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, 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 students "obtain 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 Aneaid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquineas, 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].