For the past few years, Americans have been having two separate debates about higher education. The first debate is about economics and allocation of resources: Is it worth going into debt to get a college degree, especially in the liberal arts? How much should colleges be subsidized by the state and federal government? Can alternative educational models render four-year brick-and-mortar institutions irrelevant—or, at least, less central?
The second debate is about political culture: Why are students and increasingly demanding that campus administrators shield them from material that might make them uncomfortable? Why is far-left identity politics becoming increasingly dominant on campus?
We may be approaching the point where these two debates converge. The student debt crisis is deepening, the payoff from the BA seems increasingly modest, and politicians are starting to talk more about alternatives to four-year universities, like apprenticeship programs. Meanwhile, the latest wave of campus political insanity seems to have reached a new intensity this week, with Yale students undertaking a collective, high-profile meltdown over, in part, Halloween costumes, and University of Missouri protesters forcing out their president and then harassing journalists who attempted to enter their “safe space.”
It seems inconceivable that parents and voters watching these kinds of events unfold will not have some doubts about the wisdom of the current structure and norms of the higher education system. The University of Missouri media studies professor who called for “muscle” to expel a student journalist from the “safe space” in a widely circulated video turns out to be the author of such important academic works as “The Romanticization of Abstinence: Fan Response to Sexual Restraint in the Twilight Series.” As Dave Weigel noted on Twitter, “if I were a GOP politician arguing for cuts to liberal arts funding, I couldn’t have dreamed up Melissa Click.”
In the same vein, taxpayers and parents must surely be wondering if it is wise to subsidize Yale university to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) per year when angry mobs of students, aggrieved at the university for not doing more to regulate (for example) Halloween costumes, scream things at their professors like, “it’s not about creating an intellectual space!”
None of this is to say that higher education as we know it will end tomorrow. But it seems plausible that the increasingly unhinged campus political scene will make voters and parents think harder about whether the current system is spending their resources efficiently, or whether its time to make fundamental structural reforms that reduce the BA’s role as gatekeeper to elite status in America.
Needless to say, this would be a good thing. The system currently in place is too expensive and too inefficient, and—on the evidence of the last few days—it is failing to achieve its most basic mission: prepare students for the real world.