Higher education at a crossroads? I don't know

I am not one of those who feels disdain for American universities. I love them, and have ideas about how they can succeed. Unlike another article I posted recently, which was written by a fire-breathing guy in Forbes, this Washington Post op-ed is by a very thoughtful centrist commentator.

Thanks to coronavirus and Zoom, we’re looking at the end stages of college as a commodity

A pandemic is an essentializing force; it strips away the frosting of rhetoric and habit and forces us to confront bare realities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education, which over the past few decades has been one of two sectors that have just kept increasing their prices, the share of national income and, of course, the share of our attention they claim.

The other one is health care, and in both cases, Americans justified the increased spending in contradictory ways — invoking both pragmatic benefits and airy ideals such as “scholarship” or “caring,” which denied the necessity of even appealing to necessity. To skeptics viewing luxury dormitories and multimillionaire cardiologists, this always sounded a bit like middle-age men selling doubtful wives on a BMW’s engineering — “You can’t put a price on safety, honey.” But we all bought it, and in the case of health care, America has now had an accident that retroactively justified the expenditure — or at least left us in no mood to argue about it.

But colleges are in the opposite position. As students balked at full tuition for online education, Elizabeth Cohen, a political science professor at Syracuse University, set off a minor Twitter storm: “Working at a college or university right now is hearing a lot of people say that they should pay less for something you’re working twice as hard to make available for them.”

A follower responded, “Your customers are telling you that the value of your now remotely-delivered product is less than you want them to pay.” Another academic account fired back: “STUDENTS ARE NOT CUSTOMERS.”

And now we get to the essentializing, because the pandemic has made something undeniable: To a large extent, students have become customers. And professors should acknowledge their own role in getting us to that point, because the commodification of higher education is a direct byproduct of the transformation of college into the entrance examination for America’s middle class, something the professoriate has cheered on.

Sure, students are buying a complex bundle that’s rarely described as a “product.” But if you doubt colleges are selling, you need look only at the glossy marketing campaigns. And if you think they’re mostly selling learning, consider this thought experiment from economist Bryan Caplan: If you had to choose, would you rather have four years of Princeton University classes but no diploma, or the diploma, but no classes?

Maybe you’d choose the classes; if so, you’re in the minority. Most students are primarily buying something else — a credential, a social network — not a “community of learning.” Which is not to say that this is what they should be buying, or that we should even think of it as a “purchase.”

Markets are terrific, and we need them, but we also need institutions that are buffered from them. When those buffers break down, as they have in America’s colleges, dysfunction ensues. University business-think has meant bureaucratic overgrowth and an obsession with useless “metrics” — assessing faculty using student evaluations rather than student learning, goosing “selectivity” by soliciting applications in order to reject them.

Professors rightly resist these developments. But what else could you expect once colleges became the gatekeeper to all the good jobs? Now most everyone needs to go, regardless of their interest in learning. And an essentially scholarly enterprise doesn’t serve most of those people well.

So instead, U.S. higher education bundled “teaching and research” with a bunch of other things — residential amenities, sports teams, networking opportunities, career coaching, dating service and so forth. Among other effects, all this initially created a booming demand for professors; their numbers quintupled from 1940 to 1970 and then almost doubled again by 1988. Without that shift, most of the professors complaining about the commercialization of education would have had to take jobs in actual businesses.

The bundle was still tightly woven enough, however, that we could tell ourselves the learning was still the heart of the package. Then covid-19 came, and suddenly, the lectures and the homework were the only part schools could still deliver. Yet somehow, few students seem reassured that they’re getting most of what they were paying tuition for.

Deep down, even university presidents knew this would be the case, which is why so many spent the summer pretending they were going to find some way to reopen, in many cases announcing the truth only when the tuition checks were well in hand. One can imagine a university in which this sort of at-best-wishful thinking wasn’t necessary, one that defined its community narrowly around education. Such schools probably couldn’t enroll nearly half of all high school graduates, but on the other hand, in our current situation, they might have kept the ones they did sign up.

