“Where does the hate for colleges come from?”

In an online discussion someone asked where the “overwhelming hate” for colleges comes from. I don’t think (many) people hate college or colleges, but many are baffled and unhappy about the higher-education situation—for good reason. I’m immersed in these issues, so to me the answers are obvious, but it’s useful to recall that some points “every knows” in one sub-culture are totally unknown in the wider culture. Plus, there may seem to be more hate towards colleges online because people online are systematically filtered for a set of opinions pretty far outside the mainstream; I suspect most normal people retain a pretty high and pretty positive view of college, colleges, and universities, while those who are familiar with the absurdity that is the modern student loan system and some other common challenges may be less positive. I can enumerate some culprits behind unhappiness with college as it’s presently constituted, including:

1. College costs have been outstripping inflation and wage growth for decades. This is well-known and obvious.

2. It’s not clear that most colleges are actually teaching much most of the time, per the book Academically Adrift—which also matches my own anecdotal teaching experience.

3. Related to #2, it seems that most colleges have evolved non-educational tracks for those who want them. Students who enter those tracks without realizing what they’re doing may regret their choices later, especially when they have to pay off student loans with low-value degrees that do little to build human capital.

4. See Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which argues that most of the education system is about signaling, not human capital formation. If that’s true, we ought to work harder to find other ways to signal—among other things we ought to do differently.

5. It’s not clear where the money for college is going. It’s not going to instructors or instruction. So where is it disappearing into? Many blame administrators, sports, Title IX, bureaucracy, Baumol’s Cost Disease, etc., but I’m not sure what the real answer is.

6. The logical arguments are mostly in books, not online.

Some degrees still make a lot of sense: wages for many kinds of engineers and computer scientists remain high, as do wages for economics majors. The overall college premium is still high, but most of those average college premiums fail to account for major.

Note that the WSJ article, “U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers: Schools that struggle to prepare students for success losing ground; ‘The shake-out is coming'” observes, “the pay advantage for college graduates over high-school graduates declined” in the past few years. That may be because the signaling value of a degree isn’t as strong as it is when it’s scarce. That may in turn be driving some to get graduate degrees—or to signal in alternative ways, like projects or online portfolios. If education is really a big IQ, conformity, and conscientiousness test, as Caplan argues, then it may be that more people who score low in those traits are still now managing to get degrees, lowering the overall and total premium.

I think the student-loan burden is underrated, too, especially considering the psychology of many undergrads and their families. When I was an undergrad, student loans felt like something to worry about… later. You, dear reader, can point out that this is irrational and stupid, and while you are correct, that mindset also seems to be very common. Apocalyptic language like, “I have seen an entire generation destroyed by student loans” is overwrought but also has some truth. Schools, in the meantime, are mostly party to the problem and have done almost nothing to substantially restrain costs (from the perspective of students). I’ve wondered out loud, “Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?“, and so far I’ve not seen any really good answers.

I’m a very small, unimportant part of the college system, and I’m not seeing a huge amount of the massive amount of money spent on higher-ed come my way. If I had a good I had a good, actionable idea to fix the cost problem from the student and adjunct perspectives, I’d go attempt to implement it—but I don’t. If I saw a company that I thought could really reduce the cost of college, I’d try to go work for it.

At the same time, many if not most students contribute to the challenges by being almost totally uninterested in labor market signals or genuine learning; Caplan covers this as well. Again, yes, I’m sure that you, the person about to leave a well-thought-out comment about how you are/were different, are correct, but you are also a minority.

This comment is also useful, about why academic culture is messed up and incoherent from the grad student and young professor perspective. An incoherent, destructive culture doesn’t matter that much if prices are low. When prices are high, they matter a lot. The tenure system has a bunch of other pernicious problems and outcomes, but this piece is long enough, so we’ll table them.

Finally! Someone else notices that the best instructors aren’t necessarily the most credentialed

Finally! Someone else notices that a lot of academic practices don’t make any sense: “Pictures from an Institution: Leon Botstein made Bard College what it is, but can he insure that it outlasts him?” makes me like Bard; this in particular stands out: “In the thirty-nine years that Botstein has been president of Bard, the college has served as a kind of petri dish for his many pedagogical hypotheses [. . . including] that public intellectuals are often better teachers than newly minted Ph.D.s are.” Why isn’t anyone else following the Bard model?

