive grants would be a way — but competitive grants in the humanities?
I like your way of analyzing the consumers, Michael. I think your proposed result – state-assisted colleges rather than state-funded – is already the reality, and several states (including ours) have already decided to award funding on the basis of promising initiatives rather than just handing out checks.
But I’m opposed to letting education be market-driven. (Maybe because I’m an economic ignoramus.) It seems to me that markets (at least the kind we’re talking about) are fickle, and have very short time horizons. But I flatter us with the conceit that higher ed – at least, the liberal arts – is about the maintenance of culture over very long periods of time. This is one good aspect of the slow rate of change in universities. We still have people thinking it’s good to read Homer and Plato, despite all the objections that have been raised over the centuries, and despite many students not being able to see the point in reading them. The opinion of the public, the students, and the lawmakers DOES matter, but only to the extent it should. Who determines whether it should? Well, on that question the voice of the educators should be taken extremely seriously, I think, though it should be regularly challenged in an intelligent, open-minded way.
I will concede the point about time-horizon. This is the best critique of the market that we have. The rebuttal is merely tautological: contracts have to exist over longer-time horizons in order for them to promote longer-run incentives.
However, a slight turn that I would make is that the humanities faces the same problem as does the arts. It is hard to think of a model that works better than patronage as far as promoting excellence among the very elite. How we create a university model that promotes excellence eludes me. However, I know many violinists who took up their craft as a vocation and not as a job. We have many excellent and underpaid violin instructors as a result. To some extent this is not a market failure. To some extent it is. How to correct the system without distorting the incentives is a research project of mine, but I cannot pretend to be making much tangible progress.
Thank you for this thread. I’ve noticed another trend in PA as well. The politicians have found a loophole in the freedom of information act. They can now access your university emails through a request of the freedom of information act if you work for a state school that is funded or assisted financially through the state in any way. They have used this method to “prove” that some university professors have political preferences (who doesn’t?) and thus that that their political preferences are influencing their research and their teaching. They then ask that the professor be evaluated and, in some recent sad cases, removed from their position. They also use the information they obtain from private emails to show that some university professors and departments are not using their time and research for practically applicable purposes out in the “public” sphere. It’s devastating the state of education we are now upon in many ways.
What the humanities need to continue to do is to show (in as many ways as possible) that what we do is valuable to learning, to one’s well-rounded education, for practical thinking skills, writing, and for being culturally educated. This is not news and it’s not new to the discipline of philosophy, for example, to have to continually prove that what it does is valuable. But as yet another philosophy department was closed yesterday in the UK, it has never been more pressing then it is currently for philosophers and the humanities at large (also theoretical mathematics and art programs I have heard, not just philosophy) to start writing about why philosophy is important on a university level, let alone in every area of life, in as many places as possible, such as newspapers, journals, conferences that are inter-disciplinary, as books on education, etc etc. The more exposure and solid arguments are out there, the harder it will be for politicians to “prove” that we do not need the humanities. Perhaps also more philosophers should go into the field of education and social reform on a more influential level as well?
Thanks for the comment, Chris. I think the view you lay out as a possibility for philosophy is consonant with Kitcher’s recent essay about philosophy’s role – there’s a link to his paper and some discussion about it on Brian Leiter’s blog:
I’m all in favor of it. The work I do as an associate dean shows me there is a deep and acute need for “evangelical generalists” in the humanities, and I think at least some varieties of philosopher are perfect for the job!