David Labaree is the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus at Stanford University. He received a BA from Harvard and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. His work explores the intersection of education and society in the United States. His latest book is A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (U. Chicago Press, 2017).
I spoke with Dr. Labaree about why universities exist, if universities should promote social mobility, how businesses might consider acting more like universities, university leadership, efficiency versus effectiveness, the importance of populism and athletics inside the university, and more:
Ryan Maloney: I want to start by throwing out an idea and see how you respond: Once I started thinking about the big picture of higher ed I got very cynical. It might be surmised by that Academically Adrift book, about limited learning on college campuses–these researchers surveyed thousands of college students and found they couldn’t do the basics of writing, or reading critically, and I started to think, “What are we even doing here? Are we educating students at all? And if we’re not, then what’s the point?” People who think about higher ed, especially from the outside, have those perspectives and they wonder what we’re doing. Reading your book made me think, “Maybe education isn’t the point.”
Dr. David Labaree: (laughs).
Maloney: Maybe it’s not. So I say all that as a jumping-off point to see how you respond.
Dr. Labaree: It’s easy to be cynical about higher ed, because it’s easy to construe it as a system that’s designed to benefit itself. For people like you and me who work at universities, it’s a nice place to work, and it serves us well. In a lot of ways it seems like we’re self-healing, and the benefits to the public are less obvious. And so part of the problem is trying to unpack what it is that universities do, and what I started coming around to–and losing a bit of my cynicism–was that for institutions to be durable they have to be sustainable, which means that they have to be places where peoples’ self-interests are being met. It has to be a place where people can have a career, and it has to be a reasonably satisfying place to work. You can’t have schools unless you have a viable system of preparing teachers, and a way for them to teach so that they say, “I’m going to be a teacher and do this for the rest of my life.” So the fact that it serves the interests of the people who work there, in some ways, isn’t very interesting, because it just means it’s a viable organization that is self-sustaining and self-reproducing. The question then is, “Let’s move beyond the fact that it’s a nice place for professors and staff to be, and for students to spend a few years of their lives,” you can move beyond that and say, “What other benefits does it provide?”
Part of the issue when people talk about higher ed, in particular, is that they tend to have a pretty narrow idea of what higher ed does. For a lot of people it’s a teaching place–it’s for transmitting knowledge–and that’s part of what we do, but it’s actually only part of what we do, and in some places, especially research universities, it’s probably a secondary component of what we do. Another thing that people think is that colleges are places that give people opportunity; they let people get ahead; they’re doing their job if they’re promoting social mobility; they’re not doing their job if they’re not promoting social mobility. And if you look at top-ranked universities, they provide very little social mobility because most of the students who come in are already at the top! If you look at a place like Stanford, where I taught for years, twenty percent of the students come from the top one percent of income, and sixty percent come from the top quintile. So people start at the top, and they go to a place like Stanford, and there’s no room for upward mobility. Then we say, “Why do we have these places? And why do we subsidize them so heavily if they’re not doing their job?” Well, they’re doing another job: they’re creating knowledge; they’re training future leaders; they’re doing lots of things that we need that provide other social benefits. So it creates an odd situation.
Elite universities, on the one hand, look like they’re proving the cynics’ point: they’re places that reproduce social inequality in a very efficient manner. They take kids who are well-born; they give them high-quality credentials that then qualify them for high positions; and they can basically say, “I came in as a rich kid and I come out as a smart kid.” So it’s almost like we’re laundering social advantage and turning it into academic merit. And there’s a way in which that’s true. That’s what places like Harvard and Stanford do; that’s their business model. And it works well for them because those people then donate huge amounts of money to the endowment; it’s a nice, reinforcing policy.
