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Break up the colleges

2013 January 25
by Matt

Honestly, I feel more and more radical on the issue of college costs and general reform of our higher education system. We are at the point where it is outright immoral to continue demanding students take on more and ever more impossible debt-burdens. Things must not be allowed to continue this way.

I have struggled with ideas for what to do, which is why I want to re-post a good portion of an outstanding post on the subject by Arnold Kling.

How do you introduce efficiency and cost saving at universities? Narrow scope and reduce features. Do students choose your school because of the chemistry department? If not, then get rid of it. Better to have three excellent departments than dozens of mediocre ones. Let students take courses on line in the ones that you do not cover.

What if a university unbundled its non-academic activities? Instead of using tuition to subsidize athletics, social events, and clubs, make students pay to participate in each of these activities. My guess is that participation would plummet. Students would find less costly ways to socialize.

If you want to reduce administrative overhead, you have to think in terms of radically reducing scope.

As the hip kids say on the internet, “THIS.” Obviously I don’t know what would happen, if anything like this were even attempted, but I believe nearly every line of this nails the problem of college’s broken structure on the head. Specialization is almost absent. As someone else asked, “does America really need 50 state university systems?” Likewise, then, does it need or even benefit from 100s and 100s of colleges all trying to do everything? That goes beyond academics, in fact; I point back to the list in this earlier post of mine for an example of how the “scope” of what colleges are attempting to manage is completely ridiculous and ripe for radical reduction, or at least breaking up.

I won’t deny that there is value in the “every college as an all you can eat buffet” model, in terms of concentrating opportunities to explore and cross-pollinate. But I don’t think it’s nearly enough to justify that model’s increasing cost. Nor do I think that said model is the only way that such value can be achieved.

Colleges are arguably one of the last remaining vestiges of the elsewhere hopelessly discredited centrally-planned economy. You don’t have to be a free-market zealot to believe that some things, many things, can be sorted out without a huge central bureaucracy holding the strings. Per what may be the best line in Kling’s post: “Students would find less costly ways to socialize.” I believe that they would.

Reading and considering this, I really feel like “break up the colleges” offers tremendous potential for a new model. Instead of the centralized, monolithic single-point-of-failure model for colleges, why not a new concept of a college or university as an ecology? Instead of a single organization, e.g. Iowa State University, you could have a living network of independent organizations, within which a student could experience much if not more of the familiar diversity of ideas and opportunities at various geographic clusters of those organizations, e.g. Ames, Iowa. Replace a centrally-run, hermetic Soviet Science City with Silicon Valley, in other words.

As I commented on Kling’s post, I dearly love Iowa State University and the memories of the way it was and worked in my own student days… but, aside from the fact that even then I went to school on a scholarship, the reality is that the way it was and worked in my student days is not getting the job done today.

Get some f***ing hammers and let’s break these monoliths up. We shall build wondrous new mosaics from the pieces.


Follow-up 7/29/15. Over the past couple of years I have continued to ponder the subject of colleges, quality and cost, and for a variety of reasons my enthusiasm for the wrecking ball has diminished a bit.

For one thing, further reading has led me to the conclusion that, though public universities are certainly a rag-bag of departments and programs, this isn’t really new. The state college or university has long been a convenient place to assign tasks with no obvious home, going back back at least several decades when tuition was much more affordable. This doesn’t mean that all of the sprawl is necessary, but it does suggest that other factors are also at work in today’s runaway costs.

For another, somewhere or other I read the observation—obvious when pointed out—that the central planning for which I castigate university administrations is actually alive and well throughout much of the “market” economy. This is the very nature of the corporation, really; otherwise Apple e.g. would just be thousands of freelancers working on contract. Instead, while some things are outsourced obviously, and I even know of a few examples where in-house departments “charge back” their services to other parts of the same parent company, there is a lot of sprawly marxism in corporations. So here, too, it feels more difficult to say to big state universities “you’re completely ignoring obvious best practices.”

