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.
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:
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:
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.
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.