What is college for? Matt Reed’s hypothetical and following the money

Matt Reed’s post “Parity” asks this, partially as a thought experiment and partially as a proposal: “What if every sector of higher education received the same per-student funding? Right now, the more affluent the student body, the more public aid money the sector receives.” He’s right. He goes on to say, “From a social-justice perspective, that’s counterintuitive.” He’s right about that too, and he eventually asks: “What is the argument for spending the most on those who have the most?”

I can’t guarantee this is the argument—and indeed there may not be one, since the higher-education system evolved by accident rather than being planned by design—but one possible answer is that the current system evolved primarily to subsidize and conduct research. If the purpose of the fiscal structure of universities attempts to maximize research rather than social justice, then it may make sense to spend the most money on universities and programs that produce a lot of research. That obviously isn’t community colleges, whatever their other merits.

The idea that universities are primarily about social justice seems to have come along later than the idea of universities as research labs. In the U.S. at least, universities have had a couple major phases: first primarily as seminaries for the clergy; then as finishing schools for the wealthy, which usually coexisted with ways of spreading knowledge about agriculture and teaching; then, during and after World War II, as research hubs; and in the last couple decades as ways of rectifying real or perceived inequality. Reed’s third paragraph starts with “From a social-justice perspective,” and that may not be the dominant perspective among legislators, whether state or national. Certainly during much of the Cold War period from 1945 – 1975, when money poured into universities per Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, it wasn’t.

My dissertation is on academic novels and I’ve now read a huge amount of material related to the conception of universities from 1945 – the present. One persistent theme is that intelligent people in every era disagree both what universities as a whole are for and quite often on the discipline or department level what each discipline or department is for. In this respect Reed’s post is a continuation of this discussion.

My favorite answer about the question of what universities for has been attributed to various people, and here is one rendition: “a university is a happy place if the administration provides football for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students.” Incidentally, in all three regards and certainly for the first and last, flagship public universities far outperform their Ivy League peers. It’s nice to be number one in some domains. Murray Sperber’s Beer & Circus argues that sports and sex have been central preoccupations for a very long time; perhaps nerds like me have the wrong perspective.

I wish I had a neat transition into this point, but I don’t while still thinking it important to note: tne problem or virtue with universities comes from the way all sorts of weird cross subsidies happen at all kinds of levels, to the point that I’m not sure it’s possible to disentangle what’s happening fiscally.

EDIT: Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Order of Things, about the impossibility of ranking heterogeneous colleges in a fair or objective way, is also relevant here:

The U.S. News rankings turn out to be full of these kinds of implicit ideological choices. [. . .] There is no right answer to how much weight a ranking system should give to these two competing values. It’s a matter of which educational model you value more—and here, once again, U.S. News makes its position clear.

I admire Reed for raising the question. But it’s also important to recognize the priorities any division of resources like the one among colleges entails.

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