But, I think you can justify those research universities as providing public benefits that, say, a community college can’t provide, or that a regional state university can’t provide. If you look at the community colleges and the regional state universities, they’re the ones that are doing most of the education. That’s what higher ed means for the large majority of Americans. And they are also providing a considerable degree of upward mobility for people; they are taking people who come from the lower tiers and giving them opportunities to move into the upper tiers. That’s the cool thing they do that the top institutions don’t. But, they can’t do some of the things that these flagship state universities can, which is to have this incredible concentration of intellectual talent–a huge amount of basic research going on that can be quite generative and beneficial for society as a whole. Corporations and the federal government look for research that has an immediate payback. Universities are in this luxurious position to pursue interesting questions just because they’re there–pursue a question that doesn’t seem to have any practical use at the moment, but may well in the future. Universities are places where you’re not necessarily solving current problems; you’re working on problems that haven’t even developed yet. You’re building up intellectual and cultural technologies that are available for when you need them. Just think of the mRNA technology that was developed, then suddenly got put into use this last year to create a vaccine, literally overnight. They can design the thing in twenty-four hours because they already figured out how to do it. That’s one of the things that makes the institution so interesting to me. It’s the breadth of the things it does; it’s the synergy, the interaction effect of all these things at one time that makes it such a rich institution. But it also makes it puzzling to outsiders. Businessmen hate universities because they’re so inefficient. It’s like, “Who’s in charge? Where’s the organization chart?” The organization chart for a university is one of the messiest things on Earth. It looks like total chaos.
Maloney: You say corporations are looking for research with immediate payback, but should corporations be acting more like universities, where people are following their interests? I’m pretty sure I read something like that in your book, that businesses should think about acting more like universities.
Dr. Labaree: It’s an interesting issue, because that’s been a classic complaint, that universities should become more efficient. Part of it is that they’re doing so many different things; they’re cluttered. Someone might say, “Let’s just scrape it down and do undergraduate instruction; that’s all we do.” And then, “Okay, you go and do the research. And somebody else will do professional degrees. But why do it all on one campus?” And then you throw on externalities, such as football, and it’s like, “This makes no sense at all!”
But I read something that struck me: that you find, especially in a place like Silicon Valley, that corporations are beginning to look more like universities. They’re becoming decentralized, because the centralized model for getting things done often stamps out creativity; it creates a kind of linear structure that looks efficient but is not very effective because it’s not doing what you need it to do. So you see corporations starting to say, “Let’s push down control to localities. Let’s let multiple groups work on the same project and see what happens.” Those apparent inefficiencies can actually be quite productive. You also find that places start giving employees space instead of so tightly controlling their time, like the old Google model where you could spend a certain percentage of your time working on whatever project you wanted. And in some ways that’s what universities do: you bring a bunch of smart, well-educated people together; you throw them in a position; you give them the incentive to go out and study stuff; and then you see what happens. It’s a self-generating process, which I find particularly interesting.
Faculty don’t need the same kind of incentives that corporate entities are used to providing, which are almost entirely material: “We’ll pay you if you do more to prove your worth.” Academics are remarkably willing to work for peanuts, and to seek reward in more of a semiotic space than a material space. We seem to be obsessed with reputation, and status, and being considered smart, and getting honorary degrees, and getting endowed chairs, and getting elected to national committees, and being selected as an editor of this journal, and getting all these awards that we seem to be so big on. Very little of it involves money. In some ways it’s an incredibly efficient machine for generating research, because we’re willing to do it for praise and a pat on the back. It can look chaotic because people are all doing their own thing, but in the middle of that messiness all kinds of interesting and creative stuff pops up. In some ways it’s a side effect of this engine that’s built up in the university. That’s kind of a remarkable thing, and business is beginning to get a sense that maybe they need to be thinking more along those lines. Maybe they need to have looser controls, a more mixed set of incentives, less linear efficiency in order to become more effective overall.
Maloney: I imagine as a manager, or as an administrator, that’s somewhat scary, because I don’t know what my people are doing.
Dr. Labaree: I know (laughs).
Maloney: “Where are you? Why aren’t you doing X, Y, or Z?” But sometimes the employee wants to say, “Just leave me alone. I know what to do.”
