The higher ed bubble

Among the jokes made at Yale’s expense I’ve heard over the last few days: “Yale is not an intellectual space” (heh heh) and “for $50K/yr we’ll make sure your kid never grows up.”

At some point the bubble has to burst?  Consumers won’t forever agree to load up on loans for a product that in many instances is no better than a MOOC?  What’s the advantage to a four-year program that leaves you indebted and unemployable (and emotionally fragile)?   Some will always be willing to pay for the credentialing but sooner or later the administrative bloat and complacency studies programs will have to disappear?  Right?

In The University Gone Feral, Victor Davis Hanson wonders why campuses should be exempt from the norms that the rest of the population must follow?

There is another common denominator to this epidemic of madness. Why are universities free from norms that apply to other American institutions? Is it the implied social contract that their educational mission is so sacred and so dutifully fulfilled that they simply cannot follow the rules or expectations that the rest of us do?

Free speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment, but not necessarily at universities. They assume that their own codes supersede the Bill of Rights and can limit any sort of expression that a minority of students arbitrarily defines as hurtful. Equal pay for equal work may be a national rallying cry. Yet for some reason, academia expects that it can pay a graduate-student teaching assistant or a PhD-holding part-time instructor a fraction of what it would pay a tenured full professor for teaching the identical class. The gulf between a full professor and a part-timer — in terms of money, power, and status — far exceeds that between the WalMart manager and his greeter at the door. And at least the latter pair have far different tasks. Is such disparity liberal?

Drug companies are sometimes rightly blasted as price-gougers. But rarely so colleges. Yet in lock-step fashion they consistently have raised their tuition charges at rates well above the annual rate of inflation. Strict rules govern how non-profit foundations spend their money; these rules usually include a set percentage of annual expenditure of total assets, which must be accompanied by reasonable overhead costs. Yet there are no commensurate rules for tax-free university endowments and budgets, which might explain why the numbers of non-teaching staff have soared, while administrative compensation has well outpaced faculty salaries.

Coal miners do not have tenure. Neither do carpenters. Wall Street CEOs have no guarantee of life-long employment. Nor do lawyers, doctors, or groundskeepers. Why do academics?

Does guaranteed job security ensure freedom of expression, diverse political views, and edgy theories? If so, why then do faculties donate overwhelmingly to the Democratic party, include few conservative voices, and conduct melodramatic witch-hunts against those who are skeptical of global warming? If tenure gave us all that, what might follow from no tenure — too much political diversity, too much free expression, too many divergent views?

Crony capitalism is a favorite charge against duplicitous corporations that use insider knowledge and friendships to leverage favors from government, both to profit inordinately and to stifle competition. But even the croniest of capitalists could not match the university Ponzi scheme of having the government guarantee student loans, which in turn guarantee that rising tuition will be paid in full without audit, even as the cost soars above the rate of inflation — all on the wink-and-nod expectation that millions of students will subsequently default and the government will cover the huge tab. How could a university admissions officer in good conscience extend a “package” of $100,000 to $200,000 in student loans over a four- or five-year stint on campus, with the full knowledge that it would be almost impossible for an unemployed or partly employed graduate to pay back what he had borrowed?

Consumer protection and truth in advertising are iconic in America. So how then do universities all but promise students well-paying jobs upon graduation, and instead turn out graduates who are neither educated nor — if employment statistics are accurate — especially employable? The Obama administration has a tendency to hunt down two-year for-profit tech schools that supposedly do not follow through on their big promises to find jobs for their federally indebted computer-technician or accounting graduates. But that is a small con compared to the gender-studies or environmental-studies major from Duke, Wellesley, or Swarthmore whose $250,000 college investment led to a low-paying internship or administrative-assistant billet — or a basement bedroom back home.

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