The Higher Education Death Spiral

One reason (among many) why I left my tenured position as a Professor of Philosophy is that I began to feel very strongly that the value of the education I was providing my students was deteriorating rapidly. Of course, I aways tried — with mixed success — to give my students the best education I could. But I kept having the sensation of trying to swim upstream in a current that was dragging me backwards.

Critiques of higher education in the United States are nothing new. We all know that funding is awful and getting worse, that public universities are becoming more like corporations, and that there’s an ongoing assault on faculty rights and the institution of tenure — an assault that bears an uncanny resemblance to union-busting techniques.

I believe that these critiques are all depressingly accurate. But they miss the underlying dynamic that’s at the root of all these problems. It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle, which we might as well call the Higher Education Death Spiral. It’s accelerating and driving higher education in the United States into the ground. In short, the Death Spiral is caused by two facts. The first fact is that the intrinsic value of a university education is going down; the second is that the extrinsic value of a university education is going up. Those facts have conspired to create a market failure that’s dragging down the quality of higher education.

There are basically two reasons for getting a university education. The first is that it has intrinsic value. Increasing the breadth and depth of your knowledge, being exposed to new ideas and to people whose ideas and values are different from yours, and so on all have the potential to make us better people and improve the quality of our lives in ways that are difficult to quantify. The second reason is that a university education has tremendous extrinsic value. It helps you get a good job, increases your expected lifetime earnings, and so on. Both of these are very good things, and each of them is an excellent reason to go to college.

Frankly, I think it’s obvious that universities are doing a worse job providing intrinsic value to students. Unfortunately, there are powerful emotional reasons why it’s difficult to acknowledge this fact. When I was a professor, I once said in an offhand way that our students were getting a worse education than they did ten years ago. To be perfectly honest, I thought this was so obvious that it probably wasn’t worth saying at all. After all, the facts are irrefutable. Class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer, students are increasingly taught by overworked, underpaid adjunct, non-tenure track faculty and graduate students, facilities are crumbling, and so on. Obviously, these facts will cause the quality of education to go down. But what I didn’t realize when I made this comment is that it would elicit a fiercely defensive reaction. It’s very difficult to say such a thing to a faculty member without coming across as criticizing him or her. Classes are ultimately the responsibility of the faculty, and so any critique of educational quality comes across as a personal criticism of those faculty. Naturally, they are often offended by any suggestion that the quality of their courses might be going down.

Nonetheless, I think the conclusion is unavoidable. In fact, it would be a miracle if those factors didn’t hurt the quality of students’ education. It would take a unified, herculean effort on the part of faculty and administration to overcome the problems that universities currently face. For example, at my former university — the University of Missouri — resources are so scarce that the library recently lost millions of dollars’ worth of books to mold, and a university-owned apartment building suffered a collapse that tragically killed a firefighter (there was no fire — the firefighter was there because a tenant noticed the structural degradation that caused the collapse). Those are symptoms of a lack of long-term thinking combined with scarcity of resources. And those deficits have conspired to damage educational quality throughout the university. Can it really be surprising that education has suffered in such an environment? (By the way, if you’re concerned about the University of Missouri’s athletic facilities, don’t be. They’re better than ever.)

Ironically, the same economy that has wrecked so much havoc in the university has also made a university education more extrinsically valuable than ever. Although college graduates do have an uphill battle to find a good job, their non-college educated counterparts have it much, much worse. In determining the extrinsic value of an education, the appropriate comparison isn’t between education now and education ten years ago; rather, it’s between the prospects now of a college-educated person and the prospects now of someone who has no college education. The difference is so dramatic that there’s no reason for me to get into it here. More than ever, you need a college education in order to succeed in the economy.

This pair of facts is the cause of the Higher Education Death Spiral. It’s a strange and unusual dynamic that I wish got more attention. Normally, as the quality of something goes down, and the price goes up, we don’t expect the demand to increase. For example, suppose you prefer a particular brand of shoes. But you notice that the brand’s quality has suffered — the shoes have holes in them and are made out of lousy material. And you also notice that the price has doubled. The last thing you’d do is buy more of these shoes. But that’s exactly what’s happening with higher education all over the United States: quality is down, price is up, and demand is higher than ever!

But that’s not the whole story of the Higher Education Death Spiral. The increased demand for a college education has the effect of masking the underlying cause of the Death Spiral by providing just enough revenue for the university to squeak by, but not nearly enough revenue to address the university’s real problems. Universities are now addicted to increased enrollment at the cost of long-term planning that might increase the intrinsic quality of education. And like any drug addict, they’ll make irrational sacrifices in order to get their next hit.

There’s a tremendous irony in the current situation. A university education’s value is increasingly economic — the overriding reason to go to college is to succeed in the job market, and that’s how educational quality is judged. But those who make the most crass economic arguments for how public resources are to be allocated, and who believe that it’s perfectly appropriate to turn universities into credential mills to enable students to get jobs, are blind to the fact that we’re in the grip of a textbook market failure. Market pressures have led to a situation in which resources are allocated inefficiently, and everyone would be better off if resources were spent not on buying short-term increases in enrollment, but on long-term investments that would actually increase the real quality of a university education. But the market won’t let this happen. Hence, the Higher Education Death Spiral.

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