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Sunday, May 02, 2021

What has happened to higher ed

 In 1950, about 6.2% of the population of the US had a college degree.  By 1969, when I got my degree, that had increased to 10.8%.  By 1982, when the last Boomers were graduating, it was 18%.  By 2003, when the last Gen Xers graduated, it was 27.3%.  In 2018 the last Millennials graduated en masse, and by then the figure was 35%.  This looks like a great success story, and I'm sure many college administrators would tell you that it is--but it isn't.  

Why not?  In classical economic theory, when demand for a product increases, the price falls thanks to economies of scale.  In this case the reverse has happened.  Since the late 1960s the price of an elite education at a private school has increased more than threefold, even adjusting for inflation.  That has given children of wealthy families a bigger edge in the admissions game, and in life, than they had back then, because the best schools need to keep replenishing their stock of wealthy alumni.  I haven't researched figures for the best state universities, but many of them seemed to have risen much more in price--the UC system in the mid-1960s charged no tuition at all, but now charges $14,254 for resident tuition, about $44,000 for non-residents, and another $20,000 for health insurance and room and board. As a result, debt per student, which was $7,170 2020 dollars in 1970 ($1,070 in 1970 dollars), has now reached $30,000 per student.  That's per total student--not per borrower.

Remarkably, no one, as far as I know, has undertaken the research necessary to figure out exactly why the price of college has gone up so much.  Drawing on the example I know best, Harvard, I think I know, broadly speaking, the answer.  There are now far more faculty and far more administrators per student than there were then.  The number of full-time history faculty at Harvard increased from between 30 and 40 in 1965 to 47 in 2017, even though the size of the student body hardly increased at all and the number of history majors fell by more than 80%.  Several other leading universities and liberal arts colleges that I looked into for my autobiography A Life in History showed the same pattern.  Meanwhile, Harvard now has 10 vice presidents--only one of whom appears to be directly connected to education--who make an average of at least $300,000 a year.  There were no vice presidents in the mid-1960s. 

Meanwhile, the education the money buys--in the humanities and social sciences, at least--has gotten much worse.  That is partly because of the increase in the scale of higher ed.  It takes a very rare person--regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation--to make a great college teacher, and there have not been enough of them to go around.  In addition, graduate students are discouraged from undertaking ambitious projects and encouraged to focus on a very narrow slice of history, which does not train them to teach undergraduates.  Making a financial virtue of necessity, many schools have decided not to pay mediocre faculty living wages, and large numbers of students are taught by adjuncts at many colleges and universities (although not all.)  Today's Boston Globe includes an article by Nicholas Tampio, who teaches political science at Fordham, complaining about a bill introduced by two of the finest Senators we have, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.  It would generate data on the economic worth of a college degree, based both on the institution and on the subject in which the degree is granted.  Tampio is worried that such statistics will drive more students away from the humanities and social sciences.  In fact students have already deserted the humanities in droves because they have become so dominated by issues of gender and race.  I have checked Tampio's own page on the Fordham web site, and his own courses seem to attack important questions from a traditional perspective--but he must know that political scientists like himself are increasingly the exception, and that quantitative analysis and rational choice theory have largely taken over his discipline, with soporific results.

The combination of vastly increased costs, largely financed by long-term debt, and mediocre education may account for the remarkable anger among today's undergraduates and professional students, which I wrote about last week. Students know at some level that they are being taken advantage of, and it makes them angry. They are also worried about their future in an increasingly cruel, winner-take-all economy.  Encouraged by some faculty, some (including many white students) readily decide that their enemy is a racist, sexist, and gender-based oppressive university and society.  I understand their anger but I think they have picked the wrong target.

Higher education is just one of several professions--including law and medicine--which has used its critical role in society to expand and achieve more wealth and power at the expense of everyone else. That is the theme of a remarkable book by Daniel Markovitz, a Yale law professor, The Meritocracy Trap.  How these trends can reverse, I do not know--but I suspect real change will have to come from the inside, not the outside.



Bozon said...

Fascinating article.
Thanks for writing and researching it.
There is so much else I might say.
Maybe I will think of something.
All the best

Doug Ptacek Jr said...

Peter Turchin, in some of his blogs, and in his book Ages of Discord; A Structural Demographic Analysis of American History, touches on this topic.
If I remember it correctly, according to structural demographic theory, social instability is primarily the result of elite over production and the intra-elite competition that results. In other words, more and more people are competing for a limited number of elite positions and social instability is the result of this.
Larger numbers of people getting university and higher degrees is a signal of this overproduction. Now my knowledge is getting fuzzy, but I think the increasing cost of university is a result of demand for education being so high that people are willing to pay higher costs for it. Peter Turchin looks at the number of lawyers and law school students per capita from the nineteenth through the twentieth centuries in Ages of Discord as a way to measure intra-elite competition at different times in American history.

