In a comment to yesterday's post about the liberal arts, Eric Lund makes a good point:
The best argument I have ever heard for doing scholarship in literature and other such fields is that some people find it fun.
I single this out as a good point not because I want to sneer at the literary disciplines, but because with a little re-wording, this could apply to just about anything. The best reason for studying any academic subject is because it's fun.
This is, as I alluded to in a later comment of my own, a significant source of tension for Delbanco's book and a lot of other arguments about liberal education and "critical thinking skills" and the like. In the historical portion of the book, Delbanco makes it fairly clear that the idealized college system he writes about was designed to serve the interests of people who were already comfortable, who could afford to devote a few years to a mix of abstract study and partying. In the beginning, they were all pointedly aimed at theological sorts of instruction, but eventually the range of subjects expanded, but it was never a vehicle for practical training.
The tension here comes because we're no longer really comfortable with the idea of an entire tier of academic institutions that are constructed solely to serve the children of the upper classes. So everybody agrees that we need to make these sorts of institutions open to a broader range of people-- giving financial aid to allow students from poor families to come, providing some form of affirmative action to aid students from groups that have historically been discriminated against, etc.. These are goals that I support-- we should do what we can to let higher education open doors for people. I had a great conversation at my Williams reunion back in June with a couple of classmates whose path to Williams was far more improbable than my own (while I grew up out in the sticks, we were never poor, and both of my parents have college degrees). Those stories were a great testament to the opportunity that we (a pronoun that here stands for the elite college world where I operate) can provide.
At the same time, though, opening the doors to students of lower socioeconomic status will necessarily bring a lot of the pressures that faculty on the other side of campus chafe under-- the (perceived) need to learn something practical or at least marketable, a major that will get them a good job after graduation. Even if you make college itself affordable through generous financial aid packages, these students are going to feel real and immediate pressure to start earning money. They don't have family money to support them for a few idle years, and they don't have the sort of social connections that can get them a guaranteed job, so their future prospects are, to a greater degree than many other students, highly dependent on the specific credential they acquire while in college.
The situation is, if anything, probably slightly worse for the students in between-- they have slightly greater financial and social resources to draw on, but also tend to leave college with a great deal of student loan debt...
So, we have a responsibility to broaden access, a responsibility that for various reasons tends to be most keenly felt by faculty on the arts and literature side of campus. But the process of broadening that access necessarily brings in students who feel pressured to study "practical" subjects, pushing them away from those same artistic and literary subjects. And as costs go up, those financial concerns spread beyond the student population to the voting population in general, leading to the current drive for trying to measure colleges by financial outcomes and the like, standards that are really unfriendly to the arts and literature branch of academia.
This is the origin of a lot of the awkward attempts to re-brand arts and literature majors as teaching "critical thinking skills" and the like. The more clumsy and desperate of these get really annoying in more or less the same way as the "ask the really important questions" stuff I talked about in yesterday's post, phrasing things in a way that seems to exclude the sciences from the disciplines that teach "critical thinking."
To a large extent, these are aping the rhetoric that's long been used by slightly impractical scientific fields like my own discipline of physics. We don't directly feed into an obvious right-out-of-college career track-- for reasons that I think are basically a historical accident, there aren't many lab tech jobs for people with undergraduate degrees in physics, so the main options open to physics majors who want to work right after graduation are basically high school teaching (while working to get the necessary education credentials), competing for entry-level engineering sorts of jobs, or going into finance. As a result, we spend a lot of time touting the versatility of the physics major. I've had many conversations with parents of students majoring in physics that basically amount to them asking for reassurance that their son or daughter will be employable. So we talk up the fact that physics majors go on to medical school and law school and engineering school and can do basically anything that they want to. We're the English majors of the hard sciences.
(Math is the Art History of the hard sciences in this analogy.)
