If we accept the idea that’s there a big bubble in the higher education business– and this site is devoted to an Ahab-grade pursuit of that idea– it makes sense to ask “How will the collapse go?” The truth is that it will be very different from the stock market and the housing market, two agora where prices are very transparent and traded almost constantly. The market in fancy degrees, however, is very opaque because much of the decision making input from the participants comes in the spring when students choose whether to accept any of the offers of acceptance. Then there’s a four year lag in finding out what their new degree is worth, something that’s quite different from the way that the stock market investment’s value changes within seconds of being created.
I was reminded of this fact when re-reading David Warren’s sigh of relief that this last spring didn’t turn into what he called, “Apocalypse Now.” He means, of course, that students still sent in their deposit checks in high numbers and they did not leave behind the dream that a shiny, new sheepskin will paper over all of the troubles of the world. He’s certainly right. All of the news says that there were more applications made than ever before producing record low acceptance rates and — this is the important part– enough people accepted to make everyone happy.
Crisis averted? Not so fast. The college industrial complex has a number of sneaky little levers that they can pull to save them from the kind of public embarrassment that might greet a home builder who can’t sell a new model. The most important is that the price cutting is never public because it’s dispensed as so-called “aid”. If the school wants to be more competitive, it just boosts the financial aid packages. Schools can then boast that their “aid” budget is larger than ever, making them seem more generous and patrician, much different from a store broadcasting their overpriced merchandise by running a desperate almost-going-out-of-business sale.
The second trick is to water down the quality of the freshman class by admitting fewer smart poor kids and admitting more dumb rich kids. Reed College, known for giving equal weight to both brains and drugs, was pretty upfront about it’s decision to follow this route. (See Jonathan Glater’s piece in the NY Times.) Smart strivers are nice, but they’re always asking for bigger financial aid packages.
And the third trick, of course, is to water down the faculty by replacing tenure-track with lecturers and lecturers with adjuncts. This solution has been going on for some time now and I don’t know if they can cut quality much more. But that’s what I thought ten years ago and they still found even more ways to replace more tenure-track people. I’m pretty sure that they’ll invent a new, lower-status position soon to save even more money. Let’s call it “professorial intern”, a no-pay position which will be rationalized by arguing that these new unpaid professors will be better able to guide the students in getting unpaid internships after the graduate.
I think all of these tricks will allow the universities to keep up appearances and the all-important Presidential salaries. The only problem will be finding ways to keep up and power the huge new building complexes erected during the last boom. But maintenance can be deferred for a bit. If things get really bad, maybe someone will buy one of the lab buildings.
The collapse may even be fun as more professorial interns and their interns-in-training adopt a “f*&# it” attitude. If everyone is just trying to do something that looks good on paper until something real comes along, why worry? If everyone realizes stops believing that the degree is a transformative experience, everyone can talk about real topics with real seriousness instead of just trying to game the system to get high enough grades into law school and game the system professionally? It might just free people up to enjoy education again.