Instead, some decades ago , U.S. higher education reimagined itself as the ticket to secure white-collar employment. And like most of the other organizations that supported themselves by selling a lot of tickets, they’re going to have to rethink that business model.

That’s the diagnosis we’ve seen repeatedly, but they offer no suggestions.

This mess is the result of markets; I think the cure will have to involve government. I think public options that are competitive educationally but spartan in terms of frills are the way to go. Because it would involve a lot of government spending, maybe you can compromise with conservatives by chopping some of the ridiculous fields of study.


An interesting concept. Nonprofit. Online. Flat fee tuition. 120,000 students and can handle as many as would like to attend. This could be a good alternative to a great number of people.


Ok, here’s a question. How many of us have degrees that we didn’t really need to go to a University to get the education for? What I mean, is we want engineers, chemists, medical doctors, etc to have the best education possible. Yet, is it really necessary for those of us who got business degrees, or sociology, or “liberal arts” (define that as you please) degrees? Most of us could have gotten the same education OJT (on the job training).

Have so many degrees become watered down because there are so many getting them? I would argue yes, and other paths may have been better overall for students, the country, and the economy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I have my degree, but what it really showed was that I had the gumption to complete it, and that I know how to learn. If I had gone an apprentice route, would I have the same knowledge? Perhaps, perhaps not.

I think what I’m getting at is that the financial burden wouldn’t be the same as it is now. How many people have student loans? If they had gone a different route, would they have the same knowledge minus the expense? Perhaps, we’ll never really know. But if Universities were to focus on the areas where advanced knowledge really is needed, the hard sciences, engineering, law, etc and push the other things to community colleges or to apprenticeships would things be better? My guess is yes, but I can’t say for certain. I’m just trying to add to the discussion, giving us all another view to consider.

To discuss a portion of the WaPo opinion piece. “Students are not customers.” In a way I can agree, in that the customer is whoever hires the student after they’ve graduated. Yet, I would also say that the student is the customer, in that it is the school’s duty to prepare them for worklife after school. Yes I know that it can be said that their parents should prepare them, but for arguments sake let’s say that the University is supposed to do that job.

Another earlier part, a poli-sci prof is complaining about students wanting to pay less since their doing it online. I’ll have to agree with the students. Part of tuition goes for facilities of a school. If the school isn’t using it’s physical facilities, should a student be required to pay for it, albeit indirectly with tuition and fees? If things can be done online, that makes things overall less expensive. Now there are students, myself included, who do better in person than via something indirect like online classes. BTW poli-sci would be one of those I’d push to the CC or out of higher education altogether, again my opinion on higher education bloat.

So I guess when it gets down to the brass tacks. I, mostly agree with the WaPo Opinion piece. Not sure I’d ever say that, but I do. As I’ve said to someone recently, good ideas are good ideas regardless of source. I hope I made a cogent opinion piece here. If not, I apologize, and let me know what I need to clarify.

I’ll take a contrarian angle (though I struggle agreeing with this POV).

Turchin’s 2010 Nature article analysis included an uncomfortable metric - an excessively educated population, for what the economy needed, at least at his 50 year inflection points analyzed.

I think we’re seeing some aspects of that - College graduate Uber drivers, technology threatening to displace workers at an increasing pace

There’s no quick & tidy answer, but I think we need to think about economic reform, in the same vein as what the 40 hour work week accomplished. Use tax policy to incentivize employment, not to slow down technology or become Luddites, but to encourage employment that leads to research, insights, etc.

Education needs to be a lifestyle, not a conduit to a job. Colleges & Universities are essential parts of America.

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I think this world needs more education, not less. Trade schools are fine for some people, but most people benefit from the general education - including literature, history, art, etc - required at universities. Well rounded knowledge is something I’d care about as an employer.

Maybe mass production of online education can reduce costs, but I don’t think the education or experience is as valuable. I think quality, in-person education can be affordable with the right cuts and priorities.


