After decades of selling college as an “investment” — and pricing it accordingly — it’s going to be hard for the higher education establishment to pivot to a college-as-personal-fulfillment argument. If it’s the latter, it’s a consumption good, priced on a par with a Porsche or Ferrari. Those shouldn’t be financed by debt, or bought by 18-year-olds. If college liberal-arts degrees, on the other hand, are to be sold as a public good, benefiting society so much that society should pay the freight, then (1) Society should have a much bigger say in what’s being taught; and (2) It might be nice to see some actual, you know, evidence of that.These days, as Charlie Sykes recently put it, the pricing is more akin to buying a new Porsche each year for four or five years, and driving each off a cliff. But a degree has components, and the mix of what's on offer matters, whether it's a private investment for private benefit, or public provision for spillover benefits. At the margin, higher tuitions for socially dubious degrees might not influence the production of protesters making coffee.
Dean Dad, who had not yet revealed himself as in the Pioneer Valley, noted that there are internal markets in higher education (to staff the core courses) as well as the labor markets.
The usual ritualistic bleating about “market-based reforms,” on the one side, and “learning for learning’s sake,” on the other, fails to account for the paradox. What students want to take, and what employers want students to take, are not the same thing. If you want colleges to discount the former in favor of the latter, you have to pay for it. Otherwise, colleges will do what they have to do, and those anthropologists will just keep on coming. If the governor of Florida wants to snuff out psychology, he’ll need to pony up some serious cash to make all those small STEM classes sustainable. Failing that, he’s just blowing smoke. The markets have spoken.Perhaps, but the tension between supporting core learning (whether that's for individual intellectual development or for those spillover benefits) and career preparation has been with us for a long time, and getting the mission right involves more than ensuring an entry-level job after three or four or five years. And somehow, the evergreen disciplines manage to find staff (that's another story in itself) to meet the demand, whether it's from curriculum committees, from student intellectual curiosity, from the current hot fields at the job fairs.