Just Typing Out Loud.

            A room-mate in college kept a pet rattle-snake named Edgar Cayce in a dry fish tank.  He used to feed it mice.  If you wanted to, you could watch this big bulge move through Edgar Cayce’s digestive tract.  The “Baby Boom” (born between 1946 and 1963) has been like the mouse moving through American society.  This has been reflected in products and institutions.[1]  All of them expanded and then contracted as the “Baby Boom” passed through. 

            Except colleges and universities.  Higher education has proved comparatively easy to expand, but really hard to contract, move, or even change to suit different times.  Part of the expansion came with “Sputnik” (1957).  All of a sudden, we were in a high visibility and high stakes race with the Russkies.  Federal money poured into higher education, albeit with the intention of producing more scientists and engineers, rather than humanities or social science BAs.  Part of the expansion came with expanding opportunities for women.  Many more went to college; some of these went on to become some version of Peggy Olson.  Part of the expansion came with the Vietnam War.  Young men could get a draft deferment if they were in college, so lots went.  In any event, colleges expanded in size (both physical plant and faculty numbers).  Small state teachers colleges got turned into second-tier state universities; state universities got turned into the “Enormous State University” lampooned in the “Tank McNamara” cartoon strip.  The larger point is that there are too many colleges. 

Why didn’t they contract when the “Baby Boom” moved farther down the snake’s digestive tract?  For one thing, higher education faculty and—for the most part—administrators are True Believers in what they are doing.  At some point in their lives, they fell in love with a subject.[2]  They believe in its moral value and in its economic utility.  They could have made a lot more money if they had gone to law school or business school.  But the work in those fields is mostly like watching paint dry.  So, they’ll put up with a lot of abuse to keep doing it.[3]  They will also fight like Hell if an administration tries to cut or change elements of the college education. 

For another thing, colleges have resources that businesses and public education don’t have.  They have alumni who can be dunned for contributions.  They employ a lot of people whose spending contributes to the local community.  Indeed, lots of the minor league public universities ended up being located well away from big cities in areas where closing or shrinking them would harm voters.  They pushed the idea that a BA is a requirement of a “successful” life. 

Fighting to stay alive has its own problems.  Schools spend a lot of money on the amenities arms race to lure scarce students.  They carry an ever-growing burden of administrators to deal with accrediting, state, and federal regulators.  They employ all sorts of Educational and Emotional Support Humans to carry a generation of students ill-prepared to handle stress.  This probably isn’t what anyone on any side wants to hear. 


[1] Cribs, tricycles, coonskins caps, jeans, cars, music, drugs and alcohol, and now walkers, etc.; elementary and secondary schools, vacations down the Shore, Social Security and Medicare, and now mortuaries, etc. 

[2] “Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin to sound the depths of that thou wilt profess; Be a divine in show, but level at the End of every Art; And live and die in Aristotle’s words; Ah, Sweet Analytics, t’is thou hast ravished me!”—Christopher Marlowe, “Doctor Faustus” (1593).  Memorized the passage in John Webster’s Early English Literature class at the University of Washington in Fall 1972.  It’s why the hard core of us do what we do. 

[3] Doctors, lawyers, and college professors used to make about the same income.  College salaries have been held below the inflation rate for a long time. 

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