Our Universities: $10K–B. A.

Those who champion the $10,000 bachelor’s degree want the imitation to equal the real thing. It is not that the imitation is without value, and surely a real B.A. incorporates too much waste, but neither is justification for the equalization of two fundamentally different human experiences.

“The belief that obtaining a college degree is the only way for young people to find good employment and enjoy a prosperous life is widespread, but mistaken. Having a college degree is neither necessary nor sufficient for success.”

George C. Leef — The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy


Last week, my friend Alan sent me a note with a referral to a New York Times Op Ed, My Valuable, Cheap College Degree, posted January 31, 2013, by Arthur C. Brooks. He is president of the American Enterprise Institute and provides an interesting portrait of the rising cost of university attendance: up 18 percent in five years in comparison to a 7 percent drop in inflation-adjusted household income over the same five-year period. The cost increase for university attendance is twice that in healthcare costs over the past 25 years, says he.

Federally backed loans to all who come calling, regardless of societal need or individual ability, has escalated the cost of university attendance. Emblematic of a broken marketplace at work, “cheap degrees” are supported by a fretwork of manufactured demand, deceptively developed desire, and taxpayer subsidies warped into wicked wizardry creating high demand, high cost — $10K is not a paltry sum — and often, low value results.

Now, I like the American Enterprise Institute. It stirs my soul and my love of free enterprise. In this case however, Mr. Brooks is all wet and Mr. Leef’s comment, “Having a college degree is neither necessary nor sufficient for success.” is a tall tree.

Brooks argues that his $10K—B.A. earned from Thomas Edison State College in 1994, “… was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made.” And leaps: it is equivalent to a brick and mortar B.A. This is akin to Abraham Lincoln arguing that everyone should study the law by candlelight in a log cabin because he did. It would have been a good idea for Mr. Brooks to take a statistics class on-line or on-campus to better understand the power of inference from a sample of one.

Technological support for learning will positively change the experience for the pervasive access to insight and knowledge at the touch of a button: most of it robotically managed with human support, and amortized over so many users that the cost approaches zero at the speed of light.

Mr. Brooks’ parents recall his “gap decade” as a musician, concluded in Spain on a nearly nonexistent bank account. I would argue, and if Mr. Brooks were transparent he would agree, that “the musician decade” was a lived experience that changed his life. I would not suggest that this experience could or should be codified at a university. But, writing off the cost of Atlantic passage and 10 years of lost-opportunity-cost into the $10K—B.A. changes the tab significantly, in time and money nearing or eclipsing the price of a Harvard B.A.

The lived experience is part of the educational process. Can a person become successful with a low-cost, zero-cost bachelor’s degree or no bachelor’s degree at all? Absolutely! Great innovators and thinkers have made stunning contributions with no formal education. However, it does not follow that a university experience is hollow, although far too many are shallow.

Professional educators in places like Syracuse, where Mr. Brooks worked and earned tenure, would believe a $10,000 educational investment might have great value. But to equate that with a campus B.A. is creating a straw man. Memorializing the experience with “certification” is perfect. But, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” should never be a question.

The concept that the mirage of an experience is equivalent to the experience itself is antithetical to American capitalism and the free market Mr. Brooks and I cherish, especially when government subsidies are involved — which is the case in 99% of post-secondary education: public, private, and for-profit.

Yes, our universities need to change. They are archaic in many ways, bastions of patronage, fat administrative structures, bloated union leadership, political correctness, athletics programs that resemble professional franchises, and coffee houses that belong on the upper west side. These accoutrements might not support the university mission. The $10K–B.A. as the cure-all for of our nation’s ills is likewise a contrivance.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Brooks’ assertion that “…the case for the $10K–BA is primarily moral not financial.” But the most worrisome immorality lays in equating an online $10K–B.A. with a B.A. from a time-tested university. That is a mortal sin, not an ill-defined moral imperative.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed more wisdom and insight than a legion of contemporary pundits and educational leaders when, as a student, he penned these words in the Morehouse College paper, The Maroon Tiger, in 1947: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Encourage education, not mere certification.


7 thoughts on “Our Universities: $10K–B. A.

  1. Tangentially related to “Our Universities: $10K–B. A.” is Mark Cuban’s blog piece “Will Your College Go Out of Business Before You Graduate?” http://blogmaverick.com/2013/01/26/will-your-college-go-out-of-business-before-you-graduate/

    My opinion? One way to look at the business of Higher Education is to adopt the “student’s perspective”. To do this, critically look at the costs and benefits of each course, college, and diploma — from a student’s perspective. The answers might be surprising.

    The OPTION of paying tuition will become more a “value decision” based on an analysis of the granular costs and anticipated benefit of each of the three metrics: course, college, and diploma.

    It is the smarter student that will develop and follow a “college value plan” — at least, that’s my advice to prospective students.

  2. For “bastions of patronage” I would read “semi-medieval fiefdoms” especially in universities where no outside evaluator is brought into graduate defense as opposed to the case in Europe to allow for more objective examinations and not grant a doctorate to a student simply because they have been enrolled in a programe no matter what its quality is nor the validity of the actual Ph.D

    However, “fat administrative structures, athletic programs and coffee houses”( bearing more than a faint resemblance to a franchise that has recently been exposed for not paying UK tax ) are more relevant. We do not have a “bloated union leadership” here – if you look at their site – and political correctness is certainly going to make instructors think twice before teaching OTHELLO and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE in view of the inevitable charges of racism that will be supported by administrators who want to keep enrollment up at the cost of educational enquiry and discourage teaching key works of the past. One sees a parallel emerging to the recent disclosures concerning the foreign policy of the Occupant of the White House, namely execution without jury and due process. This has happened in the past with two distinguished scholars either in ill-health or too frail to defend themselves apart from not knowing what charges were made against them or who were the accusers.