Dr. Labaree: Yes, it’s interesting. Academic leadership has always been considered a bit like herding cats. Nobody’s in charge. I was an associate dean, and that’s a position that makes you realize how little managerial authority anybody has in academic life. Being an administrator in some ways is doing the crap work that faculty don’t want to do. They’re happy to let somebody else do it: “Go ahead, but just don’t bother me. And don’t intrude on my autonomy, which I’ll protect more than anything else.” So it can be very frustrating. I taught at Michigan State for years, and we had a president come in who was a lawyer from the world of banking. And his introduction to the university: he was totally astonished. First of all, he wanted to start having breakfast meetings with administrators at seven o’clock in the morning, and people said, “You just don’t do that.” And then his first summer he discovered the faculty weren’t on the payroll. He was just apoplectic: “How can you run an organization where a quarter of the year they’re gone?! They do whatever they want!”
Maloney: Our former president once had an issue with something a professor was doing. The president told him to stop and the professor just said no. And I was like, “What?!” (laughs). But now, talking to you and reading your book, I also wonder if there’s something healthy about that.
Dr. Labaree: It’s hard. It takes a special kind of person to be a dean, or a president, or a provost, or a department chair, where you have to recognize that you’re operating within a structure where your power is quite limited, and your job is in many ways to facilitate the system. In many ways a department chair or a dean is spending most of their time acting in support of their faculty, rather than dictating to their faculty, and that’s a hard thing to do. But on the other hand if you look at some of the leadership literature that’s coming out of business schools, that’s actually a lot of what leadership is. A lot of it is making it possible for people to work well, and giving them a setting where the incentives are such that people are comfortable, happy, and productive. It’s not something you can dictate military-style, issuing orders. And, you can move the incentives around. John Hennessy was the President of Stanford for sixteen years and he used to say that being an academic administrator is like herding cats, but he said, “I do have the ability to move the cat food around.” You know? So you can’t tell people what to do, but you can induce behavior by saying, “I just raised a hundred million dollars and I’m setting up a center, and you can have a share of that to support your research, but to do that you need to set up a project that cuts across at least two departments in the university.” And suddenly you’ve got a structure that’s promoting interdisciplinary work without telling people to do it; you’re incentivizing them to do it. You’re having an effect; you’re shaping the institution; but you’re doing it in a way that’s more indirect and more focused on fostering rather than commanding behavior.
Maloney: Another thing that comes under fire from outsiders is tenure. I’m under no illusion that tenure is ever going away, but I think a lot of “business people” would say that very few academics need tenure in this day and age. I’m curious how you’d respond to that.
Dr. Labaree: Tenure is always a bone of contention. There’s an article every week or so about how we need to do away with tenure. And a lot of it, particularly right now, seems even harder to defend against. More and more faculty are adjuncts rather than having a permanent position, and then having some people not only with permanent funding and regular benefits, but also they can’t be fired–a lifetime sinecure–that seems grossly unfair because you end up with this very privileged group of tenured faculty and then a bunch of other people who are scrabbling together a career doing a heavy teaching load for not very much pay. So that part is hard to justify. But I was struck: I remember reading an article by, of all people, a group of economists, making the case for why tenure is actually a good strategy. And their argument was interesting, which is when you’re hiring faculty, current faculty have a big say in who gets hired–they interview them, they vote–and if you don’t have tenure the incentive is to hire people who are less smart than you are, who are going to be less productive than you are, because you don’t want to bring in people who are going to make you look bad, or threaten you: “I don’t want to hire my replacement.” But if you have tenure you can bring in people who are more productive because it’s not going to affect you. So in some ways there’s an organizational benefit of having the hiring process not threaten the current residents. So that’s one kind of issue; the other of course is academic freedom–the freedom of speech issue–but in some ways that’s less important than the other.
Maloney: I would have thought academic freedom was most important. Isn’t that originally why it was put into place?
