Colleges are doomed. They ought to be doomed. For generations, we’ve enshrined a vision of higher education which drives millions of young people into crippling levels of debt for little gain. Instead of taking the extreme measure of bailing out America’s most privileged or making college free, the COVID-19 pandemic offers us the chance to build an alternative, fairer system. For the first time in generations, we have an opportunity to fundamentally reform our universities and colleges. We need to face the uncomfortable reality: Americans don’t really want or need pricey liberal arts educations. The 21st century demands a better alternative.
There are several reasons for the high cost of a college education in the United States: The difficulty of shopping around for schools, the cost of quality, and the phenomenon of cost disease. Left-leaning pundits will (correctly) emphasize the first: Information asymmetry. It is essentially impossible to objectively compare schools, making it difficult to evaluate schools’ different returns on investment. On the other hand, conservatives often (correctly) contend that high costs are simply the fair price of access to the world’s best scholars and facilities.
There is also the third, often-overlooked issue: Cost Disease. Simply put, the issue is that while some industries have experienced rapid productivity growth and others have not, markets dictate that, in the long run, wages for all highly-trained workers rise in unison. Otherwise more bright students would (tragically) become highly-paid management consultants instead of poorly-compensated economists, eventually leading to shortages of economists. Professors essentially teach as they did in 1820, despite centuries of real wage gains. Thus, their compensation has grown at a much faster pace than their productivity. As a result, universities’ total costs (and students’ tuitions) rise faster than their productivity, a phenomenon known as Bowen’s Law. These trends do not imply that academics are paid well — merely that they are relatively expensive.
On many levels, these inflated wages are a very good thing. They incentivize more people to go into academia. They promote basic research, eventually fueling the productivity growth America sorely needs (though universities can almost never capture the value of these discoveries themselves). They ensure that our heritage is not abandoned, that we remain conversant in medieval politics and contemporary Scandinavian art. There is tremendous intrinsic value in inquiry for inquiry’s sake. However, we must recognize overpaying academics only directly benefits academics. The story is quite different for undergraduates.
It is an open secret that most undergraduates don’t go to liberal arts schools because of their love of the liberal arts. They (we) will tell you as much. The flight of students from the humanities toward pre-professional majors tells as much. And the actions of university administrators show as much. Why do they spring for gleaming, fun, and academically useless dorms and gyms? While contrary to Tom Nichols, I don’t believe the data supports the proposition that extracurriculars are colleges’ main cost drivers, spending even these moderate sums on such fripperies would be strange if what really drove enrollment was academics. Let’s be real: People mostly get undergraduate degrees to get the “college experience” and, eventually, a job. College students want to party, make friends, and to meet significant others. And, after they graduate, they’d like to be able to make rent. The college zeitgeist isn’t about studying — it’s about making the most of the “best years of your life.”
Once we understand what students actually want, it becomes clear why the hype around online education has fallen so flat. Why don’t students enroll in Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) rather than go into debt? Why is paying full tuition for online classes at Harvard so outrageous? Boosters like Professor Scott Galloway have spent years arguing that soon students will finally crave online access to a world-class education. They’re wrong. Online education offers nothing students actually want. Employers remain dubious of online degrees. It is really quite hard to meet a significant other through a Zoom webinar. You certainly can’t attend a “Project X” style rager through a MOOC. College is supposed to be fun.
Covid-19 will throw these issues into stark relief because, for the first time, students are realizing they are paying full price for faculty. Online education feels less valuable, even though what students are actually paying for — professors’ time — remains constant. Yet students think they are mostly paying for access to campus and the social benefits thereof. Zoom calls don’t feel worth $51,000 a year. College life does.
To make matters worse, a tsunami of budget cuts are coming for American state schools. States spend less on education than they did before the Great Recession, and we should expect similarly wrenching cuts to public education. Compounding the issue, the Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric & wrenchingly inhumane policies have also exiled many of America’s international students, whose vastly higher tuitions subsidize universities, undermining another fiscal pillar of higher education.
All of this means that, until a vaccine or treatment is developed, American students will have to pay vast sums for a version of college that gives them much, much less of what they want. Already, petitions for tuition waivers are going viral. Policymakers have a unique opportunity: They can leverage this groundswell of dissatisfaction with the university system and lead from the front. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a new type of higher education, one built on the needs and interests of the vast majority of its stakeholders — undergraduates.