    Otherwise, there should be alternatives towards the college mode of learning where those attracted to more vocational careers and unable to benfit from a traditional university education can go. Community colleges represent this route but not degree granting ones. Costs must definitely go down in universitiesand a bloated and incompetent administration should be the first to face the ax especially in view of the recent decline in enrollments.

    Despite our divergent perspectives, I would agree with Dr. Wendler’s definition of a “mortal sin” in this context.

  3. I agree and disagree of course:-) Toward the “reply” by TW I would say it can be both that are bloated, and it is. I think the tenure structure, as much as it may be theoretically admirable, hasn’t produced what it promised, otherwise we wouldn’t have a macro-political system that is so dysfunctional and corrupt. Most of the claims made that without it there would be “no academic freedom” assume that there is a high level of research going on at universities that challenges power and therefore would be squashed if tenure did not exist. I don’t see that at all. More likely the greatest threat that the removal of tenure would have on research being done is finally determining its reach and purpose in society…which often times may be marginal at best. Some of it, if we are being honest with ourselves, amounts to taxpayer supported hobbies. It wouldn’t be political for it to be eliminated, it would be market based economics.
    And the overuse of self-righteous pronouncements that academics are sacrificing so much for the greater good really needs to be scaled back. After a while it just sounds silly. It can certainly be argued, on economic terms, that the current tenure system coupled with economic realities creates a paradoxical situation when research professors encourage young adults to get advanced degrees when they should know that there will not be jobs for those degrees because of the outdated economic model American “tenure” represents. There aren’t enough young people to fill the undergraduate seats to subsidize both tenured researchers and faculty whose roles are primarily teaching. And our political system isn’t allowing jobs to be created that make degrees as valuable as their cost.
    Finally, the costs of the bloated higher education model we have today is (and has been for a couple decades) been put on the backs of 18-22 year olds who will be indebted for decades with student loans. This is immoral. It is similar to the Enron finance model except that the “debt” that was moved off the balance sheets at Enron and spread out as single year payments over decades ultimately collapsed the company and its share-holders. Many of the decision makers and tag alongs suffered the consequences. In the higher education adaptation of this model those costs are put on the undergraduate students over decades instead. There is over a trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt in this country that is categorized with debt accumulated through illegal activity in that neither can be bankrupted. That is a sick practice. The young people coming out of high-school are being told “it will pay off” and that “it is worth it”. Will it? Anything is possible I guess, but it hasn’t been for most of them for a number of years now so claiming so certainly that it will is disingenuous…at best. At worst…well you fill in the blank.

    If something isn’t done internally to fix these massive structural issues it will happen without academia’s input…as market forces will determine how it proceeds. People within academia need to see the current problems as an opportunity to have a voice in this matter rather than be devastated when the alternative occurs.

  4. JY, Some very good points. However, while agreeing with you over student debt, I would argue for the retention of tenure only if it can be proved over regular intervals that the faculty member is productive and not “dead wood.” This would involve a review team of external, rather than internal, examiners familiar with the candidate’s work and the discipline within which s/he operates. Anything internal could be subject to corruption, the paying off of old scores, and political moves to weaken and destroy a particular department.
    Yes, tenure should remain but not in its present form. It is a prize to be worked for, honored, and constantly aimed at for continuation. Otherwise, removal will result in replacement of qualified faculty by adjuncts fearful of losing their jobs, giving high undeserved grades to students for unjustified performance who would then find themselves replaced on purely economic grounds of cost until the eventual move to a mechanical form of online education that would truly fit the $10,000 model. Tenure is a privilege that must be earned at the initial level but also continually justified by evaluation of an impartial and objective manner free from internal politics at every stage of a faculty member’s career. I’ve seen too many instances of tenured “dead wood” voting against talented faculty due to insecurity and jealousy. The practices for gaining tenure must change but not the model itself.

    • Interesting ideas TW. I like the way that is heading. I was surprised to hear from a couple of retiring tenured faculty that their tenure promotion required much less “examples” of research, etc. than those tenure applicants they reviewed in the last decade. I assumed it would be the opposite…but they said otherwise. Yeah, there has to be some remedy to the current situation. There has to be some sort of competitive element. I’ve never found the arguments claiming the “education” (at all levels) is somehow so unique that it actually performs better without competition while most would agree (maybe not in academics:-) that increasing competition results in higher efficiencies and greater innovations. At least we are having this discussion…now if the rest of the community can feel secure enough to have it as well, huh? HAHA
      The present structure just seems so stacked against new teachers at the K-12 level and newly minted PhDs at the college level that I fear there will be a gap when the retirements really start flowing through because of young people deciding the benefits just aren’t there compared to the costs…and choose different paths.

  5. In the old days, a Chair could say to a faculty member, “I am going to put you up for Full Professor” and do it. But those days are long past. I remember some faculty going into class and just saying “I’m burnt out to students”. Great inspiration. There has to be a fair system of post-tenure evaluation that the administration will not use to their advantage and external reviews will help here. We know of one instance where an internal review led to a wrong decision that an external one could have avoided and we are all paying for this today,

    Also, the way the situation is going in Illinois I doubt whether anyone in their right mind would want to come here and work in higher education especially where victims are being blamed for circumstances they did not cause. Thus, Illinois higher education will soon resemble the current status of Cairo, IL.

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