Energyflow said...

Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.


I mentioned Tainter' s theories once before in this regard. Maybe the universities who are so keemn onndiscovering facts, new truths in science, etc could make Tainter required reading for faculty, students and administrators and thennimplement policies based on his concepts.

Satori said...

That's not a very good economic analysis. You ask a supply and demand question and then answer yourself with a list of what makes the cost of the supply so high. Generally, if the cost of something is high, only the wealthy will buy the thing and the rest will turn to an alternative.
You've got to look at it from another point of view. The seeming demand for college credentialed employees is bottomless. Or, at least the comparative advantage of having a degree is so much greater than going without that (young) people are willing to go into great debt to get one.
The expected profit (better wages/salary) is being entirely sucked up by college admissions because buyers have no reasonable alternative. Add to that loans, grants, scholarships, family members paying tuition, and also government programs taking enough pain off the buyer/student doesn't feel the burden of artificially high rates until it's too late.

Stanley Eleff said...

Hard to quarrel with your analysis. Part of the problem is "qualifications" necessary to apply for a job. If one must have a college degree to seek employment almost entirely unrelated to whatever the applicant might have learned in college, then a college degree the applicant will have.

Bozon said...

I went back and dredged up your remarks on Pluckrose and Lindsay.

"...In a number of posts over the years, I have tried to analyze the new views of history, culture and morality that have been emerging during the last few days--most recently in my post on the renaming of San Francisco schools. Others, I am discovering, have been doing the same thing more systematically and at greater length, although major media outlets have paid them very little attention. I recently read Cynical Theories by Helen Plumrose and James Lindsay, a very detailed, solid piece of intellectual history detailing the rise of postmodernism and five of its major offshoots: postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. Neither Plumrose nor Lindsay is a professional academic..." DK

Their work is a tour de force exposition of the foibles of Postmodernism.

Nevertheless, as I have argued a number of times before, it is impossible, on analysis, to make or keep either hard or fast distinctions, either historically or ideologically, between the good liberalism and Modernism which they identify together in their Introduction, which they and you espouse, and the bad Postmodernism which they and you detest.

It won't do to claim that academia took a bad turn from Modernism to Postmodernism.
The distinction will not wash.

All the best

Bozon said...


One can go back to Hume and see the modern roots of deconstruction getting under way in Scottish Enlightenment skepticism.

One can see already in the illiberalism of the encyclopedists, chronicled by R R Palmer in Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth Century France, the kind of thing you rightly deplored in connection with the Amherst Ccommon language Guide posts.

This was Modernism itself getting under way, and the transition to Postmodernism, as I have mentioned, is less a break than a continuity.

Higher education is awash in this liberal modernist, postmodernist nonsense.

I could go on, but why further belabor the same point again?
These are just examples taking the argument back in time, as it should be taken.

All the best

Bozon said...


I took a look at The Meritocracy Trap.
I did not have to look long.
it does not pass the smell test.
He thinks meritocracy is a newer and better name for aristocracy, which is still illegal here. This is frank Whig nonsense. There are no aristocrats or nobles here, only rich or poor democratic bozos. Having a billion or only one dollar, does not make a difference. Money is the cheapest thing. You can kid yourself that rich people are quasi or proto aristocrats or nobles. The idea has no credibility whatsoever. They can manipulate politicians like marionettes: that does make them nobles.

Unfortunately, this is a cross discipline rehash of stuff like Piketty's global Mickey Mouse economic and wealth socialist equalitarianism, dolled up with Markovits' left liberal social justice jurisprudence agenda.

He believes in a 'meritocracy', after all, but one set in contradistinction from Collins' critique of higher academia in The Credential Society, and one in which everyone on the planet has a more and more equal merit an paycheck.

All the best

Bozon said...


See also Intellectuals and Race, Sowell, Ch 8, to get a flavor of the global implications of both Western liberalism, decolonialization, and African and Asian nationalism regarding the foibles of higher education here or there.

All the best

Bozon said...

This note relates especially to Harvard, and to similar schools.

"...A 2004 study found that a majority of the black alumni of Harvard were either West Indian or African immigrants, or the children of these immigrants, not native-born American blacks who provide the rationale for preferential admissions. Similar findings have appeared in studies of some other elite coleges...." Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, Ch 8, p. 130.

All the best

Skimpole said...

Can a magazine for teenage girls be more intelligent about higher education than a leading diplomatic historian? Read and find out: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/campus-cancel-culture-university-boards

Bozon said...

Who do I believe:

Skimpole, Teen Vogue, you, The NYT, Jeffrey Toobin, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Jake Silverstein, Bret Stephens, Lisa Lerer, Lisa Wilkerson, Farhad Manjoo, Jessica Krug, Sean King, Fox News, Vox, Tucker, Dylan Matthews, who?

I am being queered by the media!
I am becoming a they!

All the best