Dr. Labaree: The original tenure structure was in part a response to some very high-profile firings of people for their political views. It was particularly in the late-nineteenth century, early twentieth-century, especially professors who were advocating for unions, and corporate leaders of the university were very unhappy with it. Jane Stanford famously fired a pro-labor faculty member that she didn’t like, and that was one of the things that started the American Association of University Professors, to start developing some kind of benefits. The McCarthy period was another time when there was fear that political views would compress the nature of debate on campus. School teachers have tenure to a certain degree in the U.S. And that’s also a bone of contention: “Why is it so hard to fire a teacher?” There’s been a lot of literature about that. There was a famous “Rubber Room” in New York City where teachers, who were taken out of the classroom for some form of misbehavior or incompetence, were kept on the payroll, but in order to be kept on the payroll they had to show up to the Rubber Room in the administration building every day–and do crossword puzzles all day long. Well, that’s a pretty strange way to run things, and you can understand the concerns about it.
But when you look back, tenure didn’t arise through labor unions. Before there were strong labor unions in education–which didn’t happen until maybe the fifties–it was in the 1920s that they started providing tenure, and it was in order to attract and retain teachers. It was a fringe benefit in the labor market. It wasn’t a demand from labor; it was offered by employers, and I think there’s a certain sense about that, too. Again going back to academics, the autonomy is in some ways the single biggest fringe benefit you’ve got, and tenure reinforces that autonomy in a really strong way. It’s a way of saying, “Well, why would I want to spend my career in academic life when with the same degree I can get paid better in industry? Because there are some things I can do there,there’s a life I can have there, that I couldn’t have in industry.” And that comes from having the freedom to decide how you’re going to spend your day. That’s a truly remarkable thing. That kind of freedom is worth a lot of money in the marketplace. That’s a real draw, to draw people into this profession and to keep them there. Aside from the free speech part of it, it may be part of the rather strange incentive structure academics have, where the incentives are less material and more experiential, and tenure is one factor that feeds into that.
Maloney: I remember a university president once described to me how she felt when she was named full professor, and I gave her a blank stare. I couldn’t understand that at the time. Or when an assistant staff member becomes an associate staff member, but they’re making more or less the same amount of money and they’re doing the same thing. But it’s a huge deal to them.
Dr. Labaree: It does create a very strange hierarchy within academic life, which is another peculiarity of the system. The faculty and staff: there’s an uncomfortable relationship there. And faculty have this kind of golden status: “Well, it’s an academic institution so they’re the heart of it, and you (staff) are just managing stuff.” And, “I’ve got the union card, the PhD, so that’s why I’m special.” But it can create uncomfortable relationships. In some ways it’s nice being a staffer at a university–it’s a good working environment–but there is this sense of being a second-tier citizen inside your own institution, and that somehow you’re never going to get to that level; even if you have a fancy title you’re still not a professor. That’s a little uncomfortable. Sometimes faculty treat staff kind of like peons: “Take care of this. It’s your job.” It doesn’t feel very collaborative half the time. It’s like, “I’m special. You’re not.”
Maloney: It probably feels like that at a lot of places. Athletic departments definitely feel like they’re in a silo–that professors don’t understand it. And I’m not speaking self-righteously, because if I had to pick I’d say faculty are at the center of the university–not as many of them anymore, it seems, but I think they still are and probably should be. Coaches get frustrated in that we recruit the students, we keep the students here, we graduate the students, and it can feel like we’re doing all the work and not getting any thanks for it. But maybe you just have to look past that.
Dr. Labaree: You’re bringing up another interesting subject, which is something that makes American universities quite peculiar, and that is intercollegiate athletics. It’s a huge thing in the U.S., and in the rest of the world it’s almost non-existent. I have colleagues in Europe, and in part I was trying to write my book for them, about what’s weird about this system that’s not the same in European academic settings, and one of them is that sense of the campus as this huge social entity. You go to a lot of European campuses and they’re typically in big cities, not in small towns the way they are in the U.S. That’s another peculiarity: why do we put universities in the middle of nowhere, whereas in the rest of the world they put them in the middle of capital cities? But when you go there (European universities) there is no campus. There are buildings mixed around, but there’s no sense of that unified structure, and particularly as a self-contained social, cultural, and academic community all-in-one. That notion of “the campus” is such an important thing in the U.S.
