(This is the second in a two-part series on a recent conference on education policy.)

Janet Beihoffer started the afternoon sessions by saying that instructors, whether K-12 or at the college level, must have high expectations of students. (See here for more.)

Political correctness and the university

We moved to higher education, with Dick Andzenge, a sociology professor at St. Cloud State, giving a talk on political correctness. I believe he said something like “the effort to do good has done a lot of bad,” which seems like a fair (if overly generous) summation. So what is political correctness (PC)? In brief, it’s the attempt to create a culture in which nobody is offended. Ironically, a PC culture is also one in which people take a lot of offense. Instead of promoting the interaction of different cultures, PC encourages “safe havens” for people to self-select in communities of the same race, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

PC thinking has harmed the university in several ways: It has brought about an expanded but shallow curriculum. It has killed intellectual debates, thus weakening the university’s ability to create or foster independent thinkers. PC has also created new bureaucracies on campus, dedicated to carrying out and enforcing the new attitudes. PC has helped turn academic institutions into arms of political activists, and it has also (further) fragmented the university.

I will insert my own anecdote here. While in graduate school, I took a class that dealt with social movements. (Here are a few social movements from American history: the abolitionists; prohibition; anti-war activism of the Vietnam era, and feminism.) The study of social movements can be a respectable intellectual endeavor. Not only do they have real-world effects, but the intellectual questions surrounding them touch on topics such as mass psychology, leadership, religion, politics, and economics.

There were about a dozen students in the class. Almost to a person, each student identified himself or herself as a gay or lesbian who was studying the history of gay or lesbian activism and community-building. I’m sure, again, that there are some worthy intellectual questions involved, but it all struck me as a case of applied activism and navel-gazing, not academic pursuits.

Now to return to the presentation, we have the question of the purpose of the university. How sensitive should it be to the needs of the market? Andzenge weighed in on this longstanding debate by saying, “The purpose of the university is not to train you for a job. If you are an educated person you can create a job.” As someone with two liberal arts degrees, I’d have to agree–but also say there is room for other forms of higher education.

The technical college

Jeff Johnson, a professor of aviation at SCSU, represented the more technical and “hard sciences” side of the university. He made several good points, including this one worthy of a sociologist: There’s a tendency for people’s views and attitudes to conform to the environment around them. More directly, Johnson said that college faculty and prisoners share a common quality: They are institutionalized and have a hard time thinking outside the institution. The institution they live in becomes their world, and it’s hard for them to imagine anything else. (No wonder the professoriate leans left. It operates in a quasi-socialist environment in which professors are largely isolated from market discipline. With a few exceptions, tuition has no relationship to the market demand of the discipline a student is studying.)

Johnson observed that 85 percent of college graduates are moving back home. “This is not a problem,” he said. “This is an epidemic.” Indeed–especially when you take student-loan debt into account, since “some of these kids will carry debt until retirement.”

Given this reality, is a hard degree better than a soft one? Not necessarily,. said Johnson. “But there are junk degrees.” Indeed.

As a liberal-arts grad who couldn’t fix an engineering problem to save my life, I would say no, and yes to the question. The answer is “no” if by “better” you mean “more academically challenging and worthwhile.” Both a hard-science program of study and soft-science one can be rigorous. In addition, society benefits from some amount of study to human interaction and behavior, as well as the arts. (Caution: We should not forget the issue of declining marginal productivity.) If by “better” you mean “financially beneficial to the graduate,” I would have to look at the numbers, but would caution that at the individual level, there’s no guarantee either way. You could have a hard-science degree and work as a lab assistant all your life, earning a modest income. Or you could also earn a history degree and rise to become a corporate leader. Who’s going to earn more?

But what is socially “better” when it comes to the fields that students study? Should government, when it subsidizes higher education, subsidize only the hard sciences? Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, for example, has been accused of waging war on anthropologists and more broadly, the social sciences (to say nothing of the humanities). Last fall, he said, “I want to spend our money getting people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all of their time and attention on: Those type of degrees that when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

Here’s one possible response (which I may later recant): Let’s move towards a funding model in which the public money we direct towards higher educated is carried on the backs of students rather than being parceled out to departments, and let some departments charge a higher tuition rate than others. In other words, move towards a demand-driven approach. Do a more thorough job of publicizing the starting salaries, and unemployment rates, of various majors, and let students respond accordingly. I suspect we will have more engineers and fewer anthropologists, without having to shut down departments.

Facing up to the myths of higher education

The final speaker of the day was Richard Vedder, an economist by training. While he spent a career as a professor studying fiscal policy, Vedder has, for the last decade or so, been looking at college itself. His Center for College Affordability and Productivity is a must-look-at resource for anyone interested in higher ed.

His talk was on “12 inconvenient truths about higher education.” Here they his points, in brief:

ONE: High costs become higher over time.

TWO: Higher education is, for states, not the engine of economic growth you think it is. (The key: diminishing marginal productivity)

THREE: College degrees do not guarantee work success. Here’s one example: We have 19,000 parking lot attendants with a bachelors degree.

FOUR: College students don’t spend much time in class or studying.

FIVE: Undergraduate students are often neglected, especially at large research universities.

SIX: Most students do not graduate on time, and 40 percent don’t graduate even after six years–leading in many cases to large debts but no paper to show for it.

SEVEN: Colleges hide vital information from consumers.

EIGHT: Freedom of expression is sometimes curtailed on campus, even though professor themselves fiercely guard their independence from the political pressure of legislators.

NINE: Universities are not, in fact, a force for income equality.

TEN: Colleges are run for the comfort of faculty and administrators rather than the benefit of students.

ELEVEN: Federal financial aid programs don’t work to promote access.

TWELVE: College sports has run amuck.

As for solutions, Vedder proposes more use of technology, more use of year-round programs, and funding students rather than programs. By the way, if you ever get a chance to hear him speak, take advantage of it. He’s far from the stereotype of the boring, inaccessible professor.

For more information

There’s much to commend higher education America, but it also needs some significant changes. Vedder’s site offers some ideas. See also the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been working with Vedder to promote some reforms.