The Economic Crisis in Higher Education

Is a bachelor’s degree in English (or history or philosophy or political science or any other subject in the liberal arts) worth over $30,000 a year? As the sticker price asked by more and more private colleges crosses that threshold, many families are asking that question.

The liberal arts education I received enriched my intellect (though not my pocketbook), but if I had a college-age child today, I couldn’t justify paying over $100,000 for a bachelor’s degree. It boggles my mind when I learn of a 22-year-old owing over $50,000 with only a B.A. to his name.

Apparently, I am not alone in my opinion. Enrollment is declining at many private colleges. Many families balk at paying such daunting fees. Increasingly, the significantly lower expenses of attending a taxpayer-subsidized state college or a rarity like Grove City College (2007-2008 annual cost under $18,000) present the only affordable options for middle-class families. It seems clear that the over-$30,000 per year colleges must find creative ways to reinvent themselves if they are to prosper or even survive.

This is easier said than done. Colleges tend to be some of the most change-resistant institutions in the country. Over the past quarter-century, the pace of change in American business has been breathtakingly rapid, producing massive changes in structure and practice. Many new companies and industries have emerged, while many companies that thrived in the 1980s have ceased operations or been merged into other companies. By contrast, if you were to sit in a liberal arts college classroom today for the first time in twenty-five years, you would notice a few superficial changes in the classroom (the presence of personal computers and a couple of other high-tech gadgets) and a modest updating of the curriculum (e.g., the addition of a computer science department), but otherwise, everything would seem comfortingly familiar to you. However, the winds of change are about to blow through American colleges. Market forces, in the form of declining enrollments in the face of increasingly unaffordable tuition costs, will compel colleges to undergo major changes, just as other businesses have been forced to change.

Yes, I wrote “other businesses.” Most college professors don’t like to think of their schools as businesses. In fact, at many colleges today, it is the fashion for liberal arts professors to denounce business as a sordid, morally and intellectually inferior activity—even when their own college’s business department has more majors than any of the liberal arts subject areas. These intellectuals need to curb their ideological or romantic opposition to business, both for the good of their colleges and for the sake of preserving their jobs. Like it or not, a college is a business, and if a college doesn’t give its customers (students) good value for their money (a degree that pays a decent return on a $120,000-plus investment) then the college’s customer base will shrink. If the customer base shrinks too much, the college/business may close and those anti-business professors will have a chance to learn how much their own sheepskins are worth in the job market today.

Unfortunately, the needed attitude adjustment hasn’t penetrated some faculties yet. For example, I know of a college in the over-30-grand category where proposals to establish majors in areas with excellent employment prospects, such as broadcast journalism, are routinely shot down by committees of professors in the traditional liberal arts curriculum. On what grounds? That the proposed majors are “too vocational.” The rule of thumb seems to be: If an academic curriculum makes one readily employable, it is unacceptable. That is a short-sighted, suicidal position to take today when American families seem increasingly less willing to pay for a liberal arts degree, and then watch junior have to sell insurance to earn a living.

The trend is not in favor of the private liberal arts colleges. A century ago, 80 percent of college students attended private colleges; today, 80 percent attend the less expensive, taxpayer-subsidized public universities. Several hundred private colleges have folded in the past few decades.

Economically, colleges can’t continue to pay the salaries of tenured professors who have only a handful of students majoring in their discipline. Unless a college has a rich endowment, such economic inefficiencies are an unaffordable luxury, and these colleges may have to cease offering these unpopular majors altogether. Instead of employing two or three full-time professors in a department with six majors, colleges may need to downgrade such majors to a minor served by one full-time professor supplemented by adjunct part-timer, or by having students take courses at another college in the area, or perhaps taking courses offered over the internet or by private enterprises such as The Teaching Company.

One way to repackage the liberal arts curriculum would be to move away from majors such as history, sociology, political science, and philosophy to something like “Asian studies.” There will be abundant employment opportunities in business, government, nongovernmental organizations, missionary work, etc., for students educated in an Asian language and a comprehensive understanding of the history, belief systems, social structure and traditions, etc., of Asian countries.It makes more sense today to offer courses in Chinese language than in French.

It will be fascinating to see how higher education evolves to cope with current economic realities. Change is in the air. The status quowill go.