Sunday Night Journal, September 3, 2017
When I was in high school and thinking about college, I thought of the admissions process as a test which I might or might not pass, a door whose default position was closed and which was only opened to those who met certain standards. The college, in my mind, was not offering to accept me; I was asking it for that privilege, and couldn't assume that it would be granted. In fact I probably could have assumed that about the school I ended up going to, the University of Alabama, since I had decent grades and good test scores, but I didn't know that, and there was at least some selectivity involved.
Years later when I went to work at a small Catholic liberal arts college, I was more than a little shocked to discover that the admissions office could just as well (and more accurately) have been called the sales office. The job of the people who worked there was to sell the college to potential students, and while it did and does have some standards and does not admit everyone who applies, the task of the admissions staff is not to weed out the less qualified and select the best, but to recruit anyone who might possibly be able to manage both the course work and the expense. They were salespeople, as you sensed immediately if you spent time among them. (That's not a put-down; in my experience people who are good at selling are generally likeable.) That was twenty-five years ago. The task was difficult then and is just as much so now.
I've read a good deal over the past decade or so, especially over the past five years, about the state of higher education. In many ways, as we all know, it's not very good. Among many other things, it has gotten insanely expensive, the cost far exceeding the general rate of inflation, and that's the topic of a lot of the commentary, which attempts to find causes and cures. But most of what I've read looks only at the big public universities, and possibly the bigger and more prestigious private ones. The situation of smaller and poorer institutions is very different.
One thing which drives the overall development, and which is perhaps the biggest and most obvious thing affecting small colleges, is that there are too many of institutions pursuing too few potential students. I'm not sure exactly how this happened. There was the post-World-War-II baby boom, of course, and the fewer number of children produced by them than by their parents. But these little colleges didn't spring into existence to serve the baby boom--they existed before it. How were they managing before? I don't know. But I came into that job after a decade in the computer industry, and although I don't claim any great business insight it soon became obvious to me that if higher education had been like other areas of business, it would have been long overdue for a shakeout: that is, for some significant number of the "companies" to fail because they were all selling very similar products and there simply weren't enough customers to support them all.
That didn't happen, and the biggest single reason for that is federal financial aid. But the "business"--and in some ways, much as academics might like to think otherwise, higher education is in certain fundamental ways a business, even if it isn't intended to make a profit--the business has in some ways changed a great deal in twenty-five years, and in ways that are generally not much to the liking of those who really care about liberal education as an end in itself.
Last week I ran across a piece by John Seery in Modern Age called "Somewhere Between A Jeremiad and a Eulogy" which comes closer than anything else I've read to an accurate description of the situation in small liberal arts colleges. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading it. However, it still doesn't quite get to the fundamental problem of schools like mine, because the writer is at a school with a lot of money in the bank as well as a good deal of prestige. He doesn't understand (or at least doesn't address) the situation of schools which don't have big endowments and thus are dependent year-to-year on tuition and donations to keep them afloat. One such, Marygrove College in Detroit, is essentially closing down, eliminating all its undergraduate programs. If you read the article at that link, you'll get a picture of the threat faced by every similar school; Marygrove has apparently hit a wall toward which many others have skidded fairly close but so far managed to avoid hitting. "Facing budget shortfalls and enrollment declines"--that prospect is all too familiar for similar colleges. And by the way note the names of the schools paragraph toward the end beginning "Other colleges....": a disproportionate number of small private liberal arts colleges are Catholic. (I suppose the early 20th-century improvement in both the numbers and the finances of Catholics in this country, combined with the desire to have specifically Catholic education, is part of my earlier question about how they came into existence pre-baby-boom.)
But the Modern Age piece misses a couple of things that perhaps apply to all institutions but are especially serious for small and relatively poor ones. One is the extent to which many of the changes which faculty deplore are driven by that market problem I mentioned (a "structural" problem, I think they call it). There are not enough qualified (financially and academically) students to go around. Therefore there is competition for them, and therefore every school is constantly looking for something to distinguish itself from other similar ones. For rich schools, the competition is for prestige. For lesser ones, it's for survival. This creates a sort of arms race for amenities.
My field is software and my job involves (I'm still working part-time) the systems that support the dull everyday administrative work of the school. When I started at my school, there was much talk among technologists of using ("leveraging"--I hate that term) technology to set one's school apart. I groaned. I thought that was a recipe for disaster, or at least trouble. What would happen, obviously, I thought, was that the schools with bigger budgets would introduce new technology-based services, and for a while that would give them a competitive advantage, but other schools would be forced to follow along in order to keep up, and for the poorer ones this would not be an advantage but a simple necessity for keeping the doors open. I specifically remember thinking and saying that some twenty years ago when schools began to provide free internet access for their students. This, I said, would do nothing for our school but raise the cost of operating the place, which is exactly what happened. Free internet, including campus-wide wireless coverage, is now considered as much a necessity as electricity--and the school gets just the same appreciation and advantage for providing it.