The question is partially rhetorical. College presidents and trustees are probably systematically selected for conformity, but I’ve gotta think there are other people out there who are going, “Aping the Ivy League model is not going to work for us. What can we do differently?” The current order of things, driven by bogus ranking systems, discourages this sort of thinking. Colleges love the rhetoric of being different, but very few follow that rhetoric to actually being different. Perhaps rising costs will eventually force them to be differentiate or die. Then again, the article says that Bard may be on its way to death or drastic restructuring because of financial problems. Still I don’t see overspending as being fundamentally and intrinsically linked with other issues. Instead, it seems that being a maverick in one field may simply translate to being a maverick in many, including places one doesn’t want mavericks (like finances).

A few weeks ago I wrote about donating to Clark, my alma mater. Although I still think Clark a good school, I’d love to see it move in a more Bard-ish direction. the current President and trustees, however, appear to have come through the system and do not seem like shake-it-up types, regardless of their rhetoric.

Why I don’t donate to Clark University, and thoughts on the future of college

I went to Clark University, and a couple weeks ago I talked to someone from their “development” department (read: they ask alumni for money) about what I’d been up to, what I thought about Clark, and then, finally, in the “Will-she-sleep-with-me” moment, whether I’d give more than $10 a year. I won’t. Even if I magically made Zuckerbergian billions, I wouldn’t give much more because while Clark is a good school, it isn’t in a position to solve the most pressing problem(s) in higher education: cost and access. Clark can be a wonderful and amazing experience for individual students but it will never be widely accessible due to cost and its model is not replicable for the same reason; the major problems in education are cost and access, which I’ll return to below.

Right now I give a little cash because of bogus rankings like those by U.S. News and World Report; here’s a good piece by Malcolm Gladwell on their bogosity. Nonetheless, despite them being bogus, people love rankings—even very bad rankings. When I was in high school, someone—the villain U.S. News again, maybe—ranked high schools simply by the number of students divided by the number of AP tests (or vice-versa). My high school came out well in that regard and parents and administrators and even the students themselves (to some extent) ran around saying “Oh wow we go to one of the best high schools in America!!” Which was bullshit to anyone who stopped to think for 30 seconds, but the meme propagated anyway and the number of people infected with the counter-meme (“Most school rankings are bullshit”) was and is much smaller than the number with the first meme.*

Maybe nothing short of a cultural change in views on college can alleviate the obsession-with-ranking problem. Some of that cultural change may be in the air: here’s one of the articles about Google’s decreased emphasis on college degrees. Maybe more firms will move in this direction. Certainly I would be more interested in assessing someone’s blog, books, or other material in hiring them than their degree. I’ve met a lot of PhDs who are morons. That is not to deny the value of education—it is easier and more pleasant for most people to learn in the context of someone who can select material, judge material, and accelerate learning. But too few teachers seem able or willing to do that. Alternate signals may emerge.

To look at one alternative to the present education system consider Western Governors University. This is one article on WGU, though there are many others. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the major problems in contemporary higher ed emerge from rising costs, Baumol’s Cost Disease, weird cross subsidies, and related factors. Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation is good on these subjects. I obviously like and generally support Clark but I don’t think the school is the answer to the biggest problems in higher ed today. There may not be one single answer. We may be seeing the researcher-teacher hybrid model splitting back into their constituent pats as well, since, as has long been observed, someone very good at one may not be good at the other.

The “teacher” point is important too, because teaching well is expensive and difficult. It’s not clear to me that the current structure of higher education is sustainable regarding teaching. Here is one well-written and half-right, half-wrong piece about how “Teaching Is Not a Business.” In some sense everything is a business whether we want it to be or not.

