The Sacred Cows of Higher Ed

There are plenty of problems facing higher education these days. And while edited academic volumes tend to be a dime a dozen, Unprofitable Schooling: Examining Causes of, and Fixes For, America’s Broken Ivory Tower, edited by Todd J. Zywicki and Neal P. McCluskey, is a diamond in the rough and even more relevant today than when it was published in 2019. 

The essays in Unprofitable Schooling are sophisticated attempts to understand the dysfunctionality of higher education in America. None of them offers simplistic nostrums; what they do offer, however, are sharp and comprehensive public choice analyses of the grave problems facing higher education that enable us to better understand where we are and how we got here. Any directions for the future are carefully and modestly proffered. Such an approach to understanding the structure and processes of higher education is critical in the new era introduced by covid-19. Many have long noted that the higher education business model could not last and expected that over time, serious restructuring would be vital. The luxury of time, however, may have expired. We could be on the cusp of seeing just how fragile and illogical that business model is. Universities and colleges are desperate to re-open their doors to keep the amenities-laden dormitory and college sports dollars flowing. So hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on plexiglass, HEPA filters, and other life-saving apparatus. Some schools are even encouraging students to convene social gatherings . . . virtually.


There is no better time, then, for Unprofitable Schooling than the present. The collection, for the most part, is well-organized and well-edited, and if there is one theme that predominates, it is the ever-growing federal role in higher education, and the many ways that involvement has distorted any sensible working of market forces that would discipline finances and enhance quality. Consequently, even before the virus appeared, higher education found itself at a perilous pass, signified by declining academic quality, exorbitant tuition, accreditation cartels, sclerotic administrative bloat, employment problems for graduates, an odd system of job security, and a fall in the proportion of lower-income students.

Other than that, things have been looking pretty good.

The first two chapters take careful aim at a sacred cow in the history of colleges and universities, the Morrill Act:

Popular mythology has the Morrill Act and its legislative descendants such as the Higher Education Act of 1965 playing a transformative role, not only by elevating American universities to greatness but also by propelling the entire economy to unprecedented heights, thus serving in many ways as the fountain of American economic exceptionalism.

The authors explain, however, that higher education was progressing well before the Morrill Act and would have continued to evolve without it. The leading universities before and after the legislation were not beneficiaries of this government largesse, nor did they need it. The Act, moreover, was pushed by an elite of “planters and mechanics” to build their industries. What it did do, however, was to prompt the federal government to take a pivotal step down a very long road of higher education entanglement. Accordingly, the benefits of the Morrill Act are overstated.

In a succeeding chapter, another sacred cow is targeted: the G.I. Bill, enacted in the mid-20th century. For all its benefits, the G.I. Bill introduced an accountability issue since those receiving education were no longer paying for it. This dysfunction has been widely recognized but never remedied, and the problem has only become exacerbated over time with each government imposition between those who supply and those who demand: “Once such a higher percentage of college students were no longer paying the direct cost of education, consumer discipline could no longer be counted on to push schools toward cost minimization and quality.”

Once the normal accountability system that exists in the marketplace was broken, the federal government “fixed” the problem by making accreditors the gatekeepers to federal funding.

The shift of power from faculty to administrators took a quantum leap in the financial crisis of 2008-09 as administrators exercised “emergency powers,” essentially re-defining their jobs.

Accreditation, though, provides little useful information because “both high- and low-quality schools receive the same accreditation” and this accreditation “focuses on inputs, not outputs.” Consequently, the accrediting entities “only weakly measure quality.” The contemporary accreditation scheme improperly “restricts entry into the higher education marketplace” and involves numerous “conflicts of interest.”

Chapter Four has to do with the “Runaway Tuition Phenomenon.” This chapter examines the leading explanations for the crisis of student debt and concludes that the most obvious and logical culprit is government subsidies. This perverse process has been long noted by many: Congress raises student borrowing limits to demonstrate their commitment to education. Once legislation is approved, universities raise tuition. Students borrow more money and become financially distressed. Congress raises borrowing limits to demonstrate their commitment to education.

And so it goes.

The individual and social consequences multiply: “Family formation and homeownership may be postponed. And there are increasing doubts, of a kind not much heard in the past, whether the product—a college, graduate school, or professional education—is ultimately worth it.”

In keeping with other chapters, the discussion of “Academic Tenure and Governance” provides an insightful historical review and then assesses the various justifications for its existence and continuance. The author concludes that the only plausible explanation is that tenure allows “schools to save on labor costs.” This argument is complemented in a later chapter “All Education is For-Profit Education.” There the author argues that the theoretical gap between non-profit and for-profit is not so wide as imagined. Tenure, low teaching loads, long breaks, travel, and weeks-long summer breaks are all, in a sense, “profits.”

A later chapter also deals with governance, or as the author calls it, the “Senseless Monstrosity” of the “outmoded and dysfunctional” system of academic management. But in doing so, the author concedes that a return to faculty governance, as opposed to administrative governance, will bring its own set of problems. To be sure, sages as diverse as Adam Smith in the 18th century and economist Thomas Sowell in the 20th have both assailed the idea of letting faculty run their own schools. In the view of some, the shift of power from faculty to administrators took a quantum leap in the financial crisis of 2008-09 as administrators exercised “emergency powers,” seizing more authority, and essentially re-defining their jobs.

Never let a crisis go to waste.

This chapter anticipates the next, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat.” The two authors write cogently that “the most persuasive explanation for the growth of administrative bloat” has been “the self-interested tendency of bureaucrats to consciously or unconsciously pursue an agenda to increase the range of their responsibilities and, hence, to increase the size of their office’s budgets and staff.” This chapter offers Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg’s keen observation that the university is besieged by “armies of functionaries—the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants.” The authors add that sometimes the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at leading U.S. universities is higher than the number of full-time instructors per 100 students; that trend is unlikely to abate.

The (curiously short) antepenultimate and penultimate chapters examine for-profit universities, noting both their failings and their promise—and the differing constituencies that they serve. These chapters concede that, given human nature, for-profit education is by no means a panacea for what ails us. The volume ends on an anticlimactic note: The last chapter consists of a comparison of nonprofit and for-profit health care, after which the reader expects meaningful implications for higher education—but the argument for relevance seems half-hearted.

As many universities cope with the economic and social shockwaves of Covid-19, many of these questions—the necessity of college attendance, ballooning tuition, and even tenure—will become more pronounced after simmering beneath the surface for decades. As noted, the most important contribution of Unprofitable Schooling is the use of public choice analysis to explain the problems of the university, and to demonstrate (usually persuasively) why we are at this troubling juncture. At least one of the authors notes that all of these structural and procedural deficiencies have allowed an ideological malignance to grow so that, as Flannery O’Connor once noted, “The demon of educationism that now afflicts us will only be cast out with prayer and fasting.” What that “prayer and fasting” might be is hard to predict, but one suspects that if it is to succeed, it must be of seismic proportions. The shifting of the tectonic plates, moreover, may very well be precipitated by market forces. And what better way to stress test higher education architecture than a pandemic?

To prepare for these geological-like events, all those who care about higher education would do well to keep Unprofitable Schooling on their shelf.