Arnold Kling  

Does the Academy need a Reformation?

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In this essay, I write


The Catholic Church in 1500 was a debased, corrupt monopoly. It collected onerous taxes, which people paid because they believed that there was no alternative if they wanted a decent afterlife. However, inwardly people seethed at the amount that the clergy extracted and the debauched uses to which the funds were put.

Colleges and universities are in a similar position today. They may not use "a thousand cunning devices," but they certainly extract onerous tuitions, taxpayer support, and alumni contributions. Parents pay because they fear that to do otherwise would condemn their children to a hell of low-status occupations and spouses.

For Discussion. Is there a potential rebellion brewing against the high cost of college?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
dearieme writes:

The Dissolution of the Monasteries revisited?

Dannno writes:

I doubt it. The rising cost of college is a perfect example of normal Capitalism based economics as far as I can tell.

The absolute need to gain a higher education in order to avoid being rendered obsolete by continuing automation and foreign labor is perfectly clear to almost all people in this day and age. The dregs of jobs left after automation has changed a business are no way to live either.

No, the basic problem is a product (in this case knowledge) that is in incredibly high demand and with limited supply. Since more and more colleges are being run by shrewd businessmen, that fact is being leveraged into profits.

If we ever become a post-need society, it'll probablly go back to normal, maybe, but who knows how long that'll take?

JT writes:

A different analogy would be between the medieval Cathlolic church -- an all-pervasive, yet corrupt entity that generated deep anger in people who could not imagine living without it -- the contemporary government.

Lancelot Finn writes:

YES. You said it!

What the universities sell is not, or at any rate not primarily, knowledge, but credentials. (I once reflected, in an essay "Philosophy and Fundamentalism," on how while Harvard's motto is "Veritas," the Harvard community is not really comfortable with the idea of truth.) Discourse always involves premises, norms, a certain amount of censorship and exclusion. A Harvard professor can simply presume that someone without a Masters or a PhD is not qualified to argue against him. The so-called "top schools" get to define the patterns of exclusion, in a self-serving way of course, with themselves at the top-- like the Catholic Church. But, if you deprive them of their institutionalized power embedded in patterns of exclusion, how well do their arguments really stand up? The Summers case is symbolic of academia's, not abandonment of, but at any rate seriously compromised, commitment to critical thinking. The fact that academia overwhelmingly supported Kerry while ordinary Americans (about whose interests lefty academics would no doubt profess great concern) picked Bush is another symptom.

But there's another question: Are the credentials worth it? Harvard put me $90,000 into debt and I'll never forgive them. Certainly nothing I found on the other side of the degree has led me to feel justified in making the investment. I worked very hard, too. I learned some stuff but the vasy majority of it is not applicable in the real world. Meanwhile, I feel an obligation to look down on those without Harvard degrees, in order to justify my investment.

We should pull a lot of the public funding out from under the feet of universities. I don't think there's a good case for it. We should reduce the volume of subsidized student loans too. We should promote the idea that education is not so much an investment in career-related human capital (college grads do earn more, of course, but that's probably endogenous for the most part) but something you should find enriching and enjoyable; it should be thought of as an expense as much as a Golden Road to a Brilliant Future. A lifestyle choice.

And we should encourage other means of education. I think the blogosphere might be a potential pioneer in this respect. The intellectual exchanges I've participated in in this and other blogs are often just as stimulating as most of what I experienced at Harvard. If the blogosphere could harness the credentialling and networking capabilities of the university-- for example, perhaps discussion participants would have links to their resumes-- it might be able to challenge the university system, emerging as a freer, less bureaucratized, and far more efficient rival in the intellectual-exchange-and-credentialling-for-the-purpose-of-building-valuable-human-and-social-capital industry.

I've seen the revolution myself.

A 20 year old student tired of being taught by grad students whose native tongue isn't English, at the University of Washiington, withdrew, and is now finishing a business degree online.

She figured it was cheaper, and saved her two hours commute time each day. This after I tutored her from a failure in the midterm, to 100% on her microeconomics final.

Randy writes:

Rebellion? I don't see it. Nor do I see that the cost of college is particularly high. The cost of 4 years at a state university here in Colorado is about the same as the cost of a new SUV. And considering the leverage provided, it can hardly be seen as a cost at all.

Certainly the cost of elite schools really is getting high. But the extra cost here is about exclusion, not quality. Admittance to the elite has always carried a high price - and as the population grows, that price is getting higher.

