The Cost of Compromise

by Charles Clark | 11/22/10 11:00pm

In a recent article in The New York Times, Stanley Fish reviews a new study of the higher education industry by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman. In their book, "Why Does College Cost So Much?" (2010). Archibald and Feldman argue that while it's true tuition has risen faster than inflation for decades, this increase is not the product of poor management within colleges but rather of external pressures. Fish acquits the usual suspects administrative bloat and resultant Soviet efficiency remarking that while serving as a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago he "encountered the rising costs of personnel, laboratory equipment, security, compliance demands, information systems and much more every day." The three authors are united in blaming the increased cost of doing business, especially "change in the sophistication and cost of technology," for skyrocketing tuition. They contend that colleges would be criminally negligent to "hold out for pencil, paper and blackboard instruction," so they have no choice but to burden students with the cost of keeping up to date.

Many programs in the traditional liberal arts curriculum, however, are not bound to the external pressures of technology and sophistication that are supposedly driving up tuition. Pencil, paper and blackboard go a long way when it comes to teaching most humanities subjects and a fair number of the social sciences. Philosophy, economics, history and mathematics are equally largely unaffected by "the cost of replacing worn-out equipment, the cost of replacing equipment declared obsolete after three years, the cost of buying equipment that didn't exist 18 months ago." If Fish, Archibald and Feldman are correct, then it is largely the demands of operating advanced teaching and research facilities for the hard sciences that are driving up costs. In other words, programs that require extensive laboratories and heavily utilize technology in the classroom, such as engineering, biology, chemistry and computer science, are responsible for a disproportionate share of the increase in tuition.

This disparity comes into focus in the discussion surrounding the so-called "higher education bubble." Some commentators, notably Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee, have suggested that the availability of cheap, government-subsidized academic credit from public universities has artificially inflated the demand for post-secondary education. Reynolds also points out that although a college degree may be, in the words of Archibald and Feldman, "an essential entry ticket to the modern economy," its economic value is largely symbolic; many graduates are more concerned about earning credentials than learning skills. But selling an intangible product at an ever-increasing price may prove an unsustainable business model.

The Great Recession was marked by a reduced demand for student loans, an indication that the market for higher education is not unassailable. According to Reynolds, this softening of the market is a foretaste of what will happen when consumers slowly become aware that a college degree may not provide sufficient economic value to justify the purchase: The market will experience a drastic correction and overexposed institutions will be in danger of collapse. Then, students will likely seek economically empowering courses of study, like "computer programming, nursing or engineering."

If Fish and Reynolds are right, then it follows that the research-focused, technology-dependant practical disciplines are pushing the humanities out of the education market by driving up costs. While there may be no "college cost crisis," tuition hikes will tend to drive students into disciplines that justify the cost of attendance with post-graduation earnings. There comes a point when a degree in theater is just not worth another 4 to 6-percent hike in tuition to pay for new laboratory equipment. The implications for Dartmouth's attempt to straddle the fence between liberal arts college and research university are dire. While the College intends to embody both in its educational philosophy, as long as the cost of attendance continues to rise in excess of inflation, the economics of the situation will increasingly favor the practical disciplines. In the long run, Dartmouth, and the rest of the Ivy League, runs the risk of becoming a glorified vocational school with an ever more homogenous alumni base of lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers. The cost of compromise is always high.