The problem is that we sometimes mistake the real meaning of this line of argument, in the same way that our colleagues across campus are mistaking the meaning of the "critical thinking skills" argument. Talking up the versatility of physics and the diverse career trajectories of our majors is not really a direct and positive argument for choosing physics as a major, it's an indirect and negative one. What we're really saying is "Go ahead and study physics because it's fun, and don't worry that you're screwing yourself over down the line. You'll still have most of the options you would have had if you chose a less fun but more 'practical' major."
That's ultimately what the "critical thinking skills" argument boils down to as well. Because, really, if you put any effort at all into any major at all, you'll pick up the ability to think critically. One of the better bits from Delbanco's book and talk was a quote from a long-ago British academic who told entering students (paraphrasing because I don't have the (paper) book with me) that "Your college experience will teach you nothing of value save only this: you will learn to recognize when a man is talking rot." That's a skill that, as he points out, comes from just spending a lot of time reading and thinking in the company of others who are also reading and thinking. It's not tied to any specific major, though the weaker and more annoying parts of the book mostly consist of attempts at rhetorical jiu-jitsu to turn this into a claim that studying "impractical" subjects is the best or only way to acquire the ability to detect bullshit.
In the end, though, the argument comes down to the same thing we've really been saying about physics: "Go ahead and study this because it's fun, and don't worry that you're screwing yourself over down the line. You'll still have most of the options you would have had if you chose a less fun but more 'practical' major."
This is absolutely true, but also a hard sell to students and families staring down the barrel of $200,000 in college loan debt. It requires a kind of leap of faith, a sort of optimistic outlook that things will work out all right three or four years down the line, even if it's not immediately obvious how. That's a lot easier to swing if you already have family resources to fall back on if it takes longer than expected for the good things to come around.
(This is not to say that there's no concrete benefit to a liberal education. I very much agree with the "soft skills" argument advanced by Matt "Dean Dad" Reed. But that's a benefit of taking a wider range of subjects, not a benefit of majoring in any particular subject-- at a school with any kind of sensible general education/ distribution requirements, it's basically incidental to the choice of major. You'll get the "soft skills" the same way you get the social connections an elite liberal arts school provides-- just from being there and paying attention.)
So, like I said, there's a tension to this whole business that comes out of socioeconomic class issues. Liberal-arts-school academics like Delbanco and myself want to make the sort of education we provide available to students from a wide range of backgrounds. But increasing access and availability necessarily brings with it increased pressure for "practical" instruction and results, and a kind of careerism and credentialism that makes academics twitchy. The financial stakes are too high for a lot of the students and families we serve for it to be any other way.
The only way to get rid of that pressure is to lower those stakes. The easiest way to do that is fundamentally regressive-- to go back to serving primarily the upper classes (some would claim we've never really stopped doing this...), who already have the necessary resources to not be overly concerned about the practicality of their college major. That's not a very appealing path, for a lot of reasons.
The other route is to lower the stakes by making those resources available to a wider range of people. If getting a good job right out of college isn't an all-or-nothing sort of proposition, then it's a lot easier to take the leap toward studying something because it's fun. Which is, ultimately a call toward a particular political posture-- improving the social safety net, providing broader access to health care, etc. Basically, socialism. Of course, most college faculty at least lean in a squishy socialist direction already, so it's not an especially hard sell on campus...
There's a sense in which we're currently poised between these two options. On the one hand, as numerous commentators are eager to tell you, economic inequality is increasing and the middle class is getting squeezed. Wealth is getting more concentrated, and it may be that the rich will end up being the only ones who can afford to buy what we're selling. Which might take the practicality argument off the table in the least appealing way possible. And the current political climate is so toxic that it's hard to see a way past it.
On the other hand, though, it was interesting to catch up on the DVR'ed episodes of the Daily Show and catch this interview with Robert Reich:
While Reich lays out the evidence for inequality really well, I found it interesting that he's so fundamentally optimistic about the whole situation. Obviously, I find his view rather congenial-- I have, after all, argued that we'll be saved by the rise of The Culture. I really hope he's right.