Seery complains about the escalating cost of software. This is a a fact, and I sympathize. Technology is expensive and it plays a significant role in the rise of tuition. But it is more and more pervasive mainly because people want it, both students and faculty. Some faculty are clueless and frankly a bit bratty about technology: they want it, but they don't want to recognize the expense involved. I've been in more than one meeting where a faculty member has sneered at the school's IT staff because Other School has this or that cool new technology and we don't, unaware of and uninterested in the fact that Other School has three times the staff and four times the budget. In extreme cases the complaint is comparable to griping that the maintenance department is not building new buildings.
The question of whether all this technology should even be provided is moot at most schools. Some people might argue that it is only a distraction and a drain, and I'd be inclined to agree about a lot of it. But it is not being forced upon people by the IT department--at least not at my school, where IT staff are just desperately trying to keep their heads above water.
A substantial part of Seery's complaint is the expansion of the school's administration. This is certainly a valid complaint. He is dubious that the explanations that point to federal regulations and the demands of accrediting agencies are sufficient. Well, they may not be sufficient, but they are certainly significant. I mentioned earlier that many institutions would have to shut their doors without federal financial aid (mostly loans). That happens to touch on the, um, dare I say, intersection of technology and administrative demands. As it happens my college uses the same administrative software that Seery's college does (unless they have recently changed). I'm very familiar with that software. The financial aid module is definitely the most complex piece of the system. And worse, it changes constantly, requiring attention in various ways from both IT and financial aid staff. And that change is driven by the decisions and policies of the Department of Education, and the college has no more choice about keeping up with those change than it does about paying the utility bill.
Accreditation, I think, is driven by some of the same forces as technology. Bigger and richer schools establish "best practices." Smaller and poorer ones have to keep up because they have to stay accredited. They would not be eligible for federal programs if they were not, so withdrawal of accreditation would be a death sentence for most schools. (I believe Hillsdale College is one of the very few, if not the only, schools able to prosper outside this system. It would be interesting to know how they do it but it must involve a large endowment.)
Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this the role of faculty is diminished? I deplore that, but I think faculty often fail to comprehend the forces that are driving the change.
There's one thing in the Seery piece I'd like to emphasize, as I suspect it's not know outside of academia. He denies that faculty are, in general, the main drivers of campus leftism:
If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s). The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).
I think this is more or less true on most campuses. It was only in the past five or ten years that this began to sink in on me: that the administrative arm which is responsible for overseeing all the non-academic aspects of campus life has a decided impulse toward left-wing proselytizing. I'm on the administrative, not the academic, side of the house, and have very little involvement or contact with academics. But my impression of the faculty at my school is that, though they may be pretty uniformly liberal-progressive in their views, they are also intellectually serious and honest, and are not the single-minded ideologues from whom we hear occasionally, and who seem to be mostly in those dubious specialties that are more less left-wing-activist by definition.
The growth of the whole student life sector is also related to the amenities arms race. As is the need for constructing elaborate recreational centers. As is the need to have a coffee shop in the library. And let's not leave out the effects of general cultural decline and stress which have helped to produce more students with bigger problems than was the case a generation ago, and the corresponding growth in various forms of support and therapy for them. And that reminds me of the lawyers: fear of lawsuits probably also generates defensive measures that require administrative overhead.
Both students and parents expect as a matter of course services and facilities that would have been considered luxurious and unnecessary even twenty years ago, to say nothing of forty or fifty. In short you could probably account for a substantial portion of the rise in college costs if you could figure out a way to measure the impact of the arms race, the constant push for schools to keep up or at least not fall too far behind in the competition for making themselves attractive to students.
If this sounds like students (and parents) are in the position of being picky and demanding customers in a buyer's market, they are. I've heard many times a student complaint that begins with "I'm paying $N,000 every year to go to school here, and I expect..." And this mentality, I hear, gets into the classroom as well, and probably has an effect on grade inflation.
Well, I'm running out of time, so I'll stop there, though I could run on at length. As an academic manqué, and a firm believer in the ideals of liberal education, as well as an employee at an IHED (institution of higher education), this is a subject of great import to me. I had several other things I'd meant to discuss but they can wait till next week.
I went out to bring in the garbage can one morning last week and looked up and saw this. I think I looked up because I had walked into a spider web and couldn't figure out what it was doing in the middle of the driveway. It made me think of Mirkwood. It's at least fifteen feet from one of the two trees to which the web was attached to the other.