Saying that teaching is not a business is another way of saying, “We can pour an infinite amount of money into this endeavor without asking what we’re getting it.” There is a magic to teaching and I’m susceptible to that feeling, but teaching is also a system and set of institutions and many other things as well. Not surprisingly most members of the guild want to retain the mystique and a lot of outsiders appalled at rising costs want to de-mystify and improve. The overall trajectory of the last two or three hundred years makes me think the latter are eventually going to win, even if the definition of winning changes and the win takes decades to play out.

This is getting far afield from the point about donating to Clark, but the biggest issue is that I don’t see how most of the current version of higher ed is rewarding teaching adequately. Some like “The Minerva Project” may be the answer. It and Western Governors University are both very consciously doing a lot of things very differently than the standard college model, which Clark follows in important ways. Clark has a high cost structure and can’t avoid that. As I said above it is a good school. If I had a kid and could afford to send them I would.

But how much does Clark cost?

Somewhere within Clark, someone has the minimum number of dollars per student the school must take in in order to stay afloat. If I had to guess, I’d guess that number is between $25,000 and $30,000, and Clark must hit it whether Joe pays $15,000 and Jane pays $40,000 or vice-versa. Every college has this number somewhere. For a few schools it’s probably zero, counting endowments. Until we get more clarity about that number, however, it’s hard to get a meaningful value for it.

This began life as an e-mail to the Clark development person. Most of the answers she gets are probably more emotional than my somewhat cerebral / systems-based thinking, but part of my dissertation is about academia and I’ve now worked in, around, and for a lot of colleges, as a student, instructor, and consultant. The inside of the sausage factory is not a pretty place and the romantic notions I may have once had regarding the college experience are now dashed. I still retain hope and even optimism—I would be teaching as an adjunct this semester if I didn’t—but the ugly reality is that relatively few existing institutions have the structure or infrastructure, literally or intellectually or politically, necessary to make real changes. Whatever spare cash I might have one day—ha!—is unlikely to go to existing providers. It’ll go to whoever is trying to augment or replace them. Right now I don’t know who that is.

It’s not you, Clark. It’s it.**


* These sorts of idiocies persist. When I was in grad school, some girl in the University of Arizona’s Rhet Comp (or “Rhetoric and Composition”) program claimed that they were “number two in the country.” Being the obnoxious person I am I asked, “As ranked by who?” She didn’t know. “As measured how?” She didn’t know and didn’t like me. To be fair I thought she was dumb and didn’t see her manifesting evidence to the contrary while I was around.

** See also “Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over;” I doubt any individuals at Clark approve of the competitive college race, but they are also relatively powerless to stop it.

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.

The ignorance and ideological blindness in the college sex articles: Kathleen Bogle and Megan McArdle

A spate of mostly dumb articles, like this one by Kathleen Bogle: “The Missing Key to Fighting Sexual Assault on Campus,” have been wending their way through the blagosphere; most argue or seem to argue that universities need to act much more like police.* Bogle writes, for example, that “The key is [for colleges?] to make clear exactly when it is a crime to have sex with a person who is too intoxicated to be capable of giving meaningful consent.” But Bogle also writes, in a more pragmatic vein:

most cases of drunken sex will be—and, probably, should be—beyond the reach of the law. Young women need to know this. They need to know that the law treats sex after drinking as assault only in extreme circumstances.

(Emphasis added.)

Bogle, like most writers on this topic, ignores an obvious contradiction between current criminal law and what changes these writers want to see universities do: drunkenness is not a defense against any criminal act. No matter how drunk you get, if you kill someone you will be eligible to be charged with manslaughter or murder. If you can legally be said to have the mental state necessary to be accountable for the ultimate, irreversible crime, you presumably legally have the mental state necessary to accountable to consent to sex.

Few writers mention this.** More writers—though still too few—point out other questions: what if both parties are blotto drunk? Do they then legally rape each other? Do both get charged? Will they be in the real world? When discussing matters in the abstract these issues might seem like unimportant edge cases but moving from idea to implementation will make them very serious.

There aren’t good, intellectually coherent administrative solutions. Megan McArdle is right: “Rape on Campus Belongs in the Courts.” Courts have centuries of practice in attempting to balance the need for justice with rights for fair trials. If a serious crime has been committed, university administrators are the wrong place to go: they’re supposed to handle academic and administrative matters, not horrific crimes—for which they don’t have the infrastructure or legal authority. If universities do set up kangaroo courts, one will wrongly sanction someone and that someone will sue the university and wins in real court with real rules. Criminal and civil rules are fucked up in various ways, but they are at least reasonably consistent and reasonably public.

