On the Bubble

Is higher education in a bubble like (or worse) than housing prices before 2008? This N+1 essay by Malcolm Harris argues that a 900 percent increase in the average tuition since 1978 and a collected student debt burden that now surpasses credit cards as the largest source of indebtedness in the U.S. means that yes, it is a bubble. (via 11d)

I think the N+1 essay is fairly on-target. The basic thrust of Harris’ argument is that demand for higher education is strongly inelastic, that students have been willing to incur almost any debt load in pursuit of the credentials offered in higher education because those credentials appear to be the only way to secure a middle-class life, and hence, higher education ratcheted up tuition rates well above inflation for decades.

Harris doesn’t dwell so much on a key question, namely, does higher education in fact succeed in securing that access? If it did, then the main question would be, “When does the debt load overwhelm expected earnings gains from undergraduate or graduate education”? This question was being debated intensely even before the recession, which increasingly appears to be less a conventional business-cycle downturn and more like the first wave of a long-term restructuring of the American economy. I think now there’s at least some reason to think that increasing numbers of undergraduates will graduate with student debt that will take decades to pay off, assuming they can find work at all. And many will feel compelled to incur still more debt for graduate training, with little subsequent improvement in their prospects.

Still, when bubbles pop, they don’t pop for everyone. There are plenty of U.S. neighborhoods where housing values have stayed fairly close to their peak or where losses have been small. Some of those neighborhoods are attractively situated and full of luxury properties that remain highly desirable, others are composed of properties of modest value that were never the target of speculation.

Where will the higher education bubble pop most destructively? 1. For-profit online education with no brick-and-mortar anchor. The degrees are not valued much by employers, but more importantly, their business model rests on charging high prices for extremely cheap services, fueled by the availability of credit to desperate students. There’s only one way out for the for-profits before they go spiraling to hell the same way subprime mortgages did: trimming their margins to the bone while enhancing the quality of their product and becoming a serious price alternative to brick-and-mortar higher education. Not going to happen: their CEOs like their multimillion dollar paydays too much. 2. Expensive brick-and-mortar higher education (both small and large institutions, public and private) that doesn’t deliver prestige value, doesn’t deliver actual services or value-added instruction, is under-resourced in relationship to price, and which offers students little vision of what the human or instrumental gains they’ve secured at such high cost. Institutions which are selling narrowly tailored vocational training in fields which are already vastly overcrowded or which might evaporate overnight are going to get hit hard if the recognition takes hold that such degrees rarely match value to cost over more than a few years after graduation.

What educational neighborhoods will retain their value if the bubble bursts? 1. Community colleges. That’s already quite clear even before the bubble pops: many of them offer an attractive mix of value, quality and accessibility. 2. Expensive universities where there is a specific, indisputable connection between the high-quality educational program offered and specific high-paying careers with long-term prospects. MIT or CalTech, to name two.

What’s in the balance? Expensive colleges and universities that are well-resourced, have significant established cultural or prestige value, and strong instructional programs as well as a wide range of services. Places like Swarthmore.

So let’s look a bit more deeply at this category.


Harris’ N+1 essay doesn’t really probe that deeply into why the costs of higher education at its upper end went up so fast for so long, relying instead on cynicism plus Marc Bousquet’s oft-repeated mantra that administrative growth, not faculty growth, explains most of the budgetary expansion. Bousquet’s basic analysis is sound, particularly applied to large private and public universities, but I think he underestimates how much of that growth on the staff side has been driven by the changing expectation of students and their families that highly selective institutions should be full-service institutions. When students (and staff and faculty) envision something that they believe a college or university should do, that quickly becomes an assumption that this mission or function should be enacted through one or more paid staff positions. If the best-resourced selective institutions are the equivalent of an expensive house in a highly desirable zip code, then this kind of staffing is the luxury feature that most of the customers expect. Even if the higher ed bubble pops in some fashion, I don’t think a place like Swarthmore could ride out the changed environment by cutting back to nothing but extravagantly offered instruction.

Nor do I think that colleges and universities like Swarthmore will need to somehow pare back their curriculum to raw instrumentality, to nothing but teaching which is narrowly fit to vocational ends. The basic line that we and our peer institutions offer will remain sound. The best secure way for ambitious, bright, competitive young adults to find their way in a 21st Century world, both as human beings and as workers, is through an education which emphasizes critical thinking, adaptability, creativity. Students can’t just study something in a fixed way in order to apply to a fixed short-term career objective. They have to be capable of making normative judgments about what to study and how to study it, about how to choose which methodologies or tools they need to engage a particular problem, about how to assess what audiences and customers need or want. Students need to figure out what matters and why it matters, and that inquiry always has to include the possibility that something that an authority (professorial or otherwise) thinks is significant is not.

