Bill Maher vs. higher ed

Last Friday night a high profile American comedian and tv host presented a criticism of higher education.  In a little more than six minutes Bill Maher took academia to task for a range of problems.

I find this critique useful in two ways. First, Maher gets certain things wrong, and many people share those errors, so addressing them might be beneficial. Second, several of his criticisms point to more broadly held American attitudes.  Better understanding them can help higher ed as it tries to navigate an increasingly challenging battle for public support. Plus he also packs in a lot of ideas into a few minutes.

I’m not writing this as a fan or opponent of Maher.  I don’t watch his show – in fact, I don’t watch live tv at all. The only tv content I consume is video clips or episodes I’m interested in or that people recommend after they initially screen.  Weirdly, I remember Maher for his odd bit in a 1987 comedy-horror movie. Here I’m picking on Maher as an exemplar of certain attitudes.

I’m also not writing as a fan of celebrities. Celebrity culture generally leaves me baffled or depressed.  Yet I do want to single out Bill Maher’s rant because as a popular (if contentious) figure he seems to channel some popular opinions. Hopefully this post gets at the latter through the former.

Admittedly, this is something of a gamble.  From what I can tell Maher doesn’t fall cleanly into political or cultural camps. He’s a libertarian who wants national health care. He mocks both progressives and conservatives. So a rant from him might offer a skewed or scattershot slice of the American mind. Yet I think I can draw the connections.

Here’s the presentation:

To begin with, I did enjoy some of the jokes. The trickle down-Florida line was nicely delivered.  The Loughlin scams bit, and the comparison of higher ed to Scientology and medieval indulgences, were well barbed jabs.

So what does Maher get wrong?

Like many, he criticizes college and university tuition for being too high.  Accurately, he points out that published prices have risen faster than inflation for a generation. However, setting aside the reasons for that inflation, this misses two key points. First, the tuition amounts cited are published prices, not what institutions actually charge most students.  Widespread tuition discounting means only the richest tend to pay full price, which subsidizes everyone else, who pay less. (Here’s my explainer of this obscure yet crucial practice.)

Second, focusing on the actually high published price of (say) Harvey Mudd College (one year’s tuition is $58,359; $79,539 with room and board) means ignoring the wide range of low cost colleges and universities. If we stick to Maher’s California, that could mean taking classes at one of that state’s many community colleges presents a sticker price of $1100. Further, some public universities make a point of having lower tuition that the elites. And some private colleges use that steep price+steep discounting strategy to make postsecondary education actually affordable for non-rich families.  Ignoring these swarms of campuses with low (sticker!) prices in favor of complaining about the most expensive slice of American academia is, alas, a popular mistake.

Maher makes a similar error of missing much of higher ed by mocking colleges and universities as “subsidized child care” or “day care.”  It’s a stinging point when paired with notorious images of luxury living or lazy rivers, and it’s true that a good number of students are teenagers.  But not all, not by a lot.

Here’s data on full time students enrolled full time in American colleges and universities in 2019:

students full time by age 2019_NCES

You can easily see very different age breakdowns by different types of campus.  90% of students taking classes at public four-year schools are younger, while only one third of those at for-profit colleges and universities are.  Two-year institutions (mostly community colleges) show a similar range.

The millions of students taking classes part time is even more age diverse:

students part time by age NCES

Note, too, that that data lumps all people under 25 years old into a single category. If we accept that an 18 year old living away from home for the first time is getting some kind of developmental experience, is that also true of someone who’s 24?  My point is that not all of higher ed is about those teenagers, and it’s a mistake to assume it is.

Back to those luxurious settings and the famous lazy rivers: those, too, are only available in some colleges and universities.   For every campus with a “leisure river” spelling out the school’s initials there are dozens of colleges with unfixed roof leaks, decaying buildings, and failing infrastructure (for example).  I know Maher is attuned to economic inequality; his critique of higher ed needs to recognize inequalities between these institutions.

Maher also sneaks in a slam at the library profession: “A wanna-be librarian needs a master’s degree just to get an entry-level job filing books.”  Straight up wrong. All kinds of staff shelve books.  My daughter did this when she was a first-year college student.  And an MLS degree teaches much more than shelving print materials.

So if the HBO host got some things wrong, what are the useful bits I mentioned earlier?

Maher gets some points dead right, like the general – and especially Democratic – idea that everyone should get some post-secondary schooling.  This is still the default American idea, with persistent popularity. Or, in the comedian’s cranky phrasing, “The more time humans spend in classrooms staring at blackboards, the better.”  Hang onto this idea, because Maher will circle back against it.

Bill Maher higher ed screenshot

He also accurately notes the progressive argument that colleges can fight income inequality.  The reality is more complicated, of course, with some of higher ed actually exacerbating economic gaps.  And Maher gets this, reminding us harshly of a very different pro-college selling point: “Higher education is a racket that sells you a very expensive ticket to the upper middle class.”  Set aside the “racket” part for now and you can see the idea of higher education as a class divider standing forth.

Maher goes on to show the economic divides between those with college degrees and those without. He then connects them to free college plans with a powerful line:  “Is it really liberal for someone who doesn’t go to college and makes less money to pay for people who do go and make more?”   Whatever your answer might be to that question, you can definitely make out a current of class resistance to any new federal support for higher ed.  Now one implication of “racket” becomes clear, casting colleges and universities in the light of a new Gilded Age.  Liberal calls for free tuition are just a way of tightening inequality’s screw.

Maher goes on to slam selected and warped curricula, emphasizing contemporary progressive politics (“You Owe Me An Apology 101”). At the same time he charges the academy with not producing enough STEM graduates, casting that problem in light of an American competition with China (a rising theme, as I’ve noted previously). These are different charges coming from very different agendas, albeit with some overlap (conservatives supporting engineering).  Again, these are criticisms we’ve seen in the broader culture.

Then the host hits at the everyone needs college idea from a different angle. Maher casts rising numbers of degrees as certification inflation. Worse, that some of these credentials aren’t needed, that they are scams designed to funnel more tuition to campuses in a form of rent-seeking.  Maher lists some examples, then charges his biggest cannon, assembled from the ideas he’s hit so far:

“The answer isn’t to make college free. The answer is to make it more unnecessary – which it is for most jobs.” [emphases added]

Now he’s not just calling higher education a scam. He’s not merely mocking rich schools for spending on luxury items. Instead, he’s calling for fewer people to take classes. He’s urging a good number of Americans to reject academia.  He wants the college and university sector to shrink back in size and influence.  He advises an end to college for all, wanting instead college for even fewer.

Having dealt this blow, Maher then repeats his economic argument. Academia needs to be cut down “[s]o that the two thirds of Americans who either can’t afford to or just don’t want to go don’t feel shut out.  Because the system we have… breeds resentment.”  It’s a populist argument, drawing on generations of precedent, targeting higher education as a cynical, exploitative operation that increases and benefits from class divides.  In fact, Maher’s riff ends at this point, summoning up Trump and his famous praise of the poorly educated.

So what does all of this mean for higher education?  Why should we spend time thinking about one comedian’s performance?

First, Maher reminds us of the power of economic populism, and not just in the ways Trump mobilized it. Academia’s sometimes intention of mitigating inequality runs smack into our role in making inequality happen.  Colleges and universities will run smack into this contradiction in potentially any public setting: trying to get a state legislature to increase funding, negotiating with a local community over zoning, lobbying the federal government over tuition or research support.

Second, to whatever extent Bill Maher is representative, the public has woeful gaps in its understanding of how higher ed works.  Our elite institutions stand in for the entire sector too often. Our high tuition, high discount strategy just looks like very high tuition.  Adult learners are nowhere near visible enough.

Third, don’t miss the curricular hits.  Obviously Maher is treading well known territory in urging the graduation of more people in STEM fields, dunning the arts and some humanities.  Note that he links this desire to US-China competition.  Note, too, that his call for shrinking higher ed means seriously cutting the arts and humanities, if we factor in increasing STEM enrollment.

Ultimately, Maher’s fulmination against higher ed as a whole leads to a call for Americans to cut higher ed down to size.  I don’t think this comedian is the only one thinking along these lines.   Back in 2013 I introduced the idea of peak higher education, a forecast that American academia had reached a maximum of enrollment and economic strength.  Every year since then has proven this forecast true, as enrollment keeps ticking down and financial struggles afflict too many campuses.  If higher ed is sliding down the wrong slope of a peak, Bill Maher wants to give us a shove and speed our decline.  How many people share this view?  And how can academia best counter it?

Lastly, I’m not analyzing Maher’s critique to embrace or denounce it. Instead I want to share its key points to those in and adjacent to academia, because they aren’t his alone. As higher education struggles to regain public support, we may hear Bill Maher’s arguments voiced more often than on a single HBO comedy show.

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10 Responses to Bill Maher vs. higher ed

  1. Reading this and watching the clip, I found myself wondering if Tressie McMillan Cottom has seen this clip and if so, what her take was.

    In my latest role of keeping a local public informed about politics and issues, I follow credible sources across the political spectrum. Along the way I have seen all Maher’s arguments and then some.

    Republicans dominate legislatures and governorships in a majority of states. Bear in mind state level roles in funding, regulating and appointments, in some states including regents. That’s not even counting right of center Dems.

    Compared to the prospect of what states can do or are already doing, Maher is a minor nuisance and noisy mine canary.

  2. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    The title of Cristina Groeger’s new history of Boston says it all:
    “The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston”.
    Straight up, she tackles the paradox of education as social mobility AND “a new infrastructure for legitimizing social inequality.”

    Take a look at the sources for the book — here:

    From 1880 to the Great Depression, “formal education reshaped the occupational structure AND became a medium through which inequalities were remade and legitimated. Fundamental to this process was the transformation of pathways into employment from workplace training to school-based training.” Exactly right!

    Then, another iteration of translocation is layered atop the move from family/workplace training to school, from high school to college.

    I happened upon a list of courses at my high school in late 1960s, including the vocationally-oriented ones — guess what? They are now given by the community colleges, maybe even for a B.A. degree.

    All this is extremely wasteful. Bill Maher’s critique is accurate.

  3. Rodney Grunes says:

    On other shows, Maher has criticized ordinary Americans for their ignorance of the Constitution and major legislation. Higher education might help address this criticism (shortcoming) but Maher does make connection to his previous rants.

  4. Steven Greenlaw says:

    Education has private benefits and costs as well as public benefits and costs. The private and public don’t line up exactly. This is what economists call an externality. which means that private decisions about schooling are not socially optimal. How much of the benefit of higher ed is signaling and how much is actual education (which makes a person a more productive worker and/or a better citizen and/or better able to enjoy the world and life)? If people find a better job because employers believe that an Ivy-League degree indicates a more productive worker, there is a private benefit to that degree even if the benefit is entirely signaling. The public benefit is much less. Certification inflation is a form of signaling.

  5. Keil Dumsch says:

    Bryan, you make a number of good points, but Maher is right that overall higher ed has become a racket. Even if most students don’t pay the sticker price, college (especially in the four-year degree incarnation) is an expensive proposition when you factor in all the costs and opportunity costs.

    Everyone should attend college on some level, but the amount of college needed (especially in the credential-inflated professions like law, medicine, and academia) to obtain careers is an outrage. The best part of Maher’s rant was when he pointed out that most jobs used to be learned on the job. It is only in the last 50-60 years did we require so many degrees to earn a good livelihood.