(I should note that this is a somewhat dangerous post, because I may not have articulated what I'm trying to say well enough to avoid offense. I need to get it out of my head so I can use those mental processor cycles for other things, though, so I'm rolling the dice here...)
It seems to me that about half of the problem here is that $200,000 of student loan debt. (The other half of the problem is the shitty job market, but the university isn't in a position to directly do anything about that.)
What would it take for your university, specifically, to be able to cut tuition and fees to 1990s levels? Even lower would obviously be better, but a ballpark of $20,000/yr would mean that a much broader group of people could afford to not take out all those loans.
There is a bit of circularity to the pressure for majoring in practical subjects, too. My parents were each of the first generation in their families to get bachelor's degrees, and they did so at a time when getting an undergraduate degree in business was frowned upon (you could take such courses as electives, or you could get a master's degree in the subject). So they were encouraged to study whatever other subjects interested them, knowing that they (or at least he--career opportunities for women were more limited in those days) could get good jobs with that degree. Having completed the degree was sufficient indication of their talent. For the record, both of my parents attended a state university.
Today, businesses who are hiring usually do so in one of two ways: either they work through their contacts in the $ELITE_UNIVERSITY Alumni Association, or they are looking for someone with specific skills. Thus anybody who manages to graduate from $ELITE_UNIVERSITY (Williams is probably one of the allowed values of this variable; I'm not sure about Union) will have been able to major in any subject she finds appealing, knowing that alumni contacts would help her get a job. But people who attend lower ranked institutions, or State U., don't have this option. So they either rely on what contacts they have, or they feel compelled to major in something practical. If the latter group didn't have to worry about the significance of their major for being hired, as was true in my parents' day, there would be less pressure to major in practical subjects.
I don't think the pressure would go away entirely. Some parents strongly encourage their kids to become doctors or engineers, even if the kids themselves are not so eager. While it's possible to go to medical school with any major as long as you have taken certain science courses as distribution requirements or electives, most would-be doctors at schools that don't have specific pre-med programs major in biology. Similarly, most would-be engineers aren't aware that many people with physics degrees end up in engineering.
What would it take for your university, specifically, to be able to cut tuition and fees to 1990s levels?
I'm not Chad, but I'll try to answer this anyway. What it would take to lower tuition and fees to 1990s levels is a lack of people able and willing to pay more than that for a university education. There are still enough families that can write checks for $25k twice a year without breaking a sweat, and loans are easy enough to obtain that many more families can write those checks after taking out such loans. Keep in mind that the first group includes not just US elites, but elites all over the world. Many universities, including my employer (a state university), have been recruiting increasing numbers of foreign students, knowing that those students can and must pay the full price up front. Other than certain kinds of work study and certain (relatively expensive) private loans, financial aid at US universities is restricted to US citizens and permanent residents only.
What would it take for your university, specifically, to be able to cut tuition and fees to 1990s levels? Even lower would obviously be better, but a ballpark of $20,000/yr would mean that a much broader group of people could afford to not take out all those loans.
It's a tricky question. I'm not privy to all that much financial information, and some of what I do know I probably shouldn't share. The main complication is that for most expensive elite colleges the number of students actually paying the full tuition is fairly low. Most of the students who can't really afford $200,000 in loans aren't actually getting stuck with $200,000 in loans-- there's aid in the form of grants, and so on that cuts that down. Strong students from very needy families will pay less to attend an expensive elite school than they would a less prestigious school with a lower "sticker price." One of the big challenges in recruiting students from more diverse backgrounds is convincing students and parents of this-- those who are already in the upper part of the class structure tend to have a sense of how the game works already, but students who are the first in their family to go to college likely don't have that understanding and may be scared off by the apparent price.
So, some students are already paying $20,000 a year, subsidized in part by a smaller number who are paying $50,000 a year. If the question is what it would take to make the sticker price $20,000 for everyone, the answer is "shitloads of money." Several million dollars per year.