One of the things I found in writing my book is I got a much more positive feeling about how important it is to have that community in the American setting. And one of the things that’s key about it, I think, is that it makes American universities less effete; they’re more accessible. Even if you have no kids going to college, or they’re not going to the “State U”, that doesn’t mean you’re not a devoted fan of their football team. That’s really fascinating. I lived in Michigan for years and you drive around and see farmers in the field wearing either their Michigan or Michigan State baseball cap. Maybe they have a connection with the university, maybe they don’t, but there’s a sense of a populist quality about the American university that’s very fruitful for the system as a whole. It creates a kind of broad political base for this institution that, when you think about it, is a very elitist setting. People are studying bizarre things; they’re publishing things in journals that nobody reads. Why are we supporting that? And part of it is that it seems more accessible; I can identify with it. One of the things that athletics does is it creates an aura of accessibility. The German university model is extremely elitist and quite cut off from the rest of the population; that was in many ways its single characteristic. The American model started out very modest, and even as they’ve become more successful and more elite over time, football and other kinds of athletics have kept it accessible; it still feels like “ours”, not “theirs”.
But for the university itself I think it creates a huge benefit, and that is that the American university is really good at making people loyal to it. They’re really good at bringing in students and giving them an experience that is quite powerful in their lives, where they increasingly identify themselves with the institution. The fact that American students wear the logo all the time: that’s something that Europeans look at and say, “Why are they doing that? Nobody does that in European universities.” The university is kind of like the medical facility you go to. You don’t wear it’s logo. It’s a useful public service but it’s not my brand. For American universities, the university is not where you go, it’s who you are. The rest of your life that label is on you. You put the sticker on your car. On game days you put the sign on your yard that says, “I’m for the Wolverines, or the Spartans.” And so for the university that’s an amazing thing because you have people that are not just consumers, they are fans. You’ve helped shape their future; you’ve given them a calling card that has enhanced their quality of life; you give them the prestige of being a Michigan graduate, and then they come back and donate buildings, they endow chairs. The kind of money and support that comes back from that kind of identification is just remarkable, and it creates a flow of resources to these universities that means they’re not completely dependent on the government purse for getting things done. They can generate a lot of this out of their own consumer base, and that’s a potent thing. That also, importantly, helps the university protect its autonomy, because the less dependent you are on government funds the more independence you have in shaping the institution itself: what programs you want to do, what institutes you want to set up. You have a lot more freedom of action if you’re not having to follow the budget that was handed down to you from above. American universities are much less dependent on state funding than most universities in the world. That’s a problem on the one hand, but it’s also a great source of autonomy on the other.
Maloney: There’s a big inflow of people coming to the United States to go to college, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a big outflow. Is that populist element a big part of that? Or is it just that it’s America?
Dr. Labaree: It’s a couple of things. One is of course that Americans don’t speak any other languages except English, and the rest of the world is much better at languages than we are. Part of it is the social experience of going to college: they would miss it. You wouldn’t get it elsewhere. It would be a very different kind of experience and they would feel like they’re missing something. But another reason that the people in the rest of the world pour in is that over time the American university system has become extremely successful. If you look at the world rankings it’s kind of ridiculous–something like over half of the universities in the top hundred in the world are American. Eighteen of the top twenty are American. So there’s a drawing power that comes from the mix of characteristics that we’ve been talking about that has allowed universities to build up their intellectual forces, their campus capacity, their research programs, their instructional programs to such a high level that they are very competitive. It’s a draw because maybe it’s a better system. You get more from it. That’s an amazing story because it’s one that was really unexpected. And one of the things you noticed in my book is that the starting point for the (American) university system was very, very low. These were very undistinguished colleges scattered around the country with poorly educated professors and not very intellectually-oriented students. In the nineteenth century there was no indication that it would become a world-class system–the world-class system was in Europe–but suddenly in the twentieth century the system took off and turned into a world-beater. In the nineteenth century it was a worldwide joke. Visitors would come in from Europe and say, “This is a pitiful excuse for a higher education institution.” But, the thing turned around and now it’s a big draw.
Maloney: I want to come back to when we were talking about social mobility. In the last two weeks as I was thinking and preparing for this interview I was reading this book called The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, and at one point it talks about the purpose of education as being to democratize liberal thinking, making it available to everyone. But we so readily equate college now to social mobility. I think the guy’s name was Raj Chetty who put out . . .
