This time it's the Economist's turn, repeating the old saw -- heard so often in recent months -- that American higher education "may go the way of GM." (Where have we heard exactly the same comparison before?)
What is "Schumpeter"'s reason for thinking that, "If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with cost-cutting and painful reorganizations," in the words of a passage from US News & World Report that the author quotes approvingly?
- Increasing costs - particularly at the Ivies and other elite institutions - to pay for such nonessentials as "academic reputation ... and bling (luxurious dormitories and fancy sports stadiums) rather than value for money."
- Increasing emphasis on research rather than on teaching, as exemplified by the fact "that senior professors in Ivy League universities now get sabbaticals every third year."
- Administrative bloat.
All of this, says "Schumpeter" -- and performance is sinking:
- Only 40% of students graduate in four years.
- "The Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepeneurship, argues that the productivity of federal funding for R&D, in terms of patents and licenses, has been falling for some years."
I love the Economist, but in this case "Schumpeter" guilty of playing fast and loose with the data.
How, you may ask?
- We've dealt with some of these issues before -- for example, how the examples of profligacy and emphasis on research productivity are hardly representative of the range of colleges and universities in the US. This criticism still holds.
- Furthermore, when "Schumpeter" cites profligacy and coddling of professors, examples are taken from the crème de la crème; when the stat that only 40% of students graduate is cited, this is an average across all degree-granting institutions. Honesty would require that "Schumpeter" compare apples to apples. Those expensive schools at which professors spend so much time researching? Their graduation rates are closer to 90%. Perhaps you get what you pay for.
- As for the Kauffman study on scientific and technological productivity in higher ed, if "Schumpeter" had taken the time to consult Kauffman's own blog, it would have become clear that the problem is less one of research productivity than of commercialization and licensing of those research products.
What are we left with? There remains the problem of (a) spending wars on lavish dorms and facilities and (b) administrative bloat.
Neither of these problems, however, are the result of the Academy's self-image as an isolated cloud-cuckoo land. The former problem, those spending wars for lavish facilities to attract students, is simply a function of the market for attracting the interest -- and money -- of students and their parents. Surely the Economist likes markets.
And the latter problem, that of administrative bloat, of university presidents "conduct[ing] themselves like corporate titans, with salaries, perks, and entourages to match"?
I'd suggest it's too many university senior administrators acting as if, in the words of that US News quote, "colleges were businesses."