Robert Schwartz writes:

I am about halfway through the $400,000+ project of sending 3 kids through elite private universities. I don't see the magic. Their education is not better than that their mother and I obtained at comparable schools a generation ago, yet the real dollar cost has at least doubled.

Nor do I think they will recieve comensurate rewards to the cost of their educations. Remember that they were bright kids before they went to school. The old statitics about lifetime incomes of College grads are snapshots taken through a time machine. The older folks upon which they are based are the remnants of an era when College attendance was much less common than it is now. The economic impact should be thoughly diluted in the future.

My sense is that fixing it will require a major institutional realignment. The analogy to the reformation is apt. I think that we will be forced to separate research from undergraduate teaching and teaching credentials from research credentials. A great deal of swamp draining will have to be done in the process. I look forward to the day when ___________ Studies programs are abolished and anthropology is only the name of a clothing store.

Trevor writes:

Undergraduate degrees are becoming ever more common and their value as a credential diminishes. A better strategy today is to attend your (cheap) state flagship university for bachelor's and go to the expensive elite school only for a two year master's program.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Yes, but not for the reason cited, though close. The difficulty of Job placement coincident with increasing Job turnover will break the oligarchy of the Colleges. lgl

David writes:

I attended an elitist liberal arts college in New England, then received graduate degrees at state schools on the other end of the country. Based on my experience, there is no way I would prefer to shell out the extra $$ for my kids to attend a private college over a public research university. Being a schlemiel, however, if my kid really wanted to go to Middlebury over UCLA, I'd probably have to come up with the dough.

drtaxsacto writes:

I think the rhetoric here is a bit high blown. For the last week I was in Mexico visiting a friend and had the chance to read two books on the history of American higher education (the classic - The American College and University by Frederick Rudolph and the more recent History of American Higher Education by John Thelin - both are very good reads) what strikes me about the discussions in each is the repetition of arguments about cost, price, subsidy and net price - as well as the substance of the curriculum that have gone on periodically in this country since the eighteenth century.

There is one point which I think your suggestion might be right on - that relates to something that I have called the poverty of wealth. Indeed, there are some very good wealthy universities. The transformation of USC in the last decade has been quite wonderful - if you want to look at some creative and institution testing issues look to their strategic planning process (begin at the USC.EDU website and then go to strategic plan). The Summers episodes are a comment on the fundamental weaknesses inherent in some of the most prestigious universities in the country. But remember - the reformation did not end the Catholic church. Nor did it leave the Catholic church the same.

drtaxsacto writes:

One of the posted comments suggests that higher education is in the business of selling credentials. Indeed, one commenter suggests that the person went into debt for $90,000 to get the"ticket."

Years ago, David Reisman had a wry comment when I asked him to speak to a bunch of White House interns. He lamented the idea that we were becoming even then a credential mad society. He thought of a very simple solution. Every university would begin to post their prices for a degree. A BA would be $X, an MA $X+Y and a PhD would be $X+Y+Z. For the fee the person would get two things. The first would be a wonderful certificate attesting to the degree - suitable for framing. Possibly some universities might also allow the student to go through commencement and get photos in full academic regalia. But the second part of the deal would be a book of tickets that would entitle the holder to attend a specified number of classes. Reisman thought the division would do a couple of things. First, for those who simply wanted the title - it would allow them to get that without the bother of sitting through class. Second, for those who wanted the knowledge - they could buy the ticket books in a secondary market. Obviously the effect of the first two steps would be to improve the quality and dynamics of the teaching profession because presumably all of the people in the classes would be there willingly. Third, he thought it would drive personnel offices nuts. What a wonderful and potentially transformative set of ideas.

David Thomson writes:

“But there's another question: Are the credentials worth it? Harvard put me $90,000 into debt and I'll never forgive them. Certainly nothing I found on the other side of the degree has led me to feel justified in making the investment. I worked very hard, too. I learned some stuff but the vasy majority of it is not applicable in the real world. Meanwhile, I feel an obligation to look down on those without Harvard degrees, in order to justify my investment.”

I consider Harvard University to be something of a scam operation. The degrees in the soft sciences are greatly inflated and the tacit message sent to its liberal arts students is “We will take care of you as long as you’re willing to be a slut for the Democratic Party.” The silly John Rawls and the highly destructive John Kenneth Galbraith both taught at Harvard. I highly recommend that everyone read Ross Gregory Douthat’s book, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. I have nothing but contempt for Harvard. One can only hope that more people soon feel the same way.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I consider Harvard University to be something of a scam operation.

Then don't go there.

I have nothing but contempt for Harvard.

I doubt that your contempt is giving Summers many sleepless nights.

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