By Scott Hibbard, DePaul University
There is an important debate going on in this country about the relative utility of a college and university education, particularly in the liberal arts. What is driving this debate is the rising costs of tuition, and questions about the perceived lack of a “payoff” for degrees in the humanities and related fields (i.e. English, History, Philosophy, Religion, Modern Languages, Art and any of the Social Sciences). While it is true that the costs of higher education have risen faster than inflation, it is also true that the costs of not getting a college degree are strikingly high. Over the course of one’s working life, people with college-level education will earn significantly more than those without (and certainly more than the price of that education). More to the point, in an era where people will switch careers several times during their working life, gaining basic analytical and writing skills are crucial to professional success, which is precisely why a liberal arts degree will serve one well.
It is important to understand the question of cost. There are three factors that have contributed to the dramatic increases in college tuition over the last four decades, none of which have to do with classroom instruction. The first, and primary reason, for rising tuition is the elimination of government subsidies. In the middle part of the twentieth century, higher education was seen as a “public good” and, consequently, state colleges and universities throughout the country received roughly two-thirds of their operating budget from state and federal governments. It should not be surprising that tuition was a fraction then of what it is today; it was subsidized by taxpayer dollars. This situation changed, however, in the 1980s and 1990s when higher education came to be seen as a “private good.” This was part of the Reagan revolution, where small government advocates argued that students should pay more for their education since they were the ones who benefitted most directly. State legislators and their congressional counterparts subsequently cut funding for higher education and replaced grants with student loans. A 2013 study by the Michigan House of Representatives noted that state support for colleges and universities now covers less than one quarter of operating budgets, and sixty to eighty percent of tuition increases over the last decade can be directly tied to cuts in state funding. As one commentator noted, by cutting taxes—and, hence, funding for higher education—the State of Michigan is “now balancing its budget on the backs of college students.”
The two other contributors to the costs of higher education are the expansion of administration and new construction. The growth in administration is particularly important in understanding the transformation of higher education today. On the one hand, students demand more—and get more—from colleges and universities than they did a generation ago. Student services for such things as learning disabilities, mental health counseling and academic and career advising have dramatically expanded. And this is a good thing. Schools now recognize that the requirements for student success transcend the classroom. The facilities available to students are also much better than they were a generation ago. However, along with this growth in services has been a dramatic expansion in the size of the administration, and this has transformed the American university system. As one study noted, “administrators and staffers actually outnumber full-time faculty members at American colleges and universities.” This is a significant shift from a generation ago when there were more professors teaching classes than administrators managing the university.
This growth in the size of administration has had a direct impact upon the cost of higher education. The various levels of upper administration—Deans, Associate Deans, Provosts, Associate Provosts, Vice Presidents, Associate Vice Presidents, Presidents, Special Assistants, etc.—all earn significantly more than any faculty member, and increasingly make up a large part of any university budget. One of the great ironies of today’s university system is that the farther away one gets from the classroom, the more one is compensated. This is epitomized by the fact that the highest-paid staff member of almost any major college or university is going to be either the football coach or the basketball coach. And those who increasingly teach most classes—the part-time or non-tenure-track faculty—are paid the least (often as little as $2,000 to $3,000 per course).
The increased cost associated with higher education has particularly affected the liberal arts. This is due, in part, to the fact that students (and their parents) increasingly take a utilitarian approach to higher education and are understandably focused on getting a “return on investment.” Especially in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, students have been rightly concerned about their future employability and gaining skills that are necessary for career success. They often wrongly believe, however, that being trained in a professional field will ensure that this is the case. Let me expand on this last point.
Most of the recent studies on the topic have concluded that what really matters is not one’s major, but one’s skills. This was the central finding of a 2013 survey of employers by Hart Research Associates. The report, published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, found that ninety-three percent of all employers believed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Training in one particular field or skill, in short, is not sufficient. What employers really want are transferable skills such as an ability to write effectively, conduct research, articulate complex ideas in a comprehensible manner, and to use evidence-based analysis to engage in problem solving. These are precisely the kind of skills one can obtain from an education in the liberal arts and social sciences.
This, then, goes to the heart of the paradox: at precisely the moment that the political leaders in the United States are debating the relative merits of liberal education, the need for individuals who can think critically and creatively is more pressing than ever. Moreover, despite popular perception, those with liberal arts degrees do exceedingly well in the professional world. This is more than just an impression, but is validated by a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. The findings of that study are echoed in a recent article in Forbes, which concluded that “The simple reality is that an average student attending a public university or a high-quality private one will earn more over their lifetime from that degree than what it cost no matter what she majors in.” Of course, not everyone should—or needs to—go to college. As a society, we still need the kind of skills that one can get in technical schools or vocational training. But the idea that a liberal arts education is a luxury or an indulgence is simply, and dangerously, wrong.