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Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword?

Books criticizing higher education are not new, but recently both the number of them and the intensity of criticism has been increasing, and a large portion of them are “inside jobs,” written by people who are intimately involved on a regular basis with the academy and the world of ideas.

Consider Jackson Toby’s The Lowering of Higher Education in America, or Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education: How Colleges are Wasting our Money and Failing Our Kids, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, or Craig Brandon’s The Five Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It. All have been written in the last year or so, and this list is not exhaustive.

More are coming: I cannot wait to read Naomi Riley’s The Faculty Lounges…And Other Reasons That You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield. Moreover, other books are scathing about specific areas of the academy, notably intercollegiate athletics, with Kenneth Armstrong and Nick Perry’s Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity, or Mark Yost’s Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics, being but two good examples (I am indebted to the extraordinary Frank Splitt for bringing some of these works to my attention).

All of these books have come out, roughly, within a year. Two have provocative words like “crime” or corruption” in their titles,  yet the authors are by and large a group of rather respected persons, one a distinguished English scholar at a major research university, for example; at least two of the books were published by university presses, including Stanford.

I don’t know if writings like this are a leading indicator of a forthcoming firestorm of public protest about higher education, but it is not a good sign. Economists like myself think at the margin. In this context, the storm of protest will manifest itself in real action only when the marginal benefits of complaining become so great that they exceed the marginal costs of engaging in protests.

Usually the “sword” of university political power is manifested in lobbying of politicians, who are almost all university graduates. That is enough typically to neutralize public anger. But some things have changed. Politicians saw in the last election that the people do not like to be ignored, and voters are restless. Also, budget reduction is a major activity at all governmental levels, and the governmental power of the purse over higher education is huge.

To be sure,  I don’t think, for example, that we will clean up college sports overnight, or get the transparency and other things we need for better accountability real soon. But pressures are building that may become too large for the Dupont Circle crowd to overcome. But most important, more and more people are thinking college is a rip-off, a criticism seldom uttered in the past. Compounding the problem for colleges is a growing concern that a diploma is no longer a guaranteed ticket for entry into comfortable middle-class adulthood. We have some occupations where we have roughly as many workers with less than a high-school diploma doing the same thing as college graduates.

If news accounts are any indication of reality, even many of the more thoughtful leaders of the Higher Education Establishment are admitting the forces supporting big change are mounting. The exact contours of the changes are unknown, nor is the timing, but the “sword” of higher education lobbying may lose some of its clout fairly soon.

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