The nationwide closure of institutions of higher learning, which immediately moved all instruction on line, will I feel certain mark a turning point for American higher education. It was already in crisis. While the richest institutions still thrive in our winner-take-all economy, poorer ones--particularly liberal arts colleges--are going out of business every year. Our best public universities are no longer really public, in the sense that their tuition has now increased to much higher levels, and their students have to finance their education with loans. Now that the colleges and universities have announced that they can deliver their educational product without providing room and board along with it, a lot of students and their families will want them to go on doing so. Many faculty will prefer this as well. The current crisis could be the beginning of the end of higher education as we have known it--but it would not have had that effect, had not a series of disastrous changes already taken place.
What follows will be to some extent impressionistic. A year or two ago, I discovered in a correspondence with the Harvard archives that I could probably get access to extremely detailed data on the budget of Harvard Univeristy in 1965, when I first entered it--on how much the university took in, and what it spent it on. Contemporary data would inevitably be much less detailed, but I suspected that enough would be available to make a meaningful comparison. And that might enable me to answer a question that has bothered me for over a decade: why is it, exactly, that a Harvard education today costs more than three times as much as it did then, even after allowing for inflation, and despite the phenomenal growth of the endowment? I think we know the answer in broad outline, but I would have enjoyed trying to flesh it out. I did not however choose to embark on that project and I doubt that I will--but I do wish that some one would. Meanwhile I will content myself with generalities.
The first, and probably the most important change, has been the growth of administrators, which has been the subject of a number of articles. Both the number of administrative positions and their staffs have grown so quickly that administrators now outnumber faculty in many major institutions. The leading ones also draw very impressive salaries. The Harvard Form 990 for 2018--the equivalent of the institution's tax filing--lists then-President Drew Gilpin Faust (total compensation $1.7 million), provost Alan Barger ($881,000), and ten different vice presidents whose compensation appears to average more than half a million apiece. Diversity officers at many institutions make $300,000. No faculty member made the list of Harvard's 13 best-paid employees. Harvard also pays more than $50 million every year--perhaps much more--to the managers of its endowment. The Provost and the Vice President for the Harvard Library are the only people on this list who appear to contribute directly to the university's intellectual mission. Many of them, I am sure, manage Harvard's relationship with society and government, which in turn is based on generating the funds that the university needs to support its mangement in the style to which it has become accustomed.
A second big change is the growth of the faculty. As I pointed out in A Life in History, in 1965, when I arrived, the Harvard History Department had 30 full-time faculty members and had just graduated about 270 history majors from Harvard and Radcliffe. In 2018 that department showed more than 50 full-time members--and it had just graduated 45 history majors from a student body that was a bit larger. The same pattern, I am sure, prevails among the other departments in the Humanities. The average educational contribution of faculty, in short--measured by the number of students they teach--is way down. That also matches the wishes of most of the faculty, who have been conditioned for generations to regard teaching as a routine activity unworthy of a serious scholar. (There have always been exceptions, but they survive largely by accident.) The Harvard government department recently cut its teaching load for tenured faculty from four courses a year to three. The day of the large lecture course in the humanities or social sciences, the staple of my own education which could put the stamp of a great faculty member on a whole generation of undergraduates, seems to be past. Small group classes now dominate, partly because students always put pressure on for more of them. Meanwhile, professors have gotten used to teaching their specialized interests to undergraduates as well as grad students, rather than focusing on the broadest issues within their discipline. All this, too, makes college more expensive.
Lastly, schools now spend much more money on facilities than they used to. As late as the 1960s, in the nation's most prestigious university, the administration still seemed to think that young men and women might learn better in relatively spartan setting. About ten years ago, when my wife--a graduate of a state university--asked that we reserve a dormitory room in one of the houses when we attended one of my reunions. The room had not changed in the better part of a century, and she was to say the least disappointed by the amenities. Now Harvard is remodeling its houses one by one, at considerable expense. A friend of mine once asked Larry Summers, when he was president, why the school was spending so much money on new eating facilities, when one of the most fun parts of his own Harvard experience had been meeting local people in the many small restaurants and cafes that Cambridge had to offer. "Our customers want it," Summers replied. q.e.d. His customers also wanted a shorter academic calendar, and under his leadership, Harvard did away with the January reading period and moved exams before Christmas. I and many of my classmates were astonished to learn how much we could read, and learn, during those 2-3 focused weeks. Today's undergraduates will miss that lesson.
Students have attended leading institutions to better themselves economically for at least 150 years. In the 1870s, when Henry Adams was teaching history at Harvard, one of his students explained to him that "the degree from Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago." Yet the reputation of schools depended in large measure not merely on the credentials that they could provide, but also on the particular educational experience that they offered. Some of the Harvard faculty who taught general education courses at Harvard when I got there had been hired by James Bryant Conant specifically for the purpose of teaching those courses. Now the number of colleges in the nation that offer a particular undergraduate educational experience could now be counted on the fingers of two hands.
The current crisis could become an opportunity for some liberal arts colleges in particular. Rather than abandon residential education, they might drastically cut back on their administrative staff, perhaps let go some faculty as well, and insist that faculty spend more time teaching, take it more seriously, and teach the kind of course that every educated citizen ought to take. That in turn would enable them to cut tuition drastically. Within a few years, I think, such a school would have a student body to be very proud of, and its services would be much in demand. Yet it is very unlikely that this will happen, simply because all the power now rests in administrators' hands, and the school exists largely for them. I feel very lucky to have attended college when I did.