By Peter WoodJonathan Marks, professor of politics at Ursinus College and an expert on Rousseau, has posted an important article on Inside Higher Ed admonishing conservatives for their seeming eagerness to see the higher education establishment collapse under the weight of excessive costs, insupportable student loans, and graduates ill-prepared for the workforce. In "Conservatives and the Higher Ed 'Bubble'," Marks lays out the case that "the old alliance between Buckley and Bloom is still possible today," and urges conservatives to resist temptation. The temptation he has in mind is a too-eager embrace of that younger woman with the come-hither look: online education.
This does seem to be a moment when conservatives are giving more than usual consideration to the "creative destruction" view of American institutions. The reelection of President Obama has sweetened the fantasy of just walking away from the mess and starting over. But is that an option for higher learning?
Trying to find the best response in the event of a catastrophe is not the same as wishing for one--though I imagine an engineer who builds a flood-control dam probably takes a special interest in inclement weather.
Professor Marks cautions us about reading too much into the evidence that traditional colleges and universities are vulnerable to a major market adjustment. His cautions certainly deserve attention, but the financial model that underlies most of contemporary American higher education is nonetheless very vulnerable. It depends on a public willingness to borrow and spend more and more (in real dollars; as a percentage of household income; as a percentage of household wealth; and as a percentage of projected future earnings) for a credential of declining value.
The key questions are (1) How much has the market value of the credential actually declined? (2) What are the alternatives for individuals who might choose to opt out of the pursuit of traditional college degrees? (3) Do college degree programs continue to offer potential students substantial benefits beyond mere credentialing? None of these have simple open-and-shut answers. We don't have to look far to see that the use of liberal arts degrees as a general purpose credential is in steep decline. Robert Goldfarb writing last Sunday in The New York Times offers the most recent testimony from college graduates and CEOs on the problem."Let them grow up on someone else's payroll" is Goldfarb's summary of the reigning attitude of the business community towards liberal arts graduates. There is a Devil's Tower of statistical data about the unemployment, underemployment, and redeployment to graduate school of recent graduates to attest to this aspect of the problem. But, of course, Marks is correct that college graduates are still, typically better off than non-graduates.
This means that high school students considering college, and their parents, are being asked to make dicey choices. The alternatives aren't limited to online education and "edupunks." They also include students who are plenty qualified for four-year programs matriculating to community colleges instead; students taking full-time jobs and pursuing part-time programs on the side; and academically smart students entering apprenticeships or opting into niche careers that have as yet low or no credential barriers.
The third question is the most troubling of all. Do colleges these days offer something beyond workplace credentials? Surely they offer networking opportunities, which often have utilitarian value. They confer a certain amount of social respectability and, at the elite end, prestige. But their mystique depends on offering the "higher" part of higher education. These days the claim that college somehow elevates students has next to nothing to do with transmitting the values of civilization and culture. The colleges that offer the kind of curriculum that either Bloom or Buckley would have endorsed are very few. Rather, the intangibles that contemporary American higher education emphasizes are "critical thinking," "diversity," "sustainability," and becoming a "citizen of the world."
I don't want to take up more space on the question of whether these are goods that deserve the high estimation colleges have bestowed on them, but I would say that it is perfectly reasonable for conservatives to look on the academic status quo with the attitude that little of real value would be lost if the flood waters continue to rise. The kinds of liberal arts education that mattered to Bloom or Buckley, or the kinds that matter to Barone, Leef, Kimball, Reynolds, and Clemens could easily survive that inundation because they do not depend on the mass market model that has made mainstream higher education so vulnerable. Careful study of important books, instruction by teachers who possess some measure of wisdom as well as learning, fellowship with other students who care about taking possession of the intellectual heritage of their civilization can and will survive, even if the college-for-everyone bubble pops.
That's not to dismiss the warning flare from Professor Marks. If millions of students find themselves shunted to MOOCs or online-mostly programs, America will surely lose something precious. Colleges and universities, even in their current disarray, still represent the opportunity to spend a significant portion of one's youth making lifelong friends of the great writers and thinkers of the past and discovering what it means to join the company of educated men and women. Those are opportunities that won't be replaced easily, if at all, by online courses or a disaggregated system of piecemeal tests and credentials.
Marks draws attention to organizations and individuals that favor reforming the existing institutions. I don't derogate that work. Indeed, the National Association of Scholars, which I head, has been working that side of the street for 25 years, and I appreciate the good work of others that Marks mentions: Jack Miller Center, the Liberty Fund, and the efforts of scholars such as Anthony Kronman and Andrew Delbanco who seek to repair the contemporary university. None of us knows for sure what will happen next. But I wouldn't blame the ark builders if we happen to be in for a season of soaking rain.