Today, businesses who are hiring usually do so in one of two ways: either they work through their contacts in the $ELITE_UNIVERSITY Alumni Association, or they are looking for someone with specific skills. Thus anybody who manages to graduate from $ELITE_UNIVERSITY (Williams is probably one of the allowed values of this variable; I’m not sure about Union) will have been able to major in any subject she finds appealing, knowing that alumni contacts would help her get a job. But people who attend lower ranked institutions, or State U., don’t have this option.
Yes, absolutely. I was primarily talking about how things work in the elite liberal arts college world where Delbanco and I operate. The calculation is different in other parts of the tiered structure of academia, but the direction of the resulting pressure is similar.
I don’t think the pressure would go away entirely. Some parents strongly encourage their kids to become doctors or engineers, even if the kids themselves are not so eager.
Oh, sure. If nothing else, there will always be parents who want their kids to go into the "family business," even if that business is science or engineering or medicine. We see students who are being pushed to be engineers or pre-meds because their parents want them to get high-paying jobs, and others who are pushed that way because their parents already work in those fields and want their kids to do the same.
While I find it very heartwarming that SteelyKid currently says she wants to be a scientist when she grows up, I do make some conscious effort not to push her in that direction. There's a fine line between encouraging a natural interest and trying to will that interest into existence, and navigating that is going to be a challenge.
This post is timely. Just yesterday I ran into a very good student, a motivated kid doing internships and all of the other resume-building things one encourages, who has switched from physics to engineering because of parental pressure. I don't know for sure about the kid's socioeconomic status; his clothes and demeanor suggest some social capital above and beyond some classmates but nothing spectacular, and I'm no good at reading those signs anyway. But he's almost certainly not from an uber-privileged background. (Though, who knows for sure? I didn't ask.)
Anyway, he expressed some disappointment about switching out of physics, so we spent some time talking about his career goals and how he could get to those goals from either his current major or from physics. Fortunately, he wants to do very applied and hands-on things, so (1) he's thinking in an employable direction and (2) switching out of physics won't kill his dreams. Still, it's somewhat frustrating that good students with applied interests are leaving physics. Those are precisely the ones I want to keep, because my research is applied, and I want the culture to be more of that and less of "I'm majoring in this because I read a lot of Brian Greene books; no, I have no idea what I'll actually do."
I think you're right that the core meaning of "physics is a flexible major" is
“Go ahead and study this because it’s fun, and don’t worry that you’re screwing yourself over down the line. You’ll still have most of the options you would have had if you chose a less fun but more ‘practical’ major.”
However, I think the flexibility of majors like physics does have some intrinsic benefits. For instance, if a student got a "practical" degree in business to try to get a finance job, it would be hard to switch into a physics or engineering job if at graduation time that student realized he didn't want to do finance. Even for engineering, in my experience the transition from physics undergrad to engineering grad school is easier than the reverse. "Practical" majors by their very nature tend to narrow your options after graduation.
I think one needs to ask does a given field require a graduate degree or is a bachelors sufficient. Of course in Physics few jobs really exist for terminal bachelors students except teaching. However as a gateway to graduate study physics opens the door to many engineering graduate programs, as it demonstrates that you can hack the math. Indeed I have heard that it even helps a bit in getting into medical school.
Basically its because as our world becomes more mathematical all the time knowing math becomes more of a gateway, and a physics major has had math beyond the intro calculus sequence.
I would agree that Physics grad school (and Astrophysics to boot) don't provide a lot of post graduate opportunities.
Lyle: the unemployment numbers for PhD physics/astrophysics people (i.e. essentially zero) suggests otherwise
Let's talk about under-employment, and salary relative to peers who finished their BA/BS with similar credentials and went into the private sector after college.
Re #9 but a lot of those are in finance, not physics, so physics is a gateway again. But further how many are adjuncts?
I've done the back of the envelope calculation on college costs for a liberal arts education a few times, so here it is again.
