Is American Higher Education on the Verge of Collapse?

William Stuntz argues that Harvard’s pushing Larry Summers out the door signals the decline of higher education. Noting that seemingly lofty institutions quickly fall from their own arrogance and inefficiency, Stuntz contends,

Harvard is the General Motors of American universities: rich, bureaucratic, and confident–a deadly combination. Fifty years from now, Larry Summers’s resignation will be known as the moment when Harvard embraced GM’s fate. From now on, the decline will likely be steep. And not only at Harvard: Among research universities as in the car market of generations past, other American institutions will follow the market leaders, straight to the bottom. The only question is who gets to play the role of Toyota in this metaphor

He anticipates the obvious response:

To a casual observer of the university world today, that picture likely seems too pessimistic. American universities are the best in the world, probably by a large margin. The best scholars and researchers in the world are drawn to America’s shores to work in America’s libraries and labs. Students, parents, and alumni seem willing to pay whatever they are asked; the gravy train shows no sign of slowing down, much less stopping.

Regardless, he believes a fast decline is afoot because costs are exploding without a commensurate increase in productivity.

There is little reason to believe that undergrads and graduate students are better educated today than a generation ago. More likely the opposite. Teaching loads of senior professors have declined; probably teaching quality has declined with it. The culture of research universities has grown ever more contemptuous of students, especially undergraduates, who are seen as an interruption of one’s real work rather than the reason for the enterprise. Which means that, year by year, students and their parents pay more for less. That isn’t a sustainable business plan.

This observation is sadly true for the big research institutions. Professors at those schools are rewarded for producing good publications and securing grant money, not teaching. And to the extent “teaching” is measured at all, it is in the form of student evaluations which reward professors who are easy and entertaining more than those who push students.

If undergraduate education is too often an afterthought, graduate education is too often a con game. A sizeable percentage of PhDs will never get tenure-track teaching jobs, which are the only jobs for which their education trains them. Since no jobs await them, they hang around longer getting their degrees, all the while teaching classes and doing research for their academic sponsors. It’s a great deal–for the sponsors. For the grad students, it’s akin to buying a daily lottery ticket as a retirement plan. The grad students keep coming, but eventually that well will dry up; the quality of the talent pool will decline. No system that depends on systematic irrationality can long survive, much less succeed.

The fact that there are too many PhDs chasing too many tenure track jobs is hardly a secret. That the supply of PhD seekers has not dried up accordingly is an indication that those people are economically irrational, a sign that they find value in having a PhD beyond the landing of a tenure track job, or perhaps both. Many of us find rewarding lives outside the academy and manage to put our training to use elsewhere.

The problems go beyond education to the production of knowledge itself. Universities compartmentalize knowledge, chopping it up into ever more and smaller pieces. I teach and write about American criminal justice. Scholarship on crime and criminal justice is divided among a half-dozen different schools and departments: law, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, and public health. Scholars in each of those areas know next to nothing about scholarship in all the others. (I’m no better than anyone else on this score.) No wonder our work is ignored by policymakers; each of us can elaborately describe his own piece of the elephant but none sees the beast whole. One could tell the same story with respect to dozens of other fields of study.

Hyperspecialization may indeed be a problem, since scholars may be producing work read only by a handful of their own peers. On the other hand, such specialization exists because the supply of knowledge continues to grow geometrically and is outside the ability of a single individual to be an expert across the breadth of the subject matter.

There are, however, scholars whose work aggregates the findings across disciplines. Their expertise may be a mile wide and an inch deep, but they can glean enough insights to pass on useful information to those seeking to formulate public policy. Indeed, many of the people who do that are PhDs who do not have tenure track academic jobs but instead work for think tanks, public policy groups, congressional staffs, the Congressional Research Service, or other policy oriented concerns.

The fact that policymakers read secondary and tertiary work rather than the specialized materials produced by scholars at the big schools is not necessarily an indication that that work is unimportant, any more than the fact that work in “pure science” is often translated into technology by different people. There is simply a symbiotic nature to the flow of information.

Overspecialization breeds self-indulgent scholasticism. Too many scholars write for an audience of dozens (if that–a good friend of mine says he writes for six people), and far too few write for thousands, fewer still for millions. In a bygone era, the best intellectuals wrote for educated people generally, not for a handful of specialists. American universities are chock full of brilliant minds that keep their brilliance locked up in a closet, talking only to people in their small corner of the intellectual world.

Many academics are also public intellectuals. But public intellectuals, by necessity, tend to spend most of their time talking about things well beyond their genuine expertise. There’s a trade-off there.

Regardless, I suspect that the number of academic public intellectuals is at an all time high, thanks to the blogosphere. The number of prominent bloggers who are also professors or holders of advanced degrees is staggering. Indeed, as impressive as the credentials of Glenn Reynolds, Eugene Volokh, Dan Drezner, Juan Cole, and many others are, they simply would not have had anywhere near the audience a decade ago as they do now. And that is infinitely more true of people like Cori Dauber, Steven Taylor, and myself who are either at less prominent institutions or outside the academy altogether.

Are there many problems with American higher education? Sure. But there’s a lot of good, too.

As much fun as it is to make fun of Harvard and Yale, they remain an amazing collection of talent. They’re not great places to be, though, for those who need a lot of personal attention from senior professors as freshmen. But there are plenty of liberal arts schools and solid regional universities who provide that. Indeed, the menu of choices is ridiculously abundant.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve says:

    At what point do schools like Harvard et al price themselves out of the market?

    Does a rational person believe that a liberal arts degree from an Ivy is “worth” paying $35K per year? Are they willing to borrow over $100K for the alleged “benefit” they get from being a graduate of a “top tier” school?

    I’m all for letting the customers buy what they want. And I also think private schools should charge whatever they can get away with.

    What I don’t like is taxpayers subsidizing college loans.

  2. DC Loser says:

    The Ivy League price certainly is worth it for the “old boy” network of its alumni organization. For those with ambition, it’s a small price to pay for access to the political and business elite.

  3. just me says:

    I don’t know that specialization is that huge an issue for the students (although it may be for the teachers).

    I have a BS and MS in criminal justice. And my degree requirements also required classes in sociology, psychology, politcal science and social work. I also minored in sociology. But as a student, I got information regarding my degree from multiple disciplines, not to mention the proffessors in my degree came from diverse backgrounds within the field (all of my profs in the main subject area had actually worked in some aspect of criminal justice before teaching, so they brought real life experience to the classroom-something I think is better than those who get degrees and start teaching).

  4. DC Loser says:

    Time to eleminate the Dept of Education and return to home edication

    You couldn’t make up stuff better than this.