So this, in my view, is where riding out the bubble will be decided for institutions like Swarthmore. They will have to persuade their anxious publics (students, families, employers, the society at large) that this vision really enables the people who pay for it. I think that’s not too difficult. More difficult, more important, is to prove that this vision is what the institution actually does, and to be able to point to the specifics of how it’s done. Here I’m pretty worried, far more so at the end of a year of extensive participation in strategic planning and curricular deliberation.

The worst thing that can happen when a bubble begins to pop or a form of professional labor begins to undergo major transformation is panicked retrenchment. When the shape of the crisis confronting journalism and publishing began to be clear, many professionals in those fields retreated into surly, hyperexaggerated assertions of what they took to be their essential prerogatives. The music industry, confronted by digitization, chose lawsuits and and legislatively-mandated market capture and it took a technologist to show them the market they’d been missing, a vision that many in the industry still refuse to fully credit.

Nothing about the near-term future of highly selective colleges or universities requires abandonment of their deep traditions. Quite the contrary. One of the stupidest things about the alleged rationalization of higher education in the United Kingdom has been the horrific damage to humanistic inquiry as a whole but also to any experimental or innovative programs in the name of a dystopian fetish for metrics of productivity. That’s not the way that selective colleges and universities in the U.S. are going to prove that they have a specific educational design that guides students through making creative, flexible choices about knowledge and interpretation. In riding out a bubble, humanists will need to excel at what they already excel at, the making of normative judgments and avoiding simple reductions of inquiry to instrumental ends, but social scientists and scientists will also need to enable students to think broadly, to make choices, to creatively apply one way of knowing to other ways beyond the specific intent or instruction of their teachers.

What I’m seeing, not just at Swarthmore but at many of its peer institutions, is a strong tendency in the opposite direction as faculty grow more and more anxious about the future. A curricular version of the Smoot-Hawley Tarriffs is threatening to take hold, with the same disastrous consequences, as faculty scurry back inside their disciplinary walls and insist that the value they provide to a college or university is only secured through exclusive, deep study of a single disciplinary tradition.

This has been an issue for a long time in academia since the fall of core curricula and strong shared canons, but it’s a different issue in an environment of resource scarcity than it is in an era of growth. Intellectual magnanimity is easy when endowment income and tuition revenues are rolling in by the barrelful.

The problem is that faculty at many institutions mandate that students pursue the liberal arts via distributional or general education requirements, but there are no obligations on the faculty themselves to match or embody that vision. Students are expected to make connections between subjects and courses largely on their own, and often find that the connections that they have made are complicatedly inexpressible within any given course or disciplinary major, in conversation with any given professor.

Deep disciplinarity or exclusive specialization is itself a completely valid choice within a liberal arts environment, with profound returns. The point is, however, that students should be guided to understand it as a choice. When that choice is dictated and never justified, when the alternatives are disparaged actively or implicitly through their absence among the faculty, then in many cases students at a liberal arts institution finish their studies as trapped as if they had pursued a narrowly vocational program. Worse, since some professors in liberal arts disciplines, especially in the humanities, are fastidiously tight-lipped about how to make use of what they teach beyond going to graduate school and becoming a professor. In a highly selective liberal arts institution, a specialist has to be able to explain what the intellectual, abstract, normative value of specialization is, and that requires valid models for other choices of how to live and know and think in the world.

Formal interdisciplinary programs are not the opposite of disciplinarity. Indeed, they usually work to reinforce disciplinarity, often through aspiration to it, through demands for parallel appropriations of resources. The alternative is nondisciplinarity, generalism. Interdisciplinary programs are treaty organizations. What a liberal arts college or university really needs as a deliberate commitment is a scattering of faculty and staff who habitually smuggle things across borders.

When disciplinary scholars retrench behind defensive fortresses, they often insist that you cannot do this kind of smuggling, this sort of generalism, until you are sufficiently trained in a specialized tradition. In a four-year program of study, that typically defers the day when a student is imagined as capable of choosing what to know and how to know it until after they’ve graduated, when their choices no longer are the active responsibility of faculty. Strong defenders of disciplinarity are happy to take credit for the alumni who achieve professional success outside of academia, but often cannot point to their own deliberate pedagogical practices which might have provided a foundation for such later choices. It all just works out somehow. Or it doesn’t. C’est la vie, not our problem, gotta leave the nest and fly someday.

I see myself as both a humanist and a generalist. I do not believe that generalism is a privilege which only makes itself available following upon the intensive study of a specialized tradition. Generalism itself has best practices, it has rigor and structure, it has its own kinds of depth, and as a result, can be taught. Moreover, it can be taught in parallel to specialized inquiry from the first day to the last day of an undergraduate education, within and alongside courses. It can be embodied in the work of faculty, expressed in the work of research and publication, legitimated in the small daily gestures that compose collegiality.

