The Wrong Simile?

Ever since the crash of 2008, commentators have been warning of a coming crash in higher education. They – I among them – have seen out-of-control student debt, rising tuition, administrative bloat, lack of academic rigor, low graduation rates  – all the well-known flaws of higher education – as forming a bubble that eventually must burst, as the housing market did. Add to those the disruptive alternatives to college such as coding schools, free or low-cost online education, gap years, and a massive overturning of traditional schools seems inevitable. Charles Sykes, in his new book, Fail U., suggests the same.

But it hasn’t happened yet, and many think it won’t. As my colleague Jesse Saffron wrote, “Regarding the question of whether mainstream higher education is facing an existential crisis, the facts suggest that the answer, at least for the foreseeable future, is ‘no.’”

Why hasn’t the crash occurred? A colleague, David Clemens, gave me a clue when he said, “If my college were really a business, it would be out of business it’s so poorly run.”

Perhaps we have made a mistake by looking at universities as units operating in a traditional marketplace.

Instead, let’s compare the university scene to a large, highly respected, and powerful system that transcended the mundane world of the marketplace – the medieval Catholic Church. (This example, like the housing bubble, is not original with me; I’m just taking it more seriously now.) The Catholic Church was not a market-based phenomenon; it was a complex arrangement of forces—economic, social, moral, political, and, of course, religious—that had enormous control over the people of Christendom.

The Church was a universal (that is, across-Europe) institution, marked by solemn ceremonies in black robes and regalia; formal hierarchies (bishops, priests, monks, friars); promise of life in the hereafter; inquisitions to stamp out heresy; charitable hospitals; its own recondite language; and enormous wealth provided by proprietorship of vast expanses of land and by tithing by the masses.

Most of these aspects have counterparts in the university today. The robed rituals, the hierarchy of titles, the pressure against free speech, the medical facilities, the intellectual idiom, and the wealth – all are visible today in our colleges and universities. While universities don’t offer promises of the hereafter, they offer more immediate promises — material wealth in the near future. And today’s taxpayer must pay a tithe or more; in some states, 10 percent of the state budget goes to higher education, and the majority of schools are tax-exempt.

What knits these forces together into a remarkably stable system lasting hundreds of years? In my view, it was faith that gave the Catholic Church its power, and it is blind faith in the promises – from good jobs to economic growth — that gives higher education its power today.

And so far, that makes it pretty stable.

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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