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.

Links: The writer, the adjunct, the technology

* Professors, we need you! (Maybe.)

* This is probably fake but definitely hilarious and true to my own teaching experience.

* “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?” I tend to answer “Yes, with qualifications,” and indeed I write many fewer negative reviews than I once did. Then again I write many fewer reviews in general than I once did.

* “Is Paying Adjuncts Crap Killing Technological Innovation?” Hat tip and further commentary: Dean Dad.

* Technological Progress Isn’t GDP Growth and, relatedly, Tyler Cowen: “Robert Gordon’s sequel paper on the great stagnation.”

* Inside DuckDuckGo, Google’s Tiniest, Fiercest Competitor, which I use as my primary search engine:

How could DuckDuckGo, a tiny, Philadelphia-based startup, go up against Google? One way, he wagered, was by respecting user privacy. Six years later, we’re living in the post-Snowden era, and the idea doesn’t seem so crazy.

* “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?“, which is to say, bad?

The problem with justifying college involves cost

In “Telling the Right Story,” Dean Dad notes that higher education has had a series of real or perceived crises, around hippies / protests, diversity / multiculturalism, and, as he says, the latest set are “about cost.” Though I would say they’re about cost and value, the basic point remains: skepticism regarding the utility of conventional colleges and universities is growing, as is skepticism about the idea that the “lifetime payoff” of college always justifies its costs for all people. Dean Dad ends his post by saying, “have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?”

To me, the problem is simple: “the value of public higher ed” increasingly depends on the major that one picks and the amount of work that one does in college. Payscale.com’s salary data shows data for a bunch of majors, with things like art and social work clustered at the bottom while engineering and applied math at the top. (I find the relatively low salaries of business majors interesting.) Someone who majors in petroleum engineering (starting pay: $98,000; mid-career in the mid six figures) is basically living in a different world than someone majoring in sports management ($35,300 and $57,600, respectively). Lumping both into “college” makes only slightly more sense than lumping McDonald’s and dung beetles into the general category of “food” just because both happen to be edible.

As Megan McArdle wrote, “It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in.” People who aren’t developing important skills should be asking what they are doing; by now, it’s pretty clear that a lot of majors don’t require much effort. Colleges are happy to offer some majors that require learning and some that don’t. This isn’t purely anecdotal: as Academically Adrift demonstrates, a lot of students simply aren’t learning that much in many majors. In chemical engineering and computer science, students are presumably learning the kinds of skills they need to get paid a lot of money. Alternately, those majors weed out students who can’t or won’t learn the material.

If they students get out of college and end up in jobs that don’t require a college degree, then perhaps they shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. Universal college isn’t a panacea, especially for people who enter without the skills, motivation, or inclination to succeed. Plus, not everyone does well sitting in a classroom and manipulating abstract symbols. Which is okay. But we’re pretending that everyone should sit quietly in classrooms and manipulate abstract symbols, and we’re subsidizing them through student loans to let them do so, and then we’re surprised when not everyone fits this profile.*

To be sure, there is more to life than money, but again, Academically Adrift shows that a lot of students don’t appear to be learning anything measurable. Maybe they’re growing as people. But $50,000 – $250,000 is an onerous payment for that growth, especially when the debt incurred for the growth can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

To return to Dean Dad’s point, I don’t think he or anyone else will hear “a better story” than the one we have now (“We’ve used the ‘lifetime payoff’ argument for a long time, generally to good effect. But that argument gets less convincing when the cost to the student goes up and entry-level opportunities go down”) until we, collectively, acknowledge reality and look much more closely at how lifetime income varies by major.

Clever stories can’t hide hard truths.

I’ve written about this set of issues before. I’m sure I’ll write about them again.


* Arguably the worst-off students are the ones who attend for two or more years, incur the debt, and then don’t graduate. They don’t even have the piece of paper at the end.

Routing around network failure: public schools and community colleges

Dean Dad has an interesting post named “Three Flavors of Dual Enrollment,” which deals with high school students taking community college classes. Read the whole thing, but note this comment:

In the “everyone” version, the idea is to replace the last year or two of high school — widely acknowledged to be an academic wasteland — with the first year or two of college. Those who tout this version point out the time and cost savings to the student; some colleges have seemingly bought in, seduced by the promise of a mighty river of tuition.

I agree with the point about the dubiousness of many dual enrollment versions. That being said, the problem as a whole is a superficial one that really points to a larger problem in the way our society itself is structured: people aren’t children at the age of 16. As Paul Graham says in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” by the age, “Childhood was getting old.” Virtually everyone is biologically an adult at that age, and, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of them are pretty annoyed at being treated like they’re still 10—which is what schools effectively do. And the problems of public schools mean they’re not really imparting much knowledge by that point—hence the “academic wasteland” comment earlier in his post.

Sixteen year olds are people, but schools don’t treat them as such. This is part of the point of The Case Against Adolescence and, to a lesser extent, of Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry. People can figure out that school is bogus. The smart ones want something better, and they often read essays like “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” which explain exactly why high school is bogus. Community college is one outlet for these problems. Not an ideal one, as Dean Dad says, but it’s at least a possible one.

The best solution, of course, is the one Dean Dad posits: “If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.” But you can’t really change the form of high school save through some form of charter school, voucher system, or moving to suburbs. There are lots of barriers to improving high schools, and you can read about them in this compilation post. Since high schools change with torturously slow speed, smart people try to route around the problem.

I agree with this: “the obvious remedy is to improve the junior and senior years of high school.” There’s no effective way to do this within the current constraints of school systems (local monopolies, nearly impossible to get rid of very bad kids or teachers). So the community college idea is probably a second- or third-best option. The high schools do need fixing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this alternative becomes more popular when high schools can’t be effectively fixed.

I would’ve been a good candidate for dual-enrollment—in Washington State, it’s called Running Start—if I hadn’t been such an idiot and sacrificed eighth – tenth grades on the alter of Starcraft. School seemed very small, and to most moderately smart people it probably still does. Although she’s writing in a different context, I think Megan McArdle points out the problem:

A significant number of teens didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was until we killed him. I can’t believe it–and yet I do believe it. I didn’t know what Iran Contra was when I was in high school, and I was a sophomore when it happened. Teenagers live in their own little world, only tangentially connected to the one the rest of us occupy.

Teenagers do “live in their own little world”—the world adults put them in. It’s such a commonplace that McArdle can say it, and nobody comments the statement. Why should we expect students to behave otherwise? I wonder if the popularity of world-is-a-lie fiction (1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies) among high school students is in part because the smarter among them are dimly aware of how their own world is constructed. Teachers don’t really tell them, most of the time. I suspect most people don’t figure it out until college or later—by which point they don’t care much anymore.

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