Monday, November 1, 2010

The future of the humanities: Dollars and nonsense

More news from the 'future of humanities' front: Cornell president David Skorton is aiming to launch a nationwide campaign on behalf of the humanities, including a plan to "hire more than 100 humanists at various career stages over the next decade." (Dear Dr. Skorton: You can find my CV and other information here. Thank you, and I hope to hear from you soon.)

No doubt the humanities could use the efforts of an Ivy League president. It could also benefit from thinking outside the economic box. Two ideas along these lines:

Shall we acknowledge the unpleasant truth that the humanities are not the cost sinks at many universities — that they in fact subsidize more expensive disciplines like engineering and the sciences? UCLA's Robert Watson makes the case, with reference to data from UCLA:
based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA's educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.
So the answer to "Who's going to pay the salary of the English department?" is that the English department at UCLA earns its own salary and more, through the fees paid by its students — profits that will only grow with the increase in student fees.
That isn't an eccentric calculation. Of the 21 units at the University of Washington, the humanities and, to a lesser degree, the social sciences are the only ones that generate more tuition income than 100 percent of their total expenditure. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, recently cited a University of Illinois report showing that a large humanities department like English produces a substantial net profit, whereas units such as engineering and agriculture run at a loss. The widely respected Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity shows the same pattern.
Because that evidence runs up against the widespread myth that other units and departments subsidize the humanities, and up against such well-entrenched forces within the university, it is regularly ignored or even suppressed.
 And since so much of humanities budgets are allocated to instruction, they are especially vulnerable to across the board personnel cuts. Watson gives humanists powerful ammunition against the pervasive
"assumption that the humanities are a vestigial parasite within an otherwise self-sufficient institutional body."

But here's a possible remedy even if we accept the assumption that university-level humanities is not self-supporting. The conventional wisdom is that tough economic times are driving students away from the humanities, notes Dan Edelstein:
college students today are less interested in traditional subjects, and have become more professionally oriented. They’ve voted with their feet, choosing business, pre-med, and engineering majors over German, art history, or comparative literature.
Ah, but it's not only those oh-so-vocationally minded students who are responsible, says Edelstein:
The client is king, and students are our clients in higher education. The only problem with this logic is that universities in fact bear a considerable responsibility for the brain drain away from the humanities. By raising the cost of education to stratospheric levels, we oblige students to seek a higher return on their investment. It is this sort of economic calculation, I suggest, and not some alleged generational change, that is driving students in droves towards preprofessional degrees. 
With greater costs comes the expectation of greater return. We've discussed here at ISW whether studying the humanities is a bad return on one's investment. (Short answer: Not so much.) But Edelstein's got a point. Suppose the conventional wisdom — that students in the humanities have weak job and earnings prospects compared to their peers who study more 'practical' fields — is right. There's a solution (I think!): have the market set the price of your degree by instituting differential tuition, charging students more to study more lucrative degrees. Differential tuition has long been the norm in graduate study: It costs a lot more to get a graduate degree in law, business, or medicine than it does in education or the liberal arts. Some of this difference may be to differences in the supply of such degrees, but my guess it that the differences are largely driven by demand. The former fields have higher pay and so there's greater student demand in these fields.

So what would be wrong with differential undergraduate tuition? (I should mention that I first learned of differential tuition via this well-constructed Ethics Bowl case from 2007.) Just using my own university as an example: The current fees are about $4800 per year. So let's say we charge engineering or business students more than that average —$7000 a year — and philosophy students less, say $3000 a year. The exact costs would have to be worked out of course. I would base them both on student demand and on the actual cost of providing the education. (Labs and equipment are pricey after all!).

But the net effect would be to subject disciplines to a 'pay as you go' standard and price the students' degrees as something closer to their (perceived) market value, something no free market advocate could oppose. It would also effectively end the subsidization I mentioned above. Lastly, it would relieve the enrollment pressures on high demand programs.

Would differential tuition benefit the humanities and universities as a whole, making student obligations better reflect both the (economic) value and cost of their education?


  1. Michael -- about Big Idea number 2, I'm eager to hear other people's ideas because I don't have clear ones of my own.
    One practical or implementation-level problem, at least at a college like mine, is that the proposal seems implicitly to treat departmental majors as discrete units in a university. But in fact, there are majors that require coursework in other disciplines, and there are quite a few courses that -- though offered by a specific department -- are taught as part of a general curriculum, NOT primarily for actual majors in that discipline.

    And some colleges (again, like mine) find that several students take a while to decide what to major in, and/or whether to add a second major. Would differential tuition pricing require students to declare a major as early as possible?

  2. You're right, Vance, that there's devilry in the details. Not sure what to say to your first observation, except that it's true that every major requires coursework in other disciplines (and hence every department offers courses for those who aren't majors) due to the presence of general education.

    As for the second point, my thought would be to charge the differential tuition starting from roughly halfway into students' undergrad careers. At that point, students should have declared a major, but we're not prematurely pushing students toward a major based on cost.

    Reasonable enough, you think?

  3. My point about the general curriculum is that that would make it a challenge to identify "the" cost of any given major. Some general ed courses are required for various majors as prerequisites, yet aren't actually considered to be parts of that major. Would the cost of such a course -- for purposes of establishing the cost of educating an X major -- be determined by prorating by the (average) number of enrolled students in that course who go on to major in X?

    I'm not raising this as a deep objection or concern. Somebody who knows much more about the economics of higher education will, I hope, show up here to educate me.

  4. Couldn't one simply charge by the course?


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