Higher Education Resize

Higher Education’s Market Reckoning

Want to buy a college campus? Maybe you’d like to commission the services of a psychology department. Perhaps you’re hoping to hire an associate provost for diversity initiatives.

If so, you’re in luck! It’s a buyer’s market.

I use the word “market” advisedly. Over the last few decades, most American colleges and universities have been transformed from institutional guardians and dispensers of theoretical and practical wisdom, which preserved traditions and intellectual resources that span centuries and civilizations, into crude market actors. A college diploma used to signify mastery of the art of learning and knowledge of the great Western tradition. Now it is simply a credential, perhaps useful for obtaining employment.

Today the logic of that transformation is beginning to play out. An institutional guardian of ancient traditions and knowledge must be celebrated, cultivated, and preserved. By contrast, market actors are dispensable. If college is not a place to learn Newton, Dante, and Lincoln, but merely a place to earn a credential for needful employment, then its utility is only as valuable as the employment to which it leads.

As the great historical sociologist Joseph Schumpeter first observed, creative destruction is an essential feature of market economies. The inexorable logic of the market is to match supply with demand. When either supply or demand is missing, market players must either find a new supply to meet demand, or a new demand to meet supply, or else fail.

In recent decades, American colleges and universities have been following market logic, rather than the logic of Socrates and Aristotle. No longer committed to the pursuit of knowledge of truth for its own sake, they refashioned themselves as utilitarian players in economic and cultural markets. The old purpose of a college education was to train the mind for the lifelong pursuit of what is true, good, and beautiful. The new purpose is to network with other privileged elites, receive a prestigious credential, learn how to speak the cynical language of elite ideology, and then get a high-paying job.

Most of them have benefited from this transformation, accruing vast fortunes in endowments and tuition dollars. And the strongest and most effective universities will continue to grow in future years, to find or create new markets for their services, and to mold the minds and souls of those who will lead our political communities. (Unfortunately, they will do this mostly without the assistance of Aristotle, Dante, and Lincoln.)

However, many other colleges and universities will pay the natural and logical price for their transformation. If an education is only valuable for employment, then it is only as valuable as the job to which at leads, less its cost. If the cost is exorbitant and the jobs are not available, then the education is not worth much.

The creative destruction of obsolete market actors is inevitable, in higher education as in any other market. Indeed, it has already begun. It will accelerate in the age of Coronavirus.

After the transformation of higher education into a pragmatic enterprise, the only enduring value is residential life. The opportunity to network amongst peers, to set oneself apart from the world and to reflect deeply upon one’s studies, and to interact with teachers and mentors face-to-face, are social values that colleges are uniquely situated to supply. But not anymore. Many campuses are closed this fall. Others are rationing student access. And they will all be empty if the virus breaks out again.

Government-run primary and secondary schools are also suddenly obsolete. Parents around Alabama and the United States are re-discovering home and private education by necessity. For now, public schools are insulated from market forces by taxpayer subsidies. But as the deficiencies and institutional inequalities of government-run education become more apparent in the age of Coronavirus, pressure will mount to reform education finance at all levels.

Fortunately, not all educational institutions have succumbed to the temptations of market utility. Many private and charter schools remain committed to building knowledge of truth for its own sake, without regard to market value. Many small colleges remain genuinely committed to the liberal arts, to passing the intellectual and moral treasures of Western civilization on to the next generation. And increasingly, one finds programs devoted to those venerable purposes within large universities, such as the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

Those programs and institutions preserve, cultivate, and pass on knowledge of truth. The value of truth endures. It’s an excellent investment; the market cannot destroy it.

Comments are closed.