Dr. Labaree: Yes!
Maloney: That was amazing. That data set is published in the New York Times and I just like to look at it. It’s fun. (“Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at America’s Colleges and Universities: Find Your College”)
Dr. Labaree: Isn’t that amazing? I go into that all the time. I get students to do it: “Let’s punch in a name and see what they’re doing, and then compare it.”
Maloney: It’s like, “Let’s do this every year. This is great.” But on the other hand I wonder: is this where we’re at now? Is it just a private good to us now?” At some point in your book you even mention the tension between liberalism and social equality, and my sense is that we don’t have a whole lot of social equality, and social solidarity, anymore. Can I get you to respond to that?
Dr. Labaree: You’re right, and you and I have been reading a lot of the same stuff: the books about meritocracy that have come out in the last few years. The lack of social solidarity: part of it you can attribute to the role that universities played. They’re the places that anoint the elite, and the more elite the university the more elite the social outcome you can gain from it. So we end up with this system that has a meritocratic feel to it because people are being admitted accordingly because of their academic skills, and then being rewarded for demonstrating their academic proficiency. So it has the elements of a meritocracy built in. But it’s strange because it’s become the way to move into the elite, and that seems to push all the other issues off to the side, and it creates this credentialed group of people who are now, by the nature of the credentials, occupying the top positions of power and professional authority in society. They don’t just think to themselves, “Well, this is cool. I’m lucky.” They think, “No, I earned it. This is mine. My right.” And there’s a certain entitlement that comes from that that can be really off-putting, and that can create a real divide between college and non-college members of society. We’ve certainly seen that in the Trump era as the very powerful political division between the credentialed and the uncredentialed. There’s good reason for the uncredentialed to think that the meritocratic elite look down on them, because they do! They live in “fly over country”, you know? “I don’t know what they do, but it’s not the important stuff that people like me do. We need those people, I guess, but they don’t particularly earn our respect. And we really shouldn’t ever put them in positions of power, and we really don’t want them interfering with our decision-making because they’re unqualified, and we’re qualified.” I mean, that’s a creepy kind of new aristocracy that is just as reproductive as the old one was, but it has the unhappy consequence of also being smug, because the old aristocracy knew it was just a matter of birth: ”I’m king because I was the king’s son. I didn’t earn it.” There’s something refreshing about that. But now, the people who rise to the top are saying, “This is all me. I did it all myself.” It’s pretty hard to operate in a democratic society when a lot of people are thinking that they really just shouldn’t be accountable to “yahoos” who shouldn’t have a say: “Leave me alone. Take care of it. Let your betters manage things.” That kind of respect gap is something the meritocratic literature has been pointing to, and I’d agree. That’s a real issue. Michael Sandel talks about that in a way that’s really quite powerful. The simple disrespect is hard to take.
Maloney: I never put those two things together. The Betrayal of the Elites was written in the mid-nineties, and it seemed to be describing the problem, and the Michael Sandel’s of the world seem to be trying to address that problem. Ironically it’s the elites themselves now that are saying this is a problem.
You’re also close to Silicon Valley, and there seems to be some sentiment coming out of Silicon Valley that would make this problem worse, because there’s such an easy option to “be your own person”, to not be part of a community, to be a “digital person” at this point; these “sovereign individuals” who have so much wealth they can cross jurisdictions at will.
Dr. Labaree: We’ve always had super rich people in the U.S.–that’s always been part of the story–and they often go through a phase of being purely accumulators, and then later in life turning into philanthropists and burnishing an image that was pretty raw at the beginning stages. I mean, look at a guy like Leland Stanford who started Stanford: he was one of the classic robber barons, then became the great benefactor. So we’ve always had that kind of thing, but what’s different is that the new elites are now so heavily embedded in university credentialing as their mechanism. It gives them an edge. They’re not just Andrew Carnegie working their way up to the top–a self-educated guy. You can do that in Silicon Valley, but the main tendency is to hire nothing but the best, and relying heavily on the university pipeline. Even the ones like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who wouldn’t finish college: they dropped out of the very best, but they got the benefit of going to Harvard or an elite college just by getting in. And graduating: who cares? The selection effect was already there. You were already anointed as one of the elite just by getting in. That connection is still quite strong.
Maloney: In your past writing and speaking I think you’ve made it clear that you’re not trying to predict the future. You’re not trying to set policy. You’re trying to describe how things are. I don’t mean to ask you to predict the future, but if credentialing is such a problem can’t the internet be a solution to help reduce the heat of credentialism? Is that a possible way to move forward? The internet has always been promising to democratize education, but it just hasn’t happened yet.
Dr. Labaree: I don’t know. As you say, I’m not a futurist. And people who claim to be futurists are usually just making it up. It’s hard to know where this is headed. One problem with credentialing is that we spend more and more time in school. When does life begin? Just think about it: the story of American education is the quickly rising level of education in the population. First it was just getting a basic elementary education; then by the end of the nineteenth century people had completed elementary and so high school started to take off; and then after the Second World War colleges took off; and now graduate schools are taking off. So we’re always training for something, but are we ever going to do anything? It takes up a lot of time. I figured out that I spent twenty-five years in school, starting from kindergarten and all the way to graduate school. That’s a lot of time.
It’s also a money issue. The cost of higher education is going up radically. It’s a very labor-intensive process without a lot of efficiencies of scale, and so the costs keep going up faster than inflation. And so for individuals, and for society as a whole, it becomes more expensive. And part of it is that each level of education is more expensive per student than the one below it: high school is more expensive than elementary school, college is more than high school, graduate school is more expensive than undergraduate. And so as the level of education is going up it’s not just a linear increase in cost; it’s a geometric increase in costs, for individuals and society. How much money can we really keep putting into education? And especially if it’s not clear that the extra level of education people are getting is socially beneficial–because what seems to be driving it is that in order to get the best job you need to have more education than the other candidates. It becomes a way to qualify for a position, and it’s the relative education you have that matters rather than the absolute amount. That’s a real social subsidy for personal ambition that might not be sustainable. Paying people to go to school just so they can get more education than their peers and qualify for a job: what’s the social benefit from that? Picture a kind of leveling off that happens. The danger that that poses, socially, is that part of the American dream has always been the upward rise, and schooling has become the way you rise, and if we’re not increasing the levels of education and opportunity for people it’s like a ceiling is suddenly being imposed. Kids aren’t going to get more education than their parents did, and that was always the model: every generation was better educated than the one before. What happens when that levels off? Is that creating a sense of stasis, or a feeling that opportunity is now gone? Or maybe we can turn opportunity into something that’s away from education and towards other benefits that don’t require us to spend thirty or thirty-five years in school, pouring in huge amounts of money to it at the same time. Is that really socially beneficial? I’m not sure. I can see a ceiling effect coming into place that could be culturally or socially awkward.
Maloney: It seems to me that, in some sense, individuals and society are trying to avoid pain. In the same way that a student might go on to get an MBA because she doesn’t know what else to do, some universities are in a lot of debt, and instead of having to make cuts they get millions of dollars from the federal government that are printed out of thin air: “There you go. Keep doing what you’re doing.” So if the money didn’t exist you won’t be able to keep going to school, or it wouldn’t be so expensive, but if the government keeps giving it to you, “Well, alright, let’s just keep doing it. Let’s add this; let’s add that, so that we don’t have to change anything.”
Dr. Labaree: The problem is that the money is coming from somewhere. Right now is a “funny money” time in the U.S. because interest rates are so low, and they’ve been so low for so long that the government can borrow money at very little fiscal risk and flood things out. But that doesn’t seem likely to last forever. The fiscal constraints are real. How much can we tax ourselves? Or in education: how much can individuals put towards the education of their children? They’re going to do it either through tuition payments or taxes, and how much of that can we afford? I’m not sure where that’s going, but if I were a planner for higher education I’d be wondering about that.
Maloney: Regional universities across the country are going through just what you say, wondering and planