A recent example of Quit Lit veers into unusual territory for that genre. “I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here’s why I’m walking away” begins by complaining about academia, then offers a startling plan for reform. The latter is actually much more interesting than the former.
You see, Oliver Lee Bateman wants us to drastically cut the number of students enrolled in American higher education.
The key move is this: “greatly reducing the amount of [federal] money that students can borrow to attend college”. Once this occurs, “enrollments would shrink” very quickly, which in turn would “force underperforming private and public universities out of business”. Bateman is pretty clear about wanting this death spiral to whirl away.
What would happen next, once fewer students attend fewer campuses?
Curricular change: “Universities would be forced to compete on a cost-per-student basis, and those students still paying to attend college would likely focus their studies on subjects with an immediate return on investment.”
Price changes and poor students still attending: “Lower tuition costs, perhaps dramatically lower at some institutions, would still enable impoverished students eligible for Pell Grant assistance to attend college.” (Peter Bradley disagrees)
Some curricular shifts:
Vocational education programs, which would likely expand in the wake of such a massive adjustment, would offer inexpensive skills training for others. The liberal arts wouldn’t necessarily die out — they’d remain on the Ivy League prix-fixe menu, to be sure, and curious minds of all sorts would continue to seek them out — but they’d no longer serve as a final destination for unenthusiastic credential seekers. [links in original]
Why does this matter? Bateman is, after all, offering a personal take in an increasing derided genre. But this proposal chimes in with some powerful trends in higher ed and American society. To begin with, more than a few people think federal support to tertiary students is too high. Some of those folks are economists and politicians.
Beyond that, though, is the growing sense that college isn’t for everyone. I’ve heard this expressed on every campus I’ve visited over the past decade. Faculty criticize the academic preparation of students, blaming declining high school performance, culture, and family backgrounds. And you can see the sentiment in public, too. Liberal economist and academic Robert Reich thinks a number of would-be college students would be better served by a “world-class technical education”. So does this agriculture instructor and this Princeton student. This libertarian agrees, thinking college overvalued. This site thinks higher ed isn’t suited to every eighteen-year-old.
That’s the value of Bateman’s piece, far beyond his entry into the I’m leaving academia sweepstakes. He actually imagines a world where we decide to follow that advice, and divert a significant number of would-be students from colleges and universities. It looks a lot like what I’ve been calling peak higher education.
Is Bateman’s vision accurate, or would a smaller student body yield a different future for American higher education?