It used to be that higher education was considered a public good for which the public purse paid a hefty subsidy. If one went to a public university in the 50s, 60s, or 70s the tuition was very low because it was thought that a more educated populace was a benefit to society as a whole. It was also more common to have on the job training. That is no longer the case. Higher education is increasingly viewed as primarily preparation for the workplace. More and more companies expect new hires to arrive with the skills necessary to do the job they are advertising. Very few do OJT anymore beyond an orientation day if that. More and more costs have been offloaded onto the backs of the students themselves requiring students to take on ever increasing amounts of debt to even have a chance in the job market of today. It used to be that a student could get a cheap general degree in Poli Sci or whatever and then join a firm where they would be trained on the job and have a nice long career with pension and benefits. People of my father’s era and my uncles had this precise experience. To kids like my son that seems like a fantasy world.


Well said.

The employment web is complex, there are lots of moving parts. My perspective is that a lot of employers are not willing to commit to OJT because they rarely reap the benefits of that training, employees leave too soon. One might argue that this is a function of diminishing loyalty to employees from employers, where others would argue the diminishing loyalty goes the other direction - employees will leave at the drop of a hat.

I think both parties are responsible, and each side has a bunch of evidence to justify their position. The “gig” economy has become just that. Workers like it because of the flexibility and freedom. Employers are justified in finding people that can hit the ground running, because they might not be around long enough to reap the reward of training them. Specialization and contract work are some results.

I think that you may be on the right track with the loyalty idea. It does go both ways. I remember my dad stuck with the same company in it’s 3 iterations for decades. They were loyal to him, sent him to school, in return he was was loyal to them.

I remember when I first started at the U, 1988 that was on the tail end of company loyalty to employees. It was the height of the Jack Welch idea of “if you can’t beat’em, buy’em.” With that came layoffs and the change in attitudes towards employers from employees. Since then things have morphed into the gig economy.

Companies expect loyalty from people, in my experience, but don’t return the favor with wages, and treating employees poorly. That one I speak from the receiving end experience. So, I ultimately found a way to work for myself. I don’t really miss working for someone else, I do like my flexibility, but I do miss having co-workers and the social side of that.

Does it go both ways? Yes, but IMO the root cause comes from the short term goals of investors, quarter to quarter, vs 3 to 5 years or more down the road. With pressure from investors came pressure from executives to cut costs. The easiest cost to cut, because it’s generally not fixed is labor. I’ve found that smaller companies tend to treat their people better, there are exceptions to the observation. That usually comes from the top.

Anyway, the push for costs to go to the student is rough. So this does make the student the customer of higher education. We end up circling back to my previous post.

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Spot on.

Seems half of Cougarboard has tried to figure out how to tell their new employer that they’re leaving for their next opportunity before their first day on the job even begins.

It does seem that Millennials (understandably) are not interested in long-term employment gigs.

I think this change has been gradual over the past few generations, and I think there are many reasons. I worked in Bernie Machen’s office when he was at the U. He told me to find a career where I can switch jobs/locations every 5-10 years.

Agreed. It’s just the reality of the modern economy. My dad worked at Kennecott Copper for 30 years and retired with the gold watch and a pension. That’s just not the model anymore.

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I had a professor who said you were a fool to work for the same company your whole career because you were always worth more to someone else. That being said I’ve worked for the same chump for 12 years and he definitely doesn’t think much of my value.


I’m one of those rare guys with a pension and a low stress job so I’m sticking it out.

I’ve had jobs with higher stress and crappy retirement plan. I’ll stay with what I’ve got, I might make more money in a paycheck somewhere else but stress and no retirement doesn’t make it worthwhile.


I hate it when bosses make people feel undervalued. Have you considered having a talk with him? Maybe you can bring in a consultant to help him understand the need for strong employee morale.

The main issue with my employer is as much as I want to quit working for him because he is an incompetent oaf, he would love to fire me and hire someone far more talented. The problem is he has fathered 3 of my children and my wife is apparently in love with both of us. And I just checked the fridge and I’m pretty sure he ate the leftovers last night not thinking I’d want them for lunch today.

In short, we are kind of stuck with each other.


Just throw an egg at his car then.


I’d likely just end up having to clean it up myself. That’s the kind of crap assignments he gives me all the time.