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The Users of the University

For decades, parents, politicians, and business titans have tried to convince us that the best majors and the most lucrative majors are one and the same.

Here’s a trick you can try at home. Next time you hear a pundit say that to preserve America’s competitiveness or dynamism, we must replace the liberal arts with something more “practical,” take a second to check what they studied. Thomas Friedman, who asserts that students should study engineering and science because “average is over”? Mediterranean Studies, Brandeis. Charles Murray, who advocates shifting huge numbers of students into vocational training? History, Harvard. Dori Jones Yang, an accomplished writer and journalist who nonetheless told parents to funnel their children into “practical” disciplines? European history, Princeton.

This fun exercise in ad hominem reveals something important. When you studied whatever you wanted to at a prestigious private university, it’s much easier to tell students to tighten their belts and think of “U.S. global leadership.” The latest example of this convenient self-exemption comes from Florida Chamber of Commerce spokesman Dale Brill, a self-described “liberal arts guy” who studied at Lenoir-Rhyne College, a private college in North Carolina. Sheepskin safely in hand, Brill now spearheads Florida’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform. Its latest recommendation for the state’s public university system: students in “strategic areas” (engineering, science, and pre-professional tracks) should have their tuition frozen while everyone else offsets the cost with higher tuition.

This effort to hew education to fit market imperatives should come as no surprise. The task force was appointed by Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party hero whose last job involved running a chain of for-profit hospitals that was found guilty of Medicare fraud. The message of Scott’s 2010 campaign, before which he had never run for or held public office, was that business prowess could more than substitute for political experience. (The $75 million he spent out of his personal fortune helped get the point across.) But even if the task force’s logic is familiar, it is depressing to see it carried to such an extreme. For decades, parents, politicians, and business titans have tried to convince us that the best majors and the most lucrative majors are one and the same. Scott’s innovation is to back their platitudes with the power of the state.

Loathsome though he is, though, the episode is about something bigger than Scott. His recent actions, after all, were anticipated by an unsuccessful 2008 proposal to weight public university scholarships in favor of STEM disciplines. The problems manifest in Scott’s task force are in fact endemic to Florida, a state whose history is regularly punctuated by bubbles and busts. Granted, the state has historically managed to keep tuition lower and graduation rates higher than the national average. But over the last five years, enrollment has boomed by almost 28 percent while funding has declined, effectively lowering spending per student by 26 percent. Addressing this problem is especially difficult because Florida has no state income tax. Nearly all of its revenue comes from property and sales taxes, the effectiveness of which varies wildly with the business cycle. So Florida—with its 8.7 percent unemployment and foreclosure rates more than twice the national average—takes in revenues far below the standard set during boom years, and has no obvious way to fix this.

The problems with education funding go even deeper. The Bright Futures scholarship program, in place since 1997, is an ambitious attempt to provide a full ride scholarship to a public university for each Florida resident who meets certain academic criteria—on the surface, an admirable project. But Florida’s lack of stable revenue sources means that Bright Futures is funded through the state lottery. The apparently progressive goal of universal higher education for qualified students turns out to rest on the hope that Floridians’ high-school math teachers never taught them how small their odds of winning the lotto are.

Bright Futures scholarships are entirely merit-based and distributed fairly evenly across income levels. Almost one-third of them go to students from families that make over $100,000 per year, suggesting they’re not about providing access but preventing brain drain. This is a legitimate goal, but there is something perverse about making massive cuts to higher education itself while continuing to fund a scholarship program that pays wealthy students to attend college. On the other hand, this is largely in keeping with the Floridian school of economics. The state’s increasingly underfunded higher-education system is now essentially no different from its underfunded public schools, cities, and infrastructure. The sort of mentality that informs this aversion to any sort of taxation or investment is the same one that assumes we can predict what students will need to know in twenty or thirty years, and let the rest of their educational experience fall by the wayside.

But while Florida is a predictable place for this sort of thing to begin, it’s merely that—the beginning. Scott’s rhetoric worshipping “job creators” may be especially shrill, but the idea that the education sector should serve the needs of industry first and foremost is just as prominent in Silicon Valley and the business schools of the Ivy League. All of these regional variations spring from the same virulent strain of thought in which the balance sheet is the final arbiter of value, so it should come as no surprise that large universities, which are inefficient institutions by their nature, are next in line for transformation.

Unfortunately, the higher-education sector has spent the last fifty years leaving itself more and more vulnerable to the sort of attack Scott is mounting. This process goes back at least to Clark Kerr’s 1963 book The Uses of the University. Concluding that American institutions were evolving inexorably from liberal arts colleges to “multiversities,” Kerr (the founding chancellor of the University of California system) offered himself up as a new kind of president: a “mediator-initiator” rather than a “great man.” Kerr’s phrase may seem like the winning result of a bet to see who could come up with the most uninspiring job description in the world, but during the California boom of the 1950s, the assumption among policymakers and educators was that universities had to become larger in scope, embrace more disciplines, and convince students that they needed the university more than the university needed them. In other words, as the GI Bill took effect and the United States reached new heights of global supremacy, the higher-education system would become more sprawling, less student-driven, and unable to be anything more sophisticated than a response to what was “needed” at the time.

And now, the leaders of America’s newest boom state have deigned to tell us exactly what is “needed” in 2013. There will be plenty of people who will praise Scott as a visionary, or merely as a serious person who sees what must be done in a time of tight budgets. But the key to understanding people who talk approvingly about Making Hard Choices is that they will almost never feel the pain those choices will cause. Pundits and politicians should be naturally receptive to the benefits of a liberal education, since so much of what they do requires writing and speaking well. But many will nonetheless claim that our higher-education system needs to become leaner and more entrepreneurial, and that we must stop coddling students who want a sense of ownership in their education. To structure educational opportunity in this way—a full range of studies for those who can afford it, and an underfunded nightmare for those who can’t—mocks the very idea of opportunity.

Most arguments in favor of liberal education fall back on familiar refrains about its social and intellectual value. But these arguments have a poor track record because people like Rick Scott—and while he is an extreme example of his type, the type itself is not unusual—dispute the very value of social and intellectual value. There are ways to argue against the Florida task force’s proposals on economic grounds; surveys of employers have repeatedly demonstrated a demand for more liberally educated graduates, for example. But the “mediator-initiators” who run higher education have been unable to make those arguments, and have effectively ceded control—not yet over the universities themselves, but over the discourse surrounding what they’re good for. Meanwhile, Scott and his allies are more than willing to deny the opportunities they were given to today’s young people. To anyone who is familiar with the last five years of generational warfare, this should all look painfully and dangerously familiar.

Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.

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