Making College Worth the Cost
Americans are increasingly wondering if liberal arts colleges are worth the cost to both students and taxpayers. After noting the most important deficiencies, I propose a set of reforms.
Deficiencies of Liberal Education
Balanced Education. Liberal arts colleges are supposed to deliver a balanced education. The humanities explore the great issues of the human condition, and the means by which these compelling issues can be expressed. Science enables us to understand the natural world. And the social sciences focus on how people organize and interact in groups.
Increasingly, however, these requirements have been diluted, with more and more “gut” (easy) courses, as well as many of debatable value, such as courses focusing on popular culture and sex.
Another important issue is the proliferation of studies on ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. When I attended college, I did not assume, this being America, that the sociological, religious, and biological conditions of my birth were destiny. Instead, I expected to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to retain or reject these circumstances as appropriate.
However, what is increasingly appearing as “education” is the belief that all members of a group must think alike. The United States has undergone a revolution in our approach to diversity, and it is reasonable to assume at this point that the extreme focus on these issues, rather than on what unites us, is counterproductive.
Educational Standards. Extensive grade inflation has diluted grades as a measure of learning.
Intellectual Discussion and Tolerance. One of the most important goals of liberal education is to discover what is true. The best way to approach this challenging goal is to encourage different points of view, backed up by logical thinking and evidence. Yet, to an alarming degree, the cultural and political points of view presented represent one side, and, to make matters worse, we regularly observe disruption of speakers with opposing views, including violence, with minimal consequences for the offenders.
Reasonable Costs. College costs have been rising much faster than most other segments of the economy, including medicine. The cost of a four-year education at a private college can easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, more if one counts the likely loss of four years of earnings. And some institutions are starting to resemble luxury resorts.
Total student debt is now well above a trillion dollars. This means the quality of the lives of graduating students has been greatly diminished by major debt burdens, and the overall economy has been weakened as well. And despite the promises of politicians to make education “free,” an impossible task, all that can be done in the absence of reform is to shift more of the burden to taxpayers, including many without children attending college.
Until recently, the fact that college graduates earn more than high school graduates, a justification of the high cost, was implicitly assumed to be the result of what they learned in college. Such comparisons reverse cause and effect. To a very large extent, the more ambitious and academically able students attend college, and that, not what they learn, is why they are more successful. In any case, with the rising number of unemployed graduates, this debate has become increasingly outdated.
Three-Year Programs. Only three years, not four, are required for a quality education. In the modern electronic age, where there are virtually unlimited opportunities for continued learning, the goal of college should be to develop an appreciation of a variety of ways of thinking, and to create an eagerness for continued learning throughout life, since knowledge grows exponentially.
Revised Major. There is no need, in my view, for the traditional major. Four or five courses (not eight or more) are sufficient to establish if there is an area of intense interest. Breadth is more important, and if a person wants professional training, a master’s degree is necessary anyway.
Restored Distribution Requirements. Significantly standardized survey courses should be the core of a liberal arts college education. These would be implemented through “core” courses in three areas: the humanities, science, and social science.
The humanities core would emphasize both philosophy and art. The ability to express oneself is also critical: Accordingly, coursework in expository writing, writing designed to describe and explain something, is essential. The science core should provide a review of key concepts in both the physical and life sciences. Basic use of arithmetic and simple statistics is necessary as well, given that such knowledge is sorely lacking, even in the media. In the social sciences, understanding of economics is absolutely indispensable, as much of the misery in the world that is caused unintentionally by humans is due to a lack of economic reasoning. Material in general law, political science, and social psychology would also be important.
I would envision that much of the first two years would be devoted to these (relatively) standardized general courses. This approach would also be designed to address the complaint of employers that graduates do not have adequate critical thinking skills.
Revised Infrastructure. College education includes four components: lectures, lecture discussion, testing, and extracurricular groups. With modern technology, these can all be increasingly implemented through the internet and social media without requiring campus residence. I would grant that these are far from perfect, but neither is the campus environment. And this would allow greater interaction with students and teachers from other institutions.
Teachers Should Teach. The fact that a professor conducts research does not necessarily mean that it makes him or her a competent or interesting teacher, although that appears to be an assumption underlying college education. An example from the sports world, will, I believe, be helpful. Boxers don’t just box; their training includes running, lifting weights, and many other activities. But these are ancillary to their performance—they are judged by their win/loss record, not their ability to lift weights or run 10 miles. Similarly, teachers should be judged by how they teach.
Ongoing research should be conducted at institutions specialized in the appropriate subject matter, such as medical research, economic policy, or astrophysics. This approach would replace the current inefficient system, where, because the university spends so much on research, students must often be taught by graduate students.
Tenure Eliminated. Tenure does not by any means guarantee the freedom of a professor to pursue different lines of thought, as the uniformity of views (even extending to the sciences) in a modern faculty (and on campus) demonstrates. Five-year standardized employment contracts would be more than sufficient.
Free Speech. Government should not subsidize institutions where there is limited freedom of speech. Professors should indicate whether or not their course represents only one viewpoint. Reference frames can be established: For example, any political view that is held by one-third of Congress could be viewed as a serious view. And the enhanced use of technology should allow students to take courses from more than one institution, with a resulting improvement in access to diverse views.
Another way to reduce bias is to identify (and publish the names of) large donors, particularly foreign countries, as well as domestic organizations with political viewpoints.
General Law, Not College Law. With respect to serious behavioral infractions, academic institutions should utilize the civil and criminal justice system. This is to ensure consistency as to what offenses are punished and to what extent. Areas where this approach would be particularly useful are any kind of student assault, the disruption (sometimes with violence) of speeches that don’t reflect the “standard” view, and the takeovers of college buildings.
Ending Excessive Government Subsidies. When the government subsidizes meals, it establishes a reasonable basis for a daily allowance—it does not base its calculation on the cost of a luxury Manhattan steakhouse. In a similar manner, government should only provide scholarships based on reasonable and customary educational costs, with increases consistent with other areas of the economy, but not exceeding 3 percent annually.
The future of the country depends on delivering a better education at a more reasonable cost. I believe strongly that the changes outlined above would provide a compelling move forward.
Arthur Wiegenfeld is an independent investor in New York City. He has training in economics, finance, physics, and computer simulation. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org