Free higher education in the USA: why it’s long overdue

I once had a friend who thought it was fine to scream at and abuse her employees. Her reasoning was that her employees would of course understand that they were free to scream back. I pointed out that she was ignoring the economic reality of the situation, namely that she could fire her employees but they could not fire her. Screaming by them could easily lead to their dismissal, and in fact, probably would in the normal course of things. Since then, I have thought of the friend’s obtuseness frequently when certain economic realities are being ignored.

free_higher_edHigher education in America and elsewhere suffers from grade inflation, grade grubbing, teaching evaluations with inappropriate questions, low standards, functionally illiterate students, bored and reluctant students and corrupt practices within the professoriate. All of these phenomena can be traced to economic realities within the education system. Until these change, nothing of substance can be done about these undesirable aspects of college education.

The New Zealand academic system prior to 1990 suffered from none of these phenomena. Education was effectively free for the student, as it was for my friend Tom Bertonneau when he attended UCLA in the early 1970s, although not in the 1980s when at graduate school there. In mentioning my reluctant conclusion about the connection between fees and this host of problems, Tom suggested that a market model could still be used. We must merely re-envisage the roles of consumer and service provider. The student should not be considered the consumer, but the product. The community and, specifically, employers are the consumers.

So long as students are effectively funding colleges and paying the salaries of their professors and the administration, they are effectively the master. Colleges are chosen for the most ridiculous and irrelevant reasons possible in the manner of buying coffee from Starbucks. A flavor for every taste. Newsweek published a list of a perhaps a dozen criteria, only one or two involved academics.

It is no good complaining that students shouldn’t be behaving like this. He who pays the piper calls the tunes. The logic is as inexorable as the recent history of education has categorically proven. A colleague recently recounted trying to teach students in an M.A. program. Among them were Harvard graduates with 3.8 GPAs whose command of reading and writing was appalling.

Potentially failing a student who is paying perhaps $50,000 has struck me as odd from the moment I started teaching in the U.S. When encountering the inevitable grade grubber, it’s hard to ignore the weakness of one’s own desire to maintain standards.
I have sometimes wished that instead of teaching, I was employed by something like the car industry, but in one respect only. When an industry produces lemons; when keys are turned in ignitions to be met with either silence or, say, the grinding of ill-built gears, the reality of a horrible product can’t be mistaken. If cars don’t function the producer quickly loses market share and possibly goes out of business.

Colleges, on the other hand, are set up so that students are the consumers. As a consumer surely you would want a product tailored to your tastes and interests. Will you, as consumer, say, please make it harder for me to pass this course. I’d like you to double the homework and please give me the grade I truly deserve. It’s really important to me that you penalize me for cheating and plagiarism (I, Richard Cocks, have had my academic superiors pressure me not to prosecute plagiarism) and incidentally, I think this reading list could be much more ambitious. You, the student, are more likely to say, you are to conform to my un-developed tastes and interests as much as possible. We’d like more technology in the classroom so our classroom experience mirrors our addiction to smart phones, tablets and the like.

However, if the employer is considered to be the real consumer or client, then the interests of dedicated professors and employers are aligned. The employer wants a literate, numerate, articulate, well-read, non-embarrassing asset to the company. Market forces mean that employers who hire on the basis of irrelevant criteria, such as race and sex, will be penalized by lower productivity and efficiency. College professors, on the other hand, are routinely hired on the basis of race and sex. I knew one female philosophy professor who was hired to teach race and gender issues. I felt sorry for her and imagined being hired to teach white maleness and then nothing else. She really was not expected to step out of this tiny box. She did get well rewarded for conforming to racial and gender expectations and quickly got herself a better job due to factors of supply and demand. These kinds of behaviors are truly corrupt. The college kills two birds with one stone in such cases. They ‘diversify’ the professoriate using non-academic criteria; affirmative action, and get courses on the books which indicate their ‘progressiveness,’ but are of no actual philosophical interest. In principle, the market would punish this kind of thing. But, where students are thought of as consumers, the idea of quality becomes immensely amorphous. If possible, students tend to flock to subjects, or professors who offer the best ‘deal,’ i.e., the best grade for the least amount of work.

If employers are the consumers, corrupt practices within the professoriate will be punished. Students indoctrinated with post-modernism and other horrible irrelevancies will be put on the discard pile and the college will suffer when employers choose products from other service providers. In the current situation, employers have little idea what they are going to get or where a more valuable employee might be found.

You might imagine that students know that employers want a literate, educated, well-read workforce for white-collar jobs and would do their best to attain those qualities. Such students do exist. I have had students ask for extra-reading, for instance. However, it is rare enough for me to comment on every occasion it occurs and interesting enough for colleagues to marvel over. Instead, the emphasis for the students tends to be on passing courses and keeping up a high GPA. In other words, style over substance. Employers know that a completed baccalaureate and a high GPA are no evidence of anything in particular other than a certain kind of assiduousness, but not necessarily the kind of applied effort that will be of any use to them. In fact, the average graduate is reminiscent of Plato’s complaint about valetudinarians – they are of no use to themselves or to anyone else.

It’s comforting to imagine that Ivy League institutions are an exception, but as my aforementioned Harvard graduates indicate, grade inflation is everywhere. In fact, Harvard students’ average GPA is A. Not so at Oxford and Cambridge which have been more or less free and restricted to the academically gifted. Since the turn of the twentieth century, Harvard has had no particular interest in producing scholars. Harvard thrives on the size of its endowment. This is related to ‘heritage’ students who are likely to lower the degree of intelligence at these institutions. Harvard’s current supposedly best and brightest are now siphoned off to Wall St. where no particular aptitude is required. The stock market is an unpredictable chaotic phenomenon. You can’t be smart when it comes to predicting the future of unpredictable phenomena. Economic predictions are an area in which it is impossible to be an expert. If the future of stocks could be predicted we could all get rich by following the certifiably ‘smart’ guru. Unfortunately, in that arena, putative smartness is often attributed only in retrospect.

Harvard would go bankrupt if it had to exist on the contributions from professors and similar intellectuals. Some Ivy League schools have had specific quotas on how many scholars would be allowed in – no more than ten percent in some cases. Trying to limit the number of Jews, in the past, and Asians in the present, has meant qualifying criteria including ‘leadership potential’ which is whatever you want it to be.

The ills of higher education cannot be cured when the economic survival of colleges depends on pleasing students. All the ills would vanish, I guarantee it, if the goal was instead to please employers and that won’t happen until colleges stop trying to please students and students have to please colleges and colleges are answerable to the community who must be the ones putting up the money.

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.