Why Universities Are Failing

Going to a private university is increasingly like buying a BMW every year and driving it off a cliff.

“For some families, sending a child to a private university now is like buying a BMW every year—and driving it off a cliff.” So writes Charles Sykes, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, in the introductory chapter to his new book, Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education. The BMW in his example not only serves as a useful metaphor for the cost of putting a student through a year of college, but for the collective sanity of American higher education. Indeed, the antics of the ivory tower denizens detailed in Sykes’ book often seem about as sensible as driving one’s newly-purchased luxury vehicle over a cliff.

Just 44% of faculty spend nine hours or more per week teaching, down from 63% twenty years ago.

Academia has become a bubble ready to burst, as Sykes’ thesis goes. Populating its ranks are professors who teach fewer students and publish more unread research, administrators who undertake expensive vanity projects, and students who obsess endlessly over trigger warnings, microaggressions, and other unwieldy portmanteaus. All of it is subsidized by the taxpayer with little regard for value or cost.

Less Teaching, More Administrative Costs

Particularly alarming are the chapters on college professors’ flight from teaching. Not only do professors frequently contrive to lower their teaching loads, but administrators and academic departments encourage them. Just 44% of faculty spend nine hours or more per week teaching, down from 63% twenty years ago. Teaching assistants or poorly-paid adjuncts replace the absentees in the classroom; the professors themselves have cranked up the volume of their research output. However, up to half of published articles are never read by anyone (save editors, and sometimes not even then), and up to 90% never receive a single citation.

Compensating for the lack of teachers in the classroom, at least, is the ever-increasing amount of resources devoted to nonacademic expenses. Shiny new dorms, state-of-the-art gyms, and expensive athletic programs have popped up on campuses nationwide.

One student in a level 3 Swahili course was not able to say the word “hello” in Swahili.

Sykes brings attention to what he terms the “law of more,” which is referred to by economists as the “revenue theory of costs.” Essentially, institutions of higher education are economically unique in that they have no good way to measure unit costs, and can theoretically spend limitless amounts of money in the name of providing an education. Give a college access to more money, and it will find a way to spend it. Governments that subsidize higher education have not yet caught on to the if-you-give-a-mouse-a-cookie economics of college campuses, and so the bloat continues.

Scandals and Political Correctness

Guaranteed to make your blood boil is the chapter concerning the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill “fake classes” scandal. The school’s African-American Studies department allowed students to enroll in “classes” which they were not in fact required to attend. One student in a level 3 Swahili course was not able to say the word “hello” in Swahili. Yet students were virtually guaranteed As and Bs regardless. Lest UNC-Chapel Hill be considered an isolated incident, Sykes cites evidence of comparable (albeit less extreme) scenarios occurring at Duke, Stanford, and beyond.

Low-cost, easily-accessible MOOCs have the potential to give the college establishment a run for its money.

Readers will alternately laugh and cry between Sykes’ descriptions of the politically correct “trigger warning” culture on many college campuses and the startling zeal with which administrators and federal regulators enforce the new normal. One anecdote describes a tenured professor at Marquette who was threatened with termination for defending a student’s right to oppose same-sex marriage in the classroom. A professor at Northwestern faced a Title IX inquisition for…writing a column critiquing Title IX.

Competition From MOOCs

Sykes places his hope for the future of higher education in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or, as he calls them, “Netflix U.” “Almost no institution in the modern world has proven to be more impervious to reform than the modern university,” he writes, but low-cost, easily-accessible MOOCs have the potential to give the college establishment a run for its money.

These concluding chapters are where Sykes could have laid out a more detailed roadmap for higher education in the future. MOOCs will certainly have their place, but I doubt they will ever replace all or even most of the current college system. Other innovations will—and should—complement the MOOC. Sykes alludes to ideas such as a three-year bachelor’s degree, but misses some opportunities to lay out a positive agenda for change in higher education.

Fail U. is a startling rebuke to the higher education status quo. While many will not agree with all his conclusions, the evidence Sykes lays out should make every college administrator, professor, student, and trustee stop and think about what they can do to improve their schools. Higher education cannot ignore its problems forever—similar to the rest of the economy, it too must innovate, or fail.

A version of this article was first published by Economics21.

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