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Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Past and Future of Higher Education

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.


Bozon said...

Great post. So many issues here and not here to think about.
this was my favorite:

"...: 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." DK

The project you chose not to pursue may be of most interest to a few, including me. I can see good reasons for avoiding it.

All the best

Unknown said...

Variant on an old joke: how many bureaucrats does it take to change a light bulb? As many as are nearby to fill out forms in triplicate, approve them, send them through the proper channels, and finally to tell the temp to change the light bulb.

Bureaucracies expand until they starve their institutions. Bureaucratic work is almost always more attractive than setting up a new business, doing raw labor (it is hard, but the results are tangible) or even the skilled trades. The only work more attractive than bureaucracy in pay and conditions consists of the educated professions and perhaps education or creative work, yet bureaucracy seems to be a fallback in case one can't get into law school or med school. It is telling that the least bureaucratic of institutions aside from mom-and-pop businesses and small-congregation churches (whose 'bureaucracy' is typically volunteer and unpaid) are public K-12 schools (except in some giant cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles... the bigger the share of the educational funds that go into bureaucracy the worse the schools are, the worse the schools are. This may be coincidence or it may not. Poverty of the parents? I can think of many Asian immigrant groups that did well in public schools. Polish-American and Italian-American kids did well in the parochial schools... as are many Latin-American kids today. If I had children I would be leery of relocating them to the highly-bureaucratized school districts of giant cities. If you want your kids to learn, then cleave to small towns and small cities.

Bureaucracies are attractive places in which to work. They require no heavy lifting; they expose their employees to no real dangers of injury or death on the job. Children of bureaucrats get into the parents' activity or something similar. But note well: unlike the assembly line or the construction crew, the bureaucracy does nothing tangible. It can make decisions and shuffle papers or move money about between accounts.

Whether the society is nominally classless like the old Soviet Union or proudly plutocratic like America (make no mistake: America has been a plutocracy for the last forty years, with right-wing front-groups doing the dirty work of supporting the politicians who most believe in plutocracy in its rawest and inhuman -- basically that no human suffering can ever be in excess so long as it enriches and indulges those already filthy-rich and maintains their power. Only when something goes really wrong like an economic meltdown or a plague (maybe a war for profit going badly) do they let liberals get a chance to fix things. But once the elites are through with the liberal it is back to the old way.

If you wonder why American healthcare is so expensive it is because for-profit insurance companies control things.

Bureaucracies produce nothing but pretense of achievement. They may be useful to economic elites for hiring educated people who might otherwise become radicals and rebels. So co-opt their minds with light work that fits their abstract intellects and lack of creativity and maybe they will look forward to a Lincoln Mark-whatever instead of a Marxist revolution.

Bureaucracy strangled the Soviet Union quickly for lack of entrepreneurial alternatives -- but it will eventually strangle our system. Bureaucracy may not be the people who dominate society, but it satisfies its participants and staves off revolution.

Energyflow said...

Here from a discussion of Joseph Tainter's theory on civilizational collapse due to increasing complexity leading to lower productivity. This quote specifically mentions increased bureaucracy and educatinal institutions. We are hitting more than just an 80 year crisis cycle in 202 I fear.

The third example has to do with bureaucratic power and control. Tainter gives several well-documented examples of administrative bloat and mission creep in bureaucratic organisations, particularly the military and Navy. These organisations are often central to societal problem-solving, but they tend to proliferate (i.e. more and more specialised organisations are developed to deal with discrete problems) and grow in size to cope with the challenges. This usually results in declining returns as more costly administrative staff are hired to manage the complex organisations compared to relatively fewer front-line workers/soldiers/doctors etc. We see this problem of administrative bloat and declining returns crop up over and over again in human history. Modern universities are a good illustration.

The fourth example has to do with declining rates of overall economic productivity. As societies increase in complexity they might initially generate high rates of economic growth but, over time, as they grow more complex, they tend to sustain relatively inferior rates of economic growth and have to invest more money, time and effort to sustain these rates. This is often linked to the problem of declining returns on education and research. Indeed, this is something that Nicholas Broome and his colleagues document quite well in their paper on declining rates of innovation. Unquote

Bozon said...

As you might have noted, I share some of your criticisms of American higher education, and I also have others which you may or may not share.

I think that American higher education has been long been bloated, based in part on the historical development of the institutions here, and has also, in later years, vastly overserved those from abroad who have come here for a variety of reasons, who could afford it or were subsidized in various ways.

I won't get into the ethnicity or civilizational issues, but there are plenty out there to see, and I could do a long dissertation on the topics.

Also it has underserved average Americans, in all sorts of different ways, especially in areas of vocational and technical training.

Is also outsized for the purposes I conceive desirable for a place like this for higher education, especially advanced credentials.

Lately, it has underserved even brighter Americans as compared to foreigners.

It has had no adequate overarching self policing, as seen in the slide toward kaleidoscopic special interest studies within the social sciences.

I could go on for a while, but this is at least a contribution to your post I hope.

All the best