I’ve written a lot about generalist inquiry and its limitations at this blog, and how appreciative I’ve been of my colleagues’ invitation to teach and write in that spirit. I’ve gotten the sharp sense this year that the invitation is being withdrawn, and not just here, but for other faculty at other institutions. Generalism is dismissed with new sharpness as “loosey-goosey”, “superficial”, “empty”. I’ve been a smuggler for two decades, but for the first time in my life as a professor I’m now running into active border patrols.

Obviously this dismays me personally a lot. It’s been a reminder to not grow too comfortable. People are friendly towards trespass in a distantly magnanimous way until they think their own forests are being poached from. But I’m honestly more concerned for the consequences in the coming shake-out of higher education. If students at an allegedly liberal arts institution are confronted by a landscape of curricular rivalry and enrollment capture, not only will they not learn how to make judicious choices about what to know and interpret and how to do so, but they will quickly regard institutional rhetoric about the liberal arts as an insincere atavism. Under those circumstances, the only reasonable choices for those students who happen to end up in such a place will be those choices which most mimic or resemble vocational or pre-professional pathways. At which point, many students may reasonably ask why they shouldn’t just cut to the chase and leave for an openly vocational institution, selective or otherwise. Maybe that only gets you a job for a few years after graduation, but that might be preferable to a program which offers no vision at all besides “choose a discipline, become an apprentice academic in that discipline, go on into academia”. At that point, do not ask for whom the bubble pops: it pops for thee.

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10 Responses to On the Bubble

  1. Sdorn says:

    Many of the issues with the value of education and the dilemmas are real. I’m troubled by Harris’s choice of language (though he’s certainly not the only one to use it): “asset bubble” is a mediocre analogy for concerns about higher education, because your education is not something with speculative value. In the “use/exchange” model you can exchange the existence of a credential with something (often more education or job entry), but you can’t sell your credential in the same way you can resell tulip bulbs, houses, and CDOs… at least not until people sell future income slices to lenders to pay for tuition, and then those promissory income slices become resold on the open market (which could happen — I think it’s either Richard Vedder or one of his associates who has talked about that type of lending market).

    Part of the reason that the muddy metaphor irks me is that I don’t think you need to assert an asset bubble to talk about those dynamics. Being squeezed is a much broader phenomenon than just the asset-bubble crash, and it fits very neatly within institutional life — no tulips required. For example, I’d be very curious to see what happened to turf issues inside Brown during and after the transition to the no-distribution-requirements policy. And there are plenty of examples when people fight — or don’t fight or lose and have to figure out what to do after — the ending of certain requirements for internal institutional reasons. I’m facing a version of that inside my college, and I have seen *both* the standard territorial response and also a view that if there is to be an internal marketplace, by gosh we can attract students through our sheer brilliance and interesting course titles/descriptions. After all, several hundred years after the tulip bubble, you can still find a tulip market. It’s just not superheated. And sometimes, especially in April or early May, you can even find them blooming in southeast Pennsylvania.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I hear you on this point. But I think muddy as it might be, there are two important things that the metaphor underscores.

    The first is that the debt loads that students are incurring now seem increasingly unsustainable in relationship to expected earnings and in relationship to widening income inequity in the US, and that if a moment comes where demand for higher education achieves elasticity of a sort under that pressure, I think it’s likely to be the kind of elasticity where the rubber band breaks and shoots across the room and hits someone in the eye. (Metaphors, I got a zillion of ’em.) In that context, there really could be a pretty sharp shakeout in higher education.

    Second has to do with our internal markets within our institutions, and I suppose this is my more urgent concern. If faculty, especially humanists, choose to turtle up in response to anxieties about movements of students within curricula and insist on exclusive, deep disciplinarity, I think they really do run a serious risk of devaluing their own work in a manner that will be hard to undo. Now is not the time to stop taking the liberal arts idea seriously, and taking it seriously means finding a place for generalism and synthesis in the curriculum and in inquiry.

  3. Sdorn says:

    So when the rubber band snaps, things are shaken through a sieve and … ?there’s a reason Howard Becker warned us against metaphors!

    As I said, I think the issue is serious enough on its own terms that you don’t need the bubble (or another) metaphor.

  4. back40 says:

    Such metaphors help those who are not intimately familiar with the issues to understand them. They can mislead, but a careful writer can (and did) minimize the risk.

  5. Stephen Frug says:

    “I’ve written a lot about generalist inquiry and its limitations at this blog…”

    Any chance you could link to a few pieces? I’m a sporadic reader, so I probably missed them, but I’m not remembering any posts like that.