Moreover, Bogle and others like her forget their own ideological preconceptions. I would like to make some of mine explicit, as they are stated by Camille Paglia in the first pages of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson:

Sexuality and eroticism are the intricate intersection of nature and culture. Feminists grossly oversimplify the problem of sex when they reduce it to a matter of social convention: readjust society, eliminate sexual inequality, purify sex roles, and happiness and harmony will reign. Here feminists, like all liberal movements of the past two hundred years, is heir to Rousseau. [. . .]

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature (the Romantic imperative that still permeates our nature culture from sex counseling to cereal commercials) would be to give free reign to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.

Drinking weakens the power of social force, the social contract, and the super-ego—which is why people do it. The dangers are real and well-known. Yet we don’t want to acknowledge the darkness. Slate writer Emily Yoffe emphasized those dangers in 2013, and the current bout of jabber isn’t really moving past that. We as a society should be pointing out the perils of too much drinking. We also shouldn’t kid ourselves about why we like to drink: to turn off our super-egos. To live in the moment instead of the future. To take the risks and do the things we’d like to do sober. We try to banish the knowledge of darkness that lurks in the soul, only to see that darkness reflected and reëmerge in novels, movies, TV, music. Paglia is the rare critic who will name and describe the darkness. For that she is castigated.

The other underlying reality is that women are less inclined to want to have sex with a large number of random strangers than men, for reasons grounded in evolutionary biology. This is not a problem that affects both sexes equally, despite the gender-blind way that modern laws are supposed to be written. Relatively few men appear to be sexually assaulted by drunk women. But a lot of the essay-writing set either knows nothing about evolutionary biology or doesn’t want to acknowledge it, so some of the real mechanisms underlying these articles remain buried, until annoying gadflies like me bring them up.

EDIT 2016: For some historical context, which is largely missing from the discussions that have flared up in the media, see “A Sex Scandal from 1960s Yale Is a Window Into a World With No Internet.” The Internet has made many things better, but certainly not all of them, and it seems to empower some of campus’s loudest, angriest neurotics.


* I wrote about another instance in “If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan).”

** Hypocrisy in the law, however, is not an impediment to instituting it anyway. In Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Judith Levine writes: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” Teenagers—usually black males—are adults when they commit crimes and “children”—usually white teenagers—when they have sex. This demonstrates more about culture and economics than anything inherent about people in the age range 13 – 17.

Laurie Schaffner makes a similar observation in an essay collection about regulating sexuality, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Humanities, writers, money, and sex, which could all be seen as the same subject

* Stop defending the humanities.

* What is Dark Matter?

* “How much my novel cost me: Writing my first book got me into debt. To finish the next one, I had to become solvent,” in which the author learns many things that seem like they ought to be obvious and also mis-prioritizes things in a way that most people grow out of by 30.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Q&A: The Duke Freshman Porn Star,” which is interesting and yet I 1) can’t help by marvel that anyone today thinks they can appear in porn and, given the contemporary appetite for it, not eventually be recognized and 2) think that anyone going to a school costing more than $50,000 a year ought to expect it to be filled with rich kids. In addition, I don’t see the appeal of schools like Duke or USC; yes, they have big sports teams, but the basic experience and structure is similar to that of most public schools costing half to a quarter as much.

* “Goodbye Academia,” which is part of a growing genre and I agree with this comment: “I feel liberated and happy, and this is a very bad sign for the future of life sciences in the United States.”

* “What good are children?

* “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics,” probably overwrought but interesting nonetheless.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life? The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation.” Except I’m not sure I’d call it “harder;” I’d call it “different.” Weirdly, neither “self-publishing” nor “Amazon” are explicitly mentioned.

The number and percentage of writers who have ever been able to make a full-time, middle-class living at writing novels is small and has always been small. That’s one reason so many get gigs at MFA programs: for all but the most popular writers, there’s more money in teaching writing than writing.