If you want classes where students discuss ideas and learn from each other and everyone can get personal attention from the instructor, your average class size should be no more than 20. If you are going to venture to offer any kind of specialized courses, that will probably bring the number down a little more.
If you want your instructors to have time for professional development, have time to carefully comment on student work, prepare for class in a way that reflects the current mix of students, and so on, an instructor can teach about 2/3 the usual student course load.
This means you need to have one full time instructor for each 12-13 students.
Now we also need staff. Every 10 faculty members needs a secretary and a half-time department chair. Every 20 faculty members needs a librarian, a custodian, and an IT person. Then there is payroll, the registrar, people in admissions, et c. This adds up to about one full-time-equivalent non-instructional person per full-time instructional person. You can do with a little less, but push it further and you are either letting all your buildings and books fall apart or making instructional people spend lots of time on administrative work.
We are now at 7 employees per student.
An employee needs to be paid salary and benefits, but there is also associated plant costs. Heating the building and keeping the lights on costs money. So do the computers in offices and classrooms (which need to be replaced every several years), the desks and chairs, and so on.
I would be very surprised if this could be done for less than $100K an employee, and you'd be able to manage that only by paying your average professor $60K and watching every penny on all your non-employee expenses. (I haven't looked at any figures, but I'm guessing that's well below Chad's salary.)
At $100K an employee and 7 students an employee, that's roughly already $15K.
We are just talking about costs associated with instruction and administration here. I haven't added in costs for food or housing for the students.
Also, we haven't talked about financial aid. Some students can legitimately only afford a few thousand. So to make up for that you would have to charge the rest a bit more.
So, although I think the top elite colleges can certainly make themselves work with less money, I don't think $20K as a total cost is possible.
(Of course I meant 7 students per employee)
So here's the thing: In the 1990s, the top elite colleges did have $20-30K as the sticker price for everyone. (I distinctly remember one or two outliers at $30K, and all the others at $25K on down to about $17K - competitive with the higher end of State U at the time - in a table in one of those phone-book-sized catalogues of Undergraduate Institutions You Might Like to Attend.)
Since 1999, the sticker price for private undergraduate education has jumped to $50K and up; inflation can account for only about $8000 of the increase. I find it difficult to believe that costs have risen that much that fast, particularly as this has happened at the same time as the "adjunctification" of the faculty. So what gives?
Part of the rise in sticker price might reflect greater price discrimination. With increased wealth inequality, there are more people who can pay a steep sticker price AND more people who can't pay a low sticker price. And there are more rich donors to endow scholarships. So, you increase the sticker price, extract more from your richest students, and use that and donations to lower the price for less affluent students.
The big factor missing from that back-of-the-envelope estimate is health care. All those full-time employees expect benefits, and the cost of health insurance has been increasing much faster than inflation for quite a while. Health insurance costs have been the main driver of tuition increases (at least according to the information they give faculty) for several years now.
Price discrimination is also a big factor, and there's an element of signalling, too-- there was a college a few years back that inadvertently did the experiment, when they had to dramatically raise tuition for other reasons. They found that, though they had been afraid that the price jump would scare applicants off, the size and quality of their applicant pool actually increased, because the higher tuition put them into a more prestigious category. Everybody in the expensive-private-college category tries to make their tuition about the same for that reason.
"Math is the Art History of the hard sciences in this analogy."--What do you mean by that? As a mathematician at a liberal arts college, I find myself wondering what this implies.
“Math is the Art History of the hard sciences in this analogy.”–What do you mean by that?
That was mostly comment bait, honestly. But the basic reasoning was that if I was saying physics was relatively impractical as a science major, somebody might suggest that math was even more abstract and decoupled from reality. In which case I needed an arts-and-literature major that might be regarded as even less practical than an English major, and Art History seemed like an amusing choice for that.
(Of course, you could also go in the other direction and argue that majoring in math is a somewhat more direct path to a career as an actuary or analyst, and thus it's not really less practical than physics. But that wouldn't be funny.)
I would be very surprised if this could be done for less than $100K an employee, and you’d be able to manage that only by paying your average professor $60K and watching every penny on all your non-employee expenses.
Part of my job involves writing proposals, and I do my own budgets. For every dollar I want to pay myself, I have to put about $2.15 in my budget. This includes benefits (including health care, which as Chad points out has been a leading driver of cost inflation in education over the last 20 years) and indirect expenses (which covers my share of lights, heating, maintenance costs, and administration). I have no reason to think this ratio is excessively high. It's also a marginal cost--there are fixed costs to operating the building where I work, and tuition needs to cover those fixed costs as well (you can temporarily reduce this by deferring maintenance, but if you do that will eventually catch up to you). A university has to have a president, whether it has 100 students or 100,000 (salary does correlate with student body size, but the increase is slower than linear).
At my employer, first-year professors in the College of Liberal Arts are typically paid about $50k per year. Some departments (science, engineering, economics, and business--this would also apply to medical school and law school faculty if we had them on this campus) start higher, because people with degrees in those fields have career options other than college professor. Some schools may try to cheap out on this expense with adjuncts or lowball salaries for tenure track faculty, but there are limits to how far you can go with either of these tricks, especially if you have pretensions of being an elite institution. You might be able to hold your average salary per employee to around $60k, but that translates to a marginal cost per employee of $130k, which is about $18k per student.
I don't have a good method for estimating fixed costs, so I'll take a WAG at $10M for a SLAC with a student body of 1000. (That's the right order of magnitude for my local school district, which has about twice that student body in total enrollment but does not need to provide offices to faculty.) That's another $10k per student, for a total of $28k, and we haven't even gotten into financial aid. I've also neglected dormitory expenses, which are presumably covered under room and board.
@Eric: A significant part of your $2.15 comes is taken up by the salaries of custodians and administrators. I've counted those as employees. If you want to use that figure, you should apply it to instructional staff alone and suppose the most of the remaining staff are covered under it.
I think you could rework this post into a very compelling piece for the Back Page of APS News. The analogy between the rhetoric used to sell physics to the practical-minded and the rhetoric of the vitality of the humanities is a good insight. It is strange for physics professors, who went straight from undergrad to grad school to a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty position, to talk about how valued a physics degree is in industry. I wonder what fraction of the physicist folks making the arguments about the broad applicability of physics training genuinely believe them, and what fraction are being deliberately at least a little disingenuous because their job description is to promote physics.
It does seem to me that all the public discussion (e.g. in APS News) about the future of physics does seem to take the broad applicability and utility of physics as a matter of faith. Particularly with respect to the demographic makeup of the physics profession, this is key:
This is absolutely true, but also a hard sell to students and families staring down the barrel of $200,000 in college loan debt. It requires a kind of leap of faith, a sort of optimistic outlook that things will work out all right three or four years down the line, even if it’s not immediately obvious how. That’s a lot easier to swing if you already have family resources to fall back on if it takes longer than expected for the good things to come around.
Although if we're endorsing the idea that the principle reason to study physics is because it's fun--and not, say, because it's particularly lucrative--then I don't see how that can support a sense that correcting demographic imbalances in physics is somehow more urgent than correcting them in any other fun-driven activity.
I think there is also a point akin to that made about exercise - "the best exercise is the exercise you'll do." A really rigorous major you won't complete or you'll take 10 years to complete or will make you miserable isn't a good one for you. I don't want natural english majors being miserable in chemistry classes any more than I want bored chemists rolling their eyes during art history classes. I do want people exposed, possibly forcibly, to a variety of classes because high school students aren't the best judges of their future selves tastes or talents.
Far too many people in this country get college educations. The huge demand for college credentials is an important factor in the completely unsustainable increase in college costs. After graduating with significant loan burdens many graduates wind up getting jobs which do not require a college degree. They have gone into debt to obtain a useless degree and have lost compensation for their wasted years in college. Many of these graduates would have been much better off not to have gone to college.
The higher education system in the US has become profoundly pathological.