    (I’m particularly interested in anything which fleshes out this claim: “Generalism itself has best practices, it has rigor and structure, it has its own kinds of depth, and as a result, can be taught.” But whatever you think are your best posts on the topic would be great.)


  6. Timothy Burke says:

    A few, Stephen (though it’s an issue that I also feel suffuses a lot of my writing here):

    Big-Tent Problems

    Evaluation Across the Disciplines

    What Color is Your Leaden Weight?

    Show Me the Money

    Brains in Maine

    Liberal Arts Poster Children (On the Mythbusters as the ideal liberal arts generalists.)

    Welcoming New Arrivals to the Sekrit Clubhouse.

    There’s more, but that’s a pretty good start. 🙂

  7. G. Weaire says:

    You can probably guess what I’m going to say, but…

    1) When you say “Generalism itself has best practices, etc.” – do you mean the kind of (modest in its claims, respectful of specialist work) generalism that you identify as the best? Because I’m not sure that, descriptively, that is really characteristic of actually existing generalism in the wild.

    Also (and this is really inchoate), I have this nagging feeling that the model you’re thinking of is basically one of a sort of discursive content-oriented, can-be-expressed-in-essays, sort of knowledge – which is in fact typical of what and how history departments teach. But there are other sorts of college teaching (in my case, elementary language instruction) which will always be excluded from such a model. If so, is it really broader?

    (I am however *really* sorry that your colleagues have been giving you a hard time about this.)

    2) The Swarthmores of this world will be fine no matter what. It’s institutions further down the pecking order that may be in trouble. In this category, I would expect that the first to go would be regional SLACs without a clear and distinct identity, and so on up the ladder of vulnerability.

  8. Timothy Burke says:


    I would say that “best practices” generalism and synthesis has those attributes. That it may not be typical of generalism is a different point. But frankly I don’t think that “best practices” disciplinary specialization is necessarily typical of disciplinary specialization in the wild, either.

    I think what you describe as my implicit model is one part of what I have in mind. But another part is being broadly aware of the totality of knowledge production within the academy, and then of other knowledge-producing or expert practices outside of it. Not in the sense that you can yourself produce legitimate work in more than a very small range of that big picture, but that you have a good emic understanding of how different disciplines operate, the kinds of work they privilege, and the reasoning behind that privileging. Sometimes that ‘big-picture’ understanding is so that you understand for your own work where there are useful fragments or abstractions available in another disciplinary tradition, and sometimes it’s so that you can serve as a navigator for students and audiences, helping them to know where to go in order to engage a particular problem in a particular fashion. For example, a historian can take an interest in the problem of consciousness as a specialist. A generalist who starts with some grounding in history, as I do, might at some point ask whether there is a very different disciplinary tradition that is available for use to approach that problem from another angle, or might instead simply demarcate as a point of principle where the analysis of the question of consciousness has “left the building” and must be dealt with through some other specialized vocabulary that the generalist can’t easily access.

    Are there some kinds of teaching that generalism doesn’t address or is useless within? I guess some kinds of technical skill-based teaching, sure. But even there, I think a generalist sensibility might help any teacher to evaluate claims of pedagogical efficacy–a generalist is going to be able to look differently at perennial debates about immersive techniques vs. drilling, about the nature or character of fluency and translation, and so on.

    Not sure that the Swarthmores of the world will be fine no matter what. But as you saw in the first part of this entry, I agree with your view about which institutions are going to be in immediate crisis if the pool of potential college students and their families come to a radically new conclusion about the value of higher education.

  9. onellums says:

    I agree with many of the points made in the original post — particularly with the possibility that in general higher education is showing many characteristics of a bubble right now — but I would like to question one:

    “What educational neighborhoods will retain their value if the bubble bursts? 1. Community colleges. That’s already quite clear even before the bubble pops: many of them offer an attractive mix of value, quality and accessibility.”

    I have heard this theory again and again, but the reality is that many community colleges — not just the one where I work — are suffering right now. A decrease in both state and local funding is one major problem. In addition, many of us are noticing decreasing enrollment and closures of career programs. Who wants to train to be a teacher, for example, when teachers are losing their jobs? Never mind jobs in fire or police forces. Also look at the various cuts to Perkins funding currently being debated in Congress.

    Nope, we’re not doing all that well either.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I agree that community colleges are struggling with huge structural issues. But I think that if potential students suddenly question the value of particular kinds of expensive higher education, they’re not likely to question the value of community colleges. Whether community colleges can actually sustain themselves institutionally despite a continued interest in what they have to offer, and whether state and local governments will recognize that value is a totally different kind of problem.

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