I would still like to see this line of reform explored, by someone, even if I’m no longer ready to declare it The Way Forward for everyone right now. I have however realized that one of the most obvious areas for experiment, called out above in bold face, may encounter less resistance from concern that it won’t work than from concern that it will. I remain confident that students would indeed “find other ways to socialize” if the school administration dropped most management of such activity… I strongly suspect that neighboring communities would be horrified at the prospect of tens of thousands of very young adults pursuing amusement on their own with minimal supervision.

Going back to my earlier point, the internal motive of empire-building by university administrators is not the only reason why colleges have expanded into so many areas of responsibility.

3 Responses
  1. January 25, 2013

    Not sure how coherent this will be, but here are some thoughts…

    I’ve been in the graphic design business for nearly two decades. In that entire time, no one has EVER asked to see my diploma. The only people who followed up on confirming my B.S. (waaaay too many jokes with that) was another university where I went to get my M.B.A. — which no one has since asked to see or confirmed in any way. The only thing I’ve used my first actual degree for was getting another degree, and I haven’t used my second degree for anything.

    Not that what I learned wasn’t useful, of course. I benefited from the education, not the formal ordination of same. And, to be fair, that’s just my personal experience; I have a friend who knows his company checks and has actively rejected some job candidates because they lied about their degrees.

    And none of that speaks to my day job as a web designer. I have ZERO formal training in any capacity there. I taught myself HTML, Javascript, CSS, PHP, database design… Most of which was learning online — I think I have a grand total of two books on all of those subjects, so I can’t even feign having some sort of reference library that suggests I actually know this stuff, much less having transcripts or anything to that effect.

    All of which makes me question the university system’s even basic necessity in any capacity.

    On the other hand, I understand that one of the most useful degrees currently available is the previously maligned Liberal Arts. The broad base of knowledge that’s conferred in a range of subjects allows people to step into a variety of different roles and, more significantly, business and technology are changing so rapidly that too specific an education path will almost inherently be outdated by the time a student graduates. When I was in school, for example, I learned how to develop film in a darkroom and did more than a little manual paste-up work. Those were completely obsolete within a year or two of graduation.

    So I can see the potential importance of a “well-rounded” education as basically an extension of the classic K-12 format. Perhaps a little more specialty or focus in certain areas. A general knowledge-base for everyone, but some extra classes on literature or math or whatnot for individuals. I can still see the desire for keeping an engineering school and a business school and whatever at a single institution.

    Then there’s the question of whether or not that education is worth the financial cost. Historically, college grads earn more over the long-term, but I have to wonder if that will continue to even hold true. Or is it just that people who pursue some sort of education beyond high school become the long-term earnings? And, if that’s the case, college would almost certainly be more expensive than spending four years doing self-guided learning from books and videos. Or an apprenticeship, as you suggested in an earlier post.

    I think Gen-Xers were probably the last round of students who could definitively say that going to college was a solid way to improve your career potential. I think that’s more up for debate right now, and I suspect it won’t be long before we start seeing where going to college doesn’t carry any particular advantage.

    The problem, though, is that colleges and universities (and all organizations) have “to keep doing what we’ve successfully been doing” as their main goal. A radical re-organization like you’re alluding to is less likely than a new system coming into being along side the current one, eventually supplanting. At which point, the old school schools will probably be financially forced to drop everything that isn’t making them money and wind up becoming a sort of minor league sports organization.

  2. Matt permalink
    January 25, 2013

    All makes sense to me. I think we’re really on the same page with all of this.

    Including your last paragraph. Despite the (acknowledged) wonders of unplanned, “rich ecosystem” phenomena, I will probably forever believe that there are some instances in which massive change could turn out better, on balance, with some proactive planning and a readiness to acknowledge that sometimes certain institutions have served their purpose and arrived at their time to have a rest. (Upon which, in my ideal world, that spirit of cooperation would be reciprocated by generous provision for those individual people whose lives will still be disrupted by even a graceful, voluntary winding down of the concerned institution.)

    At any rate, I will probably believe that at least until it is disproved by an honest attempt… which I don’t expect to see.

    I’ve grown pretty fatalistic about the human tendency to “manage” these matters, instead, through brute Darwinian forces (and corruption).

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