In my (anecdotal) experience, few students enjoy liberal arts educations either. Ask one and they’ll probably roll their eyes — people want to take classes that are useful. The current system, where students pay for vastly more faculty than they actually need is profoundly illogical. Most business students have little use for introductory biology classes. Engineers largely aren’t interested in art history. Instead, the United States should invest in our trade schools and polytechnics, enabling a better path through higher education for the millions of students who don’t adore the liberal arts.
“Decoupling” professional education from the four-year university would decrease costs for students: Trade schools and polytechnics can rely on cheaper, non-tenured, PhD-less lecturers. This format would also allow students to spend more time learning valuable technical and analytical skills rather than GPA-inflating general education credits. Certainly, there should still be a place for the four-year university — many students pursue multidisciplinary studies with relish. It’s time we recognize the traditional college experience is a luxury good, not the end-all-be-all of education.
We wouldn’t have to sacrifice the traditional college experience, either: We could actually satisfy students’ desire for fun & friendship more efficiently. Instead of having thousands of tiny college towns spread out across the United States, we could consolidate these functions in cities, creating new districts entirely for young people filled with the extracurriculars, nightlife, and social events they crave. The synergies from consolidation could be profound, enabling students to enjoy much better parties centered around professionally managed nightlife than they could at a traditional male WASP monopolized college fraternity. While this might require the drinking age to be lowered to 18, that’s hardly the most radical thing I’ve suggested so far. Young adults could live in cheap apartments virtually indistinguishable from dorms. There is very little about the traditional college experience that actually requires a college.
Reform would benefit many besides archetypal upper-middle-class college students: Improving alternative channels of higher education could enormously benefit disadvantaged minorities and older workers. Poor Americans have an alarmingly low rate of matriculation, proving the students who most need access to high-quality education are the ones least able to access it, despite muscular aid programs. But instead of investing in new educational institutions tailored to minority students’ needs, a great deal of policy discourse has followed William Bowen and Derek Bok’s 1998 book The Shape of the River. Bowen and Bok later joined by rockstar economist Raj Chetty, argue that equalizing access to elite educational institutions is the key way to drive Black and Latino students’ social mobility. In fact, this thesis is false: The most powerful predictor of income is merely your college GPA. Schools’ prestige has little effect on your future earnings once you account for students who don’t graduate. As Malcolm Gladwell concurred in his 2013 book David and Goliath, students are best served by sending them to schools where they will be successful. Most Ivy League dropouts would have been enormously successful at less competitive institutions. Our focus, therefore, ought to be on expanding access to education rather than elite institutions.
Finally, there is another looming crisis on the horizon: Automation. According to McKinsey and Co.
“Almost half the activities people are paid almost $16 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology…”
Sooner than we realize, millions of Americans’ professions will be permanently devastated by automation, necessitating a gargantuan retraining effort. 45-year old former truckers don’t want 4-year liberal arts education. They need fast, cheap retraining that will enable them to quickly return to the workforce — something a robust system of trade schools and polytechnics would be ideally suited to provide. Navel-gazing about the decline of the liberal arts has a time and a place. But we are confronted with multiple crises. It is time to take decisive action.
The sticking point is the credentialing value of universities: Trade school educations aren’t considered equally effective costly signals of competency. In Europe, it is unremarkable to attend a polytechnic or trade school so the signaling is interchangeable. More than just appropriating the funds for such a project, this is where there is a real need for leadership. Policymakers and business leaders alike would need to decisively signal that these types of education aren’t inferior, allowing students to make choices for themselves without fear of being stigmatized. And they could be comforted by the knowledge that, usually, they would be right! Students would graduate with more “hard” skills and quite comparable levels of maturity.
I freely acknowledge I am an irredeemably massive hypocrite. I go to a four-year university and really like it. I’ve learned an enormous amount from my liberal arts education that I never would have if I’d gone to a trade school. But, ultimately, it’s important to not confuse what I want with what is good for society. We should not prop up a system that steers people into vast debt to pay for things they don’t want. We are a society that believes in allowing people to choose, that more options lead to better outcomes. We are a society with a responsibility to ensure that the fruits of progress are not won at the price of the dignity of millions. You shouldn’t have to go to college.