The latest student demand at several colleges would require professors to affix warning labels — “Trigger Warnings” — to works of literature on assigned reading lists so that unsuspecting readers can avoid being offended by the content.
The idea of trigger warnings prompted a lot of commentary. As extensive and often thoughtful as it was, though, there is one dimension of the issue that was omitted: the whereabouts of these students prior to showing up in a college class and demanding change. Where have they been?
Not too long ago, a student who arrived at an accredited college or university and had no idea of what “The Merchant of Venice,” “The Great Gatsby,” or “Huckleberry Finn” were about, for example, would have been embarrassed or ashamed to admit it. Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and Twain were part of American culture. A general idea of their content, even if the books were not always read, fit into a cultural category best described by the common expression, “Everybody knows that.”
Foreign students here can be excused for not being familiar with “Huckleberry Finn,” perhaps, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to their being traumatized if they read it or “The Great Gatsby” without being forearmed by a trigger warning.
Higher education has changed, certainly, and its inability to apply common sense to reading lists or to issue them without student protests reflects this. College and university administrations now labor in the land of the everlasting grievance. They are routinely bullied by imaginatively aggrieved student groups demanding everything from equal treatment to special treatment, more police or fewer police, more “studies” courses and less studying. Students, abetted by tenured faculty, have succeeded in altering the academic schedule so that in many cases it resembles the work week of Congress, with roughly the same productivity.
It is not the everlasting grievance environment that is making it difficult for higher education to live up to its name, though. The underlying economic structure is now so distorted that colleges and universities are stressed and unbalanced.
Economics is the dominant stress factor affecting today’s colleges and universities. We live in interesting times and running any purpose-driven institution would be difficult under any circumstances. Economics, though, is powerful enough to sabotage all but the most dedicated reform or refocus efforts.
How did economics achieve its mischief? If we look behind the headlines we can see that it was through the unexpected consequences of the fundamental economic forces: supply and demand. Most of the ills of today’s colleges and universities can be traced to the unintended consequences of supply-demand decisions that, in almost every case, made sense at the time.
Higher education institutions need money to survive and function. How much money, where it comes from, and how it is spent, though, establish the destiny of each college and university.
How an enterprise responds to growing demand has a direct effect on what kind of organization it becomes. The demand for higher education began increasing after World War II and just kept on growing, until very recently.
Higher education responded by expanding and by raising its prices; both rational economic decisions. In the 1980s, forty years after the education boom began, two decisions were made that were to prove toxic. The first was to justify the cost of higher education by tying it to employment and earnings. The second was to mimic private business by focusing on students as “customers.”
Linking the value of education to graduates’ future earnings left higher education being pushed around by the moody U.S. and global economies. Focusing on students as customers encouraged demands for better service — meaning inflated grades and better food — and led to incessant bullying by student groups and activists of all stripes.
Perhaps all of the mischief these two decisions created could have been absorbed if colleges and universities had been better stewards of their educational mission. Instead, they allowed their inflated overhead costs to drive the price of higher education ever higher, eventually outgrowing the U.S. economy and the ability of ordinary people to afford it.
The federal government’s attempt to fix this problem of affordability and access to higher education met the bloated costs with a bloated Student Loan program that now totals over $1.11 trillion.
Student loans are the leveraged buyouts of American life and have many of the same economic characteristics: They rarely work out well; and their instability creates a financial bubble that can hurt a lot of people.
That bubble will burst, and soon, and maybe that will be a good time to reassess the purpose and the economic foundations of our colleges and universities. They are still our treasured resources but they need some help with their studies in basic economics.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.