If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them (paging Caitlin Flanagan)

Caitlin Flanagan’s well-researched and -argued “The Dark Power of Fraternities: A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame” does everything an article of its nature should do except for one important thing: talk to the women who go to frats.

The minute women stop going to frat parties, frats are going to either disappear or shrink to irrelevance.

I taught at the University of Arizona for four and a half years and unlike Flanagan have talked to lots of college women about frat parties, few of whom harbor illusions about frat parties or their purpose. Many sororities apparently tell women not to get drunk, since being drunk makes them easy victims, and to go in groups. Women would sometimes say—including in class—that they wouldn’t go to frat parties except in groups. Why? To protect themselves (from themselves or from the frat guys is sometimes an open question).

I’d sometimes ask why they’d go places they felt were sufficiently dangerous to require a group. Usually there wouldn’t be a real answer; it was as if I’d broached a new, un-analyzed subject for the first time. One woman did answer, however, and said simply that “It’s where the party’s at.”

(c) Stephanie GA of Flickr

(c) Stephanie GA of Flickr

Ten points for honesty, but I think that if I were a woman I wouldn’t go. Yet college girls keep going, despite apparently being aware of the dangers. Flanagan mentions “the issue of sexual assault of female undergraduates by their male peers” but doesn’t note that most women seem to know someone who had something unfortunate happen to them at frat houses. This doesn’t seem to deter many of them.

Flanagan never writes as much. It’s a huge, obvious blank spot in her otherwise fascinating article. Women are not stupid—at least I don’t think they’re stupid—and most know what they’re doing when they get drunk and/or go to frat parties. I’ve written as much here and here (“It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.”)*

Men are interested in frats because they offer a way of forming a cartel that in turn attracts women. I remember talking to a student in a frat, who was giving me the usual bullshit about frats when I stopped him and said: “Let’s conduct a thought experiment: if instead of increasing the probability of a guy getting laid, joining a frat decreased the probability by 1%, do you think anyone would?” There was a long pause. He wanted to respond but he also knew that his intellectual credibility was on the line (he was a bright guy).

There’s another important flaw in Flanagan’s article: while she does cite a horrific rape of a woman identified only as “Jane Doe,” in Doe’s case justice does happen: the perpetrator is caught, arrested, and convicted. The system worked in this instance! The frat helped the cops get the guy. As such it’s a curious example in an anti-frat article.

She does note one thing that deserves more frequent mention:

Furthermore, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, with the ultimate result of raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. This change moved college partying away from bars and college-sponsored events and toward private houses—an ideal situation for fraternities.

A lot of 18-year-olds like to drink and regardless of whether legislators and/or lobbyists like MADD think they have the capacity to make that decision, many do make it anyway. To my mind their making of the decision indicates that they have the capacity… to make the decision. One way to chip away at the appeal of frats, for both men and women, would be to legalize drinking; based on what I’ve heard a lot of frat boys and sorority girls drift away from their Greek affiliation when they turn 21. Some of that probably comes from the dawning realization that real life is en route but some probably also comes from the opening of different avenues for drinking and mating rituals.

College presidents have realized as much and launched the Amethyst Initiative, which is a plea to drag reality back into law and politics.

Anyway, the minute the Flanagans and college presidents and parents of the world can convince women not to show up at frat parties is the minute we’ll see the end of frats. Based on America’s bipolar feelings about drinking and sexuality in general, however, I doubt we’re going to see it.

EDIT: I should add that I’m not pro-frat, as one of two people suggested; I’m also not anti-frat, although years ago I wrote this snarky letter to the editor of the New York Times (“Although the fraternity system as it exists is flawed, it does serve one important purpose: it voluntarily segregates a large number of drunken fools from the rest of the student population — some of whom may be interested in novel concepts like learning and academics”). Today I mostly think that frats serve an evident need or want, and although I myself wouldn’t want to join one—I don’t have the right personality—I see why many others do.


* A sorority girl once told me that her sorority cohort didn’t want to attend sober events with frats because the other girls didn’t know how to talk to boys, or talk to boys without the aid of booze.

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