  6. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Maher basically covers each of the points that Groeger makes in her new book, The Education Trap. Instead of expletives, however, she uses the rich education history of Boston. It would be interesting if Maher’s points were matched with page numbers from Groeger’s book.

  7. Robert McGuire says:

    All excellent points, Bryan. One I’d like to add is that Maher makes another very common error that is a pet peeve of mine — confusing cost with price.

    tl;dr The argument that costs have risen is BS to sneak in another argument.

    You rightly refer to price when describing tuition above. The screenshot you share shows the common error Maher makes. Price (in the form of tuition) has gone up in the way he and other critics suggest. And then, looking around for reasons, they say administrative bloat and lazy rivers.

    However, price and cost aren’t the same thing, and it’s harder to find clear reporting about how much the costs have gone up relative to inflation. (Presumably it has gone up some because of Baumol’s cost disease. And maybe another factor is unnecessary evils like bloat or luxuries, but we don’t really know until someone digs into all the higher ed budgets to see total revenue and spending, not just tuition.)

    If the critics were to avoid conflating price and cost, then another more likely explanation for the increase in tuition suggests itself, which is that the costs have been shifted — from taxpayers to students and their families. For example, the cost of today’s education is likely to be somewhat higher than what I paid 30 years ago, but the price is definitely dramatically higher because today’s students aren’t enjoying the taxpayer support that I did. The price went up for sure. How much the cost went up is less clear.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think the confusion of price and cost is accidental. It gives a convenient running start to jump on the high horse where critics can scold about bloat and lazy rivers. Being a cynic, I think that’s the point. Scolding taxpayers isn’t as much fun.

    -Robert McGuire

  8. Keil Dumsch says:


    The “confusing cost with price” argument is just splitting hairs. College is an expensive proposition no matter what, if you factor in all the costs and opportunity costs.

    As for state funding cuts causing tuition to go up, read Alan Collinge on this issue.

    Private college prices have also gone up during the same time period. At best state funding cuts are a partial explanation. In my view the degree system and credential monopoly are the big culprit in the high price of college.

    It’s this issue that Maher is getting at, as are countless editorials in the media. It doesn’t do any good to ignore or shout down critics, or to shoot messengers like Maher. Higher ed has serious problems with its economic model, value proposition, and learning model. People are wising up, and will start to forego college entirely. Google searches for “Jobs that don’t require a degree” are up 700%.

  9. Brent Anders says:

    Great write-up on this very interesting topic Bryan. I have lots of thoughts on higher education as well and as you state, it is important to look at all of the information. We all have to remember that higher education is a special thing in itself. It is often looked at as a business, but it is much more than that. There will always be competition in higher education so the cost of competing will always raise overall costs for attending. For many students, a university with a new workout facility, the latest integrated technology, and full health/counseling services are big attractions. These amenities cost money that students are willing to pay and so costs rise more and more.

    I also very much believe that higher education should never be free in that then it will greatly lose its value. There are plenty of academic scholarships/grants as well as programs to help virtually everyone. I served in the military which then helped me pay my way through school. Because of that, I do not have student debt. For those that do not want to serve in the military, there are many other programs widely available such as: employer-assisted tuition programs, federal work-study, in-demand job assistance programs, tuition waivers for certain groups, and benefits of working on-campus.

    The quest of whether or not everyone should go to college all depends on how you are looking at things. I have plenty of friends and relatives who didn’t go to college and instead went into a trade such being an electrition. I still tell them to work on completing a degree. Knowledge is power. Get a business degree and open up your own company focusing on the trade you know.

    My focus and views are that college/university is about education not just on the specific thing you want to know or become, but on understanding different ways of thinkings. Of seeing the importance and effects of the humanities, of different cultures, of psychology/sociology, and many different subjects via a good liberal arts degree. This then helps to make anyone a better overall person with a heightened ability to reflect and greater creative and critical thinking skills.

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