Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A system in crisis

It's well known that higher education in the U.S. is facing a number of problems (so is K-12 education of course, but we'll put that aside for now). To mention a few, in no special order: First, the adjunct-ification of the faculty (which can lead to rather horrible stories, see e.g. here). Second, continually rising costs and resulting debt burdens on students. Third, budget constraints facing institutions that are partly or largely dependent on state funding. Fourth, there is the question of how much students are actually learning in U.S. colleges and universities, with some recent studies suggesting that the answer is: on average, not very much (sorry, don't have links for this). J. Quiggin at Crooked Timber also has hammered on the point that there has been relatively little expansion in recent decades in the top rungs of the system, in terms of number of student places. It has also been pointed out that economic inequality contributes to rising tuition, as the wealthy and well-to-do bid up the price of the most prestigious institutions. Universities in turn try to compensate by expanding financial aid, but sometimes, as at UVA recently, such programs themselves come under budget pressure.

Although these issues are systemic, the anger they have generated is often focused on the institutions at the top of the prestige/cost hierarchy. Some may doubt that these institutions are actually much concerned about education, as opposed to the perpetuation of their exalted positions and the passing of the advantages of their "brand" on to their graduates. A commenter at the LGM blog expressed this view recently when he wrote (in a comment thread attached to this post):
Harvard’s chief concern has not been education for a very long time. It’s about producing powerful people. Yale, too.
This remark is confused. To be sure, in an inegalitarian society one of the functions of elite education is, at least to some extent, the reproduction of privilege. But "one of the functions" does not mean "chief concern" or "primary purpose."

It is reasonable to ask whether a handful of institutions should be relatively well off while others scape by. But it is not credible to suppose that Harvard wants to raise 6.5 billion dollars -- the target amount of its just-launched campaign -- simply so that it can more effectively, in the words of the LGM commenter, "produc[e] powerful people." It doesn't take billions of dollars to do that. The number of "powerful" slots is limited: there are only nine Supreme Court justices, only so many CEOs, etc. If Harvard's main or overriding concern were insuring that its graduates continue to have a disproportionate share of such positions, 6.5 billion would seem an excessive requirement. But expensive labs, libraries, other buildings, and personnel costs do mount up and they might well have some connection to education, the thing that the LGM commenter is convinced is not "the chief concern." My interest here is not to defend wealthy, elite universities which sit on multi-billion-dollar endowments but rather simply to observe that heaping all the blame for the system's problems on a few institutions will not solve those problems.

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