times of economic slowdown, prices usually fall. Is your home worth
as much as it was two years ago? As much as the mortgage you have
on it? (For your sake, I hope so.) In major cities rents are falling,
and shoppers are skipping organic groceries in favor of mongo-sized
discount produce from Price Club. There’s just one sector of
the economy that’s bizarrely insulated from reality: Academia.
room and board at Sarah Lawrence College just hit $53,166 per year.
That’s like buying a C-Class Mercedes every year … except
you never get the car. Other colleges are comparable, with even
state school tuition rising to levels some parents find impossible.
Why hasn’t reality had its revenge?
There are good
reasons why we try to preserve college life from the logic of the
market. There’s no clear bottom-line benefit to teaching Shakespeare
plays, but we still want professors doing it. Universities in the
West were invented by monks in the Middle Ages, and at their best
they still serve as a cloistered refuge from the grim necessities
of life – offering students not just a degree that’s valued
in the marketplace, but a chance to broaden their interests and
deepen their souls, to gain a solid grounding in the fundamentals
that made our civilization, and explore all life’s possibilities
before settling down to a life of working to earn their bread.
the theory. But what if universities began to neglect this basic
charge, and instead turned into featherbedding, unionized factories
that existed to protect their overpaid workers – who were impossible
to fire? What if these factories botched the items customers paid
for, and spent their energy generating oddball inventions no one
That is exactly
what happened in academia over the past 30 years, according to Emory
University professor Mark Bauerlain, who explores the open, ugly
secret that most professors are paid based not on the quality (or
even quantity) of their teaching, but rather on the volume of scholarly
articles and books they can produce.
American Enterprise Institute paper, “Professors on the Production
Line, Students On Their Own,” reveals the following: Laboring
on the age-old axiom “publish-or-perish,” thousands of
professors, lecturers and graduate students are busy producing dissertations,
books, essays and reviews. Over the past five decades, their collective
productivity has risen from 13,000 to 72,000 publications per year.
But the audience for language and literature scholarship has diminished,
with unit sales for books now hovering around 300.
At the same
time, the degree of interaction between teachers and students has
declined. While 43 percent of two-year public college students and
29 percent of four-year public college students require remedial
course work, costing $2 billion annually, one national survey reports
that 37 percent of first-year arts/humanities students “never”
discuss course readings with teachers outside of class, and 41 percent
only do so “sometimes.”
Zmirak is editor-in-chief of Choosing
the Right College and Collegeguide.org.
He is author of Wilhelm
Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently
on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.