Do we really need colleges?

By Nathan Barton

The land is filled with them.  According to what data source you look, there are at least 4,000, and perhaps more than 5,000 in the Fifty States (Some, like the WaPo, claim that there are 5,300 “fiefdoms” in the American Academic Archipelago ™.)  And this does not include technical institutes and specialized “higher education” institutions.  That is, beyond high-school. Nor does it include various academies and military and bureaucratic and police schools, nor trade schools (like beauty and barbers schools and corporate “universities,” such as Caterpillar has to provide equipment training, nor apparently very specialized schools, such as music conservatories.

About sixty percent of the Fifty States’ institutions of higher education are “public” – government-owned, and tax-funded.  Many of the remaining forty percent are highly dependent on direct or indirect tax funding: grants and contracts directly, and student scholarships and loans indirectly.  Supposedly enrollment in all these institutions was over 17 MILLION people in 2014.  Of course, about two-thirds of those are part-time; so there are ONLY about 6 million actual full-time students.

They are as ubiquitous in 21st Century America and the rest of Western Civilization as monasteries and convents were in 13th or 14th Century Europe, and all of Western Civilization then.  According to the people of the era, and the historians, these huge institutions provided an invaluable and essential service.  Yet, today, 95 percent of those are gone; often not even ruins mark their location. And very few people miss them.

Some people point out that colleges and universities inherited, in many ways, the mantle of the monasteries, which preserved and expanded the knowledge of mankind during their era. They were enclaves, sanctuaries against interference from the world and its woes. Protected even from many taxes, blessed by generous gifts from benefactors, and committed to service to others, they were a blessing.

Today, we are told similarly, the institutions of higher education of the various states and nations provide an invaluable, essential, and irreplaceable array of services to their locales, regions, states, nations, and the world.  Untold billions are spent by governments and foundations and donated by individuals or paid in the form of tuition and fees and taxes, to construct and maintain the campuses and buildings, to support the staff and faculties and student bodies and organizations of these great edifices and entities.

The universities are big business. They get, collectively, about $165 billion annually from the FedGov in grants, loans, and tax credits, while the states pay out about $74 billion in direct appropriations. These handouts of tax money account for close to 90 percent of revenues at many colleges (not even counting government and private business research spending).

The College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2016–2017 academic year averaged $24,610 (for a “full-time student”). A moderate budget at a private college averaged $49,320. HSBC’s 2016 report, The Value of Education: Foundations for the future, says the US is the most expensive college education on the planet, with the average annual cost of tuition fees to study in the US estimated at $33,215. PER YEAR.

All things considered, they are probably as big a part of society and economy in 21st Century America as the monastic system was in the Middle Ages of Europe.

The thing is, do we need them?

It is important to understand just what universities do today.  Of course, an ever-increasing number of professions require (or are mandated to use) skilled, trained and “educated” people – usually defined as college degrees and graduate degrees: bachelor’s degrees of Arts or Sciences, professional’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.  Even lower certificates (associate’s degrees and various vocational certifications) are obtained through attendance at a university.  Doctors, attorneys, teachers, engineers, architects, military officers, even business managers and any level of government bureaucrat above a GS-5 or so, is expected to have a college degree.

But.  Colleges, after all, aren’t “just” about education any more.  In a world with the printed word in both hardcopy and electronic forms, with video-audio and all the rest of the data and teaching available all over the place, the colleges and universities are no longer the only storehouses of knowledge and experience.  They are far from the only places people can go to in order to learn, study, and do research.

But colleges and universities grow and expand and seem to be more important with each passing year.  In many states (Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico to name a few), the state university system is the largest employer – not counting independent and private schools.  In addition to the teaching (and research), universities are financial powerhouses because of their athletic programs, some of which have billion-dollar budgets.  These institutions are also enormous landlords with research farms and test sites and their dorms, married student housing, and faculty housing, as well as the actual campuses proper. Their construction, renovation, maintenance and repair budgets are massive.  Their affiliated foundations and alumni associations control billions in investments.  As a result of their wealth and budgets and their prestige as academic and research organizations (and their presumed neutrality on science and health issues), they are incredibly influential politically and socially.

There are still (as there were in the middle ages) town-and-gown disputes, but except in all but the largest of cities, the universities dominate their city and that city’s urban area: CU in Boulder, Colorado; Stanford in Palo Alto, KU in Lawrence, Princeton in its city, and many, many more are very powerful.  It is not just their direct influence as institutions, but the mass of their faculty, staff, and alumni in control of the community. This influence and power extends across their states and regions: virtually all public broadcasting (radio and television) is affiliated with one or more big university systems, which act as a megaphone to spread their messages.

There is indeed much similarity between the monastic system and the modern academic system. Towards the end, the corruption of the monastics was a key element in the Reformation and the revolt against Rome.

Today, the corruption of the academic systems in the Fifty States is more obvious every day. The wealth continues to grow and suck more and more from society, the economy, and academia’s sponsor/protector – government at all levels. The details of that corruption are beyond this article, but are massive.

But the key point of this commentary is that the services provided by universities and colleges are NOT unique, and CAN be provided by other sources.  Indeed, the rapid advance of technology in recent decades – going beyond printing, radio, and television – means that it is easier (physically) to have those services provided by non-traditional sources than ever.

Like the monasteries, the time of the colleges is nearing its end.  The teaching, the research, and especially the sports and other entertainment, the libraries, the housing, the media, the medical services – all of these can be provided by more efficient, more effective, and less corrupt voluntary associations and private business and even individuals.

And should be.

Mama’s Note: The key, as always, is individual liberty and the free market. When people have a clear choice, without support from government theft and fraud, this will sort itself out.  And I read at least once this week that university enrollment is dropping… so it may be well on its way already.

About TPOL Nathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (a christian), Pahasapan (resident of the Black Hills), Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer, Evangelist. Successor to Lady Susan (Mama Liberty) at TPOL.
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