Of youth, parking lots and the end of the university


Two quotes, both rough approximations. The first from an interview I once read, around 1993 I would say (while I was living in Geneva anyway, so 1992-1995) with Mario Botta, the great Swiss architect. Botta was explaining that he did not go to university right away, but worked for some years to make sure he knew what he wanted out of university before he went. He was a draftsman for several years before deciding to go to university around the age of 30. By that time, he had already developed clear ideas about his style and vision and was able to make the most of his time as a student. He argued that young people should not go to university right away, but should wait until they were ready and had a clear reason for going, but in practice most of them go straight out of high school and do nothing but mark time. He asked something along the lines of

“What are universities, but parking lots for youth”

(the interview was in French and I recall the quote as something like “Quelles sont les universités que les parkings de la jeunesse.” In other words, universities to Botta are the place we put youth because we don’t know what else to do with them. We don’t have good jobs for most eighteen year-olds, so we put them in universities to grow up for a few years and, if they get the education they deserve, well that’s an accidental by-product.

The second quote comes from my major professor, Bob Kingdon. I believe he was quoting George Mosse, the great scholar of German nationalism, but it may have been Garrett Mattingly, the great scholar of Renaissance diplomacy. Mosse was Kingdon’s predecessor at Wisconsin and Mattingly was Kingdon’s major professor. No matter, the quote was (again, roughly):

“Classes are for mediocre students. Good students would learn more by spending an hour at the library.”

You might debate either of these quotes, but for a long time I’ve been thinking that the university system is becoming unsustainable. State legislators are givign up on higher education, but in a very real way, I think educators gave up on education first. How so? When my father started at the University of Vermont, a standard teaching load was five courses per semester. When he left, it was five courses per year. Yes, it’s true that tuition has risen in part because university administrators now outnumber university faculty, but it’s also because universities gave up on education as their primary role and came to see research as their primary role. Let’s face it, cutting the number of classes professors teach in half at a school like UVM, which not so long ago was an undergraduate school with no graduate programs, has had a lot to do with raising the cost of tuition as well.

Meanwhile, faculty have a “pull the ladder up after us” mentality, by which I mean that the vast majority consider themselves liberal and pro-labor, yet universities have terrible labor practices, often employing adjunct teachers at starvation wages and no benefits. If faculty taught, on average, one additional course, that would save more money than hiring adjuncts. Of course it would mean many of those adjuncts would not work in university teaching, but I’m not at all sure they would be worse for it. But since academics as a whole are rarely known for their courage, don’t expect to see action on this front soon.

And there are other aspects to the rising tuition as well. Universities increasingly resemble Club Med with deluxe rec sports facilities and other amenities that are ultimately rolled into tuition in the name of attracting better students. All of this costs money and if the goal is actually educating people for their futures, we should save these frill for those students who are willing to pay for membership in a private gym or movie club or whatever (spoken as someone who spent more time than most at the gym and the campus movie club during my student days — these are great things; they should just be optional, not rolled into tuition).

I’m thinking of this after successive conversations with my brother about the crushing cost of college and after looking up the costs of some universities. My alma mater is now $48,000 per year for an out of state student (I had a full tuition remission when I went, so I don’t really know what the cost was, but it was a lot less than that). I remember as recently as 10 years ago my brother-in-law was at Cal Tech, then the most expensive school in the country at $35,000. Now that’s a bargain. Saint John’s, the liberal arts school with a “great works” curriculum is around $55,000 per year.

Let’s be real. How can it possibly be worth $55,000 a year to have someone guide you through the reading of Aristotle? If you have two children at Saint John’s, you’d be better off hiring a couple of out-of-work PhDs to come to your house and home school your kids through university. And by the way, that cost doesn’t even count opportunity cost from four years of lost labor. Let’s assume an average of $10 per hour for four years. That means the true cost is actually 75,000 dollars per year!

But this is where I get back to the quotes from Botta and Mosse. Three hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on parking your kid for four years and, if the kid is going to Saint John’s he will graduate with no identifiable skill, no preparation for a job that would remotely prepare him for repaying that money.

Am I a calous philistine? Well, yes, but not because of what I just said. Let me take on some imagined counter arguments.

1. It’s a worthwhile long-term investment.

This is what the Ivy League schools used to say, because their grads made so much more money. Some research suggests this may not be so. Kids who were similar to those (SAT, rank in class, GPA) as those who went to Ivy League schools but who did not themselves go Ivy, had similar income to those who got Ivy League educations. Furthermore, Ivy grads had lower job satisfaction ten years after graduation than those who went to more modest schools (see NYT article). All of this makes me wonder whether you would see a similar phenomenon if you tracked highly motivated kids who could have gotten into Ivy League schools but chose not to go to college at all. We know that some who never graduated have done pretty well for themselves. I’m thinking of college dropouts like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell and Larry Ellison (these are the proof cases for Mosse’s comment that the brightest students don’t need classes). But I could also be thinking of the guy who did our tile work who makes $60 per hour without a single college course to his name (and he can’t keep up with the demand on his services, even working weekends quite often, out-earning all the humanities PhDs I know who are within 15 years of his age).

The second thing I would say is that if someone gave me $300,000 right now, I could within four years leverage that into a rental business that would be self-sustaining and support me for the rest of my life with plenty of time to read Aristotle. I wouldn’t even have to start a computer revolution or lay tile.

2. The value of a liberal education can’t be calculated in dollars. It’s about broadening kids and teaching them to think.

Fair enough, but there is always an opportunity cost and dollars allow us to see what it is. We know that for Saint John’s that cost is $300,000. Frankly, on that much money, I could travel around the world for ten years, visiting probably every country on the planet, learning two or three languages well, learning customs of far off lands, seeing countless new things and, by the way, having plenty of free time to read Aristotle should I so desire. I don’t think anyone could argue that a university education is broadening on that scale.

When I see tuition prices that really are only affordable to the ruling elite or America, when I see unpaid student loan debt crest one trillion dollars, when I see students graduating with English degrees owing $800 per month on their loans, when I see an educational system that tends to stifle creativity rather than encourage it, it makes me wonder if the whole costly edifice is about to crumble. I think the answer is yes. The university system as we know it, primarily a product of the nineteenth century, is poised for a major change and, for many in education, major pain. But I believe the financial burden of the system as it exists is no longer warranted by the benefits. I also think that such changes tend to be slow, which means that my friends in academia will mostly all be fine. They’ve got the ladder up after them and can breathe a sigh of relief. But if I were a parent now, I would seriously consider what else I could do with my money. If I were a student, I would be putting together “grant” proposals and business plans to get “angel investors” (i.e. mom and dad) to fund my Great Adventure (think of the Grand Tour of the seventeenth century) or my startup. And if I were a young person considering grad school with an eye toward university teaching, I would look upon the venture more carefully than ever.

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