Modern Universities Are An Exercise in Insanity

Chronicle Review Illustration by Scott Seymour (Source)

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, wrote a true but trollish column for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. He titled the piece “Higher Education is Drowning in BS.”

His list of collegiate “BS” is correct. It’s also predictable. One does not need to read the article to know exactly what it will argue. This is 2018. We have not only seen dozens of articles and journalistic accounts of the crisis Smith describes; entire books have been published to chronicle the sins of modern university life. The university system still has its defenders, but they are few and far between. Most folks who look at the state of American universities recognize that the system is broken. Few offer ideas on how to fix it. This conversation would improve greatly if less folks wrote long lists of their complaints about universities and more folks wrote long lists of ideas on how to improve them.

Smith says that  reform will require “visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism.” I agree with the sentiment. In that vein, let me offer a truly radical solution: take universities out of the liberal arts business all together. 

Let me be clear here:  I believe the humanities are essential. Essential to our civilization, even. No objections from me: the liberal arts are important. But not important enough to sell yourself into debt-slavery for. The liberal arts cannot be “saved.”  This “crisis of the humanities” cannot be resolved-or not as long as the cost of studying them requires mortgaging your future away. This is the issue all the other problems with humanities education revolves around. For most students, the gains of a liberal education cannot justify their costs. 

The cruel thing is these costs are not even necessary. 

Let’s run the numbers so you can see what I mean. 

My alma mater was Brigham Young University-Hawaii. If you are a member of the LDS church attending the school, then in 2017 your tuition was $3,000 a semester. If you are not a member, it was $5,000 for one semester. The school has a special program where you can graduate in three years by taking three semesters each year, and that costs $8,000 and $16,000 a year for LDS and non-member students respectively.

You can see why I chose it.

To compare to another small private religious university, here is what tuition cost for students at St. Aquinas College for the two semesters they studied there in 2017: $29,000.

St. Aquinas brags that their studentsobtain a private college education at an affordable price.” Their costs are comparable to the evangelical Patrick Henry College, where tuition comes in at $28,000 for two semesters. This is much cheaper than religiously named, but no longer spiritually visioned, Trinity College. Tuition there is $53,000 a year.

Do the math here:

48,000 dollars are needed for non-members to graduate from BYU Hawaii ($24,000 for a member), $114,000 are needed to graduate from the cost-conscious religious schools, and $212,000 dollars are necessary to attend four years at the non-religious liberal arts school.

This is without including rent, food, or other charges of that sort.

There are a few questions that come to me as I review these numbers.

First, how is this possible? How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.

The average tenure hopeful adjunct makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that’s the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the ‘cost conscious’ universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let’s say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1,000-$2,000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about $17,000 to $18,000 for four years.

Modern universities are insane.

For the vast majority of human history universities as we conceive of them did not exist. The modern university system did not produce the Mahabharata, The Aeneid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquinas, or Alexis de Tocqueville. The universities John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison attended looked or functioned very little like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton do today. Men like Abraham Lincoln are evidence that a deep reading and appreciation for the liberal arts do not require formal education at all. 

Let’s not kid ourselves: the humanities existed before the modern university department was conceived; they will exist long after the modern university department has been destroyed. 

I would like to see something along the lines of a “liberal education” preserved. But do the math. The important elements—the students, the books, the teachers—can be provided for at under $20,000 a year, and that is with paying the teachers $20 more an hour than they are currently earning. Any attempt to reform the current university system must take this fact as its foundation. 

I know where the objections to this logic will come. University education is really about signaling; universities provide lots of other goods you cannot get from being privately tutored, and so on and so forth. Fine. Those objections are all correct. But are any of those goods worth $180,000 more than the $18,000 education I have outlined above? 

A liberal education could be affordable, if we wanted it to be.  But we don’t much care, and are now reaping the consequences.

[EDIT 15 January 2018: Fixed a few grammar mistakes and a minor mathematical error].

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The basic point is sound but I am not sure of your math assumptions. You write that a tenure track professor gets around $40/hr but I don't know if you mean for in-classroom teaching or for the whole bundle of teaching, research and service. And, if the latter, what assumptions you are making about total hours worked.

But let's just focus on the face to face teaching since that is the only aspect of being a professor you are focusing on here–i.e., that you could be a teacher teaching a course or, alternatively, you could be a tutor teaching a course.

Seems to me that at $40/hr a teacher would get less than $2000 to teach a course ($40*3 hours a week*15 weeks). That is less than what most adjuncts get. If you move the $40 up to $60, as you do when you assume a tutor, that brings the comp for the course up to a little under $3000–and here you get in range of what a typical adjunct may receive.

That does not make your idea infeasible. The world has too many people with doctorates looking to teach, and so if a college can attract an adjunct for about $60/hr. your proposed approach has a decent shot at finding qualified teachers to act as tutors.

But then what are you really saying? I don't think you are saying you can attract tutors with the comp associated with tenure track faculty. I think you are saying that since adjuncts–actually qualified adjuncts–are really cheap you can hire them as tutors. I don't think that is the same thing as hiring a tenure track professor from a cost point of view. Of course it may work just fine–but if it does it will be because we are in a seller's market for teaching talent.

You are correct modern universities are insane if their goal is to provide an education, be it a liberal arts program, tech school, or vocational one.

But if the purpose of the modern university is for parents to find suitable mates for their daughters so that their grandchildren will be raised by their biological fathers in a healthy and stable home, then a $200,000 dowry may be an acceptable price.

We've long since past the time of the university creating learned men and women. Now it's about assortative mating.

It sounds like you would like to recreate the Oxford tutorial system. British students get small-group sessions with an academic expert for less than $40000 over three years. International students pay a lot more, though.


My model seperates teaching from researching. I see no reason for them to be linked.

Ideally the tutor would be teaching more than one course at a time–just to different groups of students.

Economically I know it can work because I do something very similar myself here in China. In the beginning it is tough because you are putting more hours of work in than you getting paid for. But once you have created the materials you use to teach the time costs drop to only those required for networking and marketing.

"But then what are you really saying?"

I do not know how seriously I take this program as a replacement for a university. Obviously some other overhead costs would be required–some sort of uber like service to connect teachers and students, perhaps some sort of communal database account, and so forth. But by imagining what the system looks like stripped of everything but its barest features–students, books, and teachers–we see the glaring gap between what a university could cost and what it presently does. This is a place to begin our conversations.

Let us imagine a classroom. Class A office space averages around $23 per square foot. Let us stipulate a classroom size of 600 square feet. (This was the size of a small home where I grew up.) That gives a monthly rental rate of $13,800. Over a year, that gives a total rent of $165,600.

Now add in five instructors, each earning $80,000 per year. That alone is $400,000. Let us round these numbers up to $600,000 per year, to include a modestly paid secretary.

If this imaginary university teaches a mere 30 students, each student would pay $20,000 per year for tuition.

Now, if we were to be slightly more efficient, and require each instructor to teach two separate classes per week (totaling 6 hours), then the cost per student drops to $10,000 per year.

Let us double the rented space, and operate two classrooms. Have each instructor teach four separate classes of students per week – 12 hours of labor on their part. $800,000 (including a second secretary) in costs divided among 120 students amounts to $6667 per student, per year. So the cost of a four year education at our university (not including books) would amount to $26,668. Round that up to $30,000 to include educational books that are not marked up 1000% in university stores. Add in a two bedroom apartment for every four people ($3,750 per year each) and food ($3,250 per year each) and you have a four year total for tuition, room and board of $58,000. Add in an accounting service for another couple thousand dollars.

So for $15,000 per year, you can have a college education. Or that's would it would cost, in a sane world.

If you look up mandatory and discretionary federal spending, only a small fraction goes towards education (as opposed to the vast chunks allocated to military, healthcare, and social security). We could easily afford to subsidize higher education and bring tuition down to a reasonable amount. But we most likely won't do this because of serious, long-term flaws in the government and the college industry.

You know that it doesn't have to be this way right? I did my Bachelor of Science at the University of Victoria in Canada graduating in 2013: total fees per year were about $7,000 CANADIAN (Maybe 5k US). Right now I'm doing my medical degree and total price for the four years including cost of living in Vancouver (one of the most expensive cities in Canada) is looking to be around 150k (120k US).

The quickest way to reduce costs of higher education is to do away completely with Federal, or any government backed student loan programs. The educational institutions would have to reduce prices immediately. Nobody could pay $200,000 + of their own money for a degree in English or theater design. No private party would lend that much for such a degree. Now a student can get a loan for anything and the system is such that nobody perceives they are spending their own money so there is no resistance to price gouging. The system as it exists now is a wonderful mechanism for transferring billions of dollars from kids who don't know any better to educrats who do but use their verbal virtuosity to mask their malignity, all backed, in the end by the taxpayer. Wishful thinking, I know. And it probably won't happen short of a depression but eventually it will happen.

This idea works in music. There are just standard exams that people sit. (That the exams are dopey and narrow is another question.)

The article misses an important point. Most folks today receive some form of financial aid.

In light of this, one can view the grossly inflated sticker price that many universities charge as a "sucker price" of sorts that serves no higher purpose than to help implement academia's utopian dream for massive wealth redistribution throughout the country.

Best education can be found today from a combination of google search, youtube videos, libgen for books, and sci-hub for research journal articles.

Price: it's all free!

(Some say that youtube lectures can't offer the same "credential" that say a Harvard education provides. Realize, however, that many companies today have moved to so-called "technical interviews" precisely because this credential has become so meaningless in the current era of race and gender-based admissions, the watering down of STEM curriculum to boost self-esteem of traditionally under-represented minorities, and the thinly-veiled political agendas of a radical left faculty masquerading as serious academic scholarship.)

Nice post.

As a point of comparison for the model that you suggest, consider home schooling for K-12. My wife home schooled our kids for several years using the Calvert School program – essentially an accredited home-school curriculum in a box. In 2-3 hours per day, my wife (a scientist by training who stayed home to school the kids) provided an educational experience that was substantially more advanced than the local public school curriculum. When my kids transitioned to public school, they had several wasted years while the curriculum caught up to what they had already learned. But my analysis of the value of home schooling assumes that the purpose of a school is to educate the students vs provide a social experience and structured "daycare".

I work at a highly ranked public university. In my view, students attend a competitive university for the overall experience that combines a structured learning environment, social interactions that assist with maturing towards independence from their parents, and a combination of in-class and out-of-class experiences that provide a foundation for the initial phase of their careers. Any alternative approach to education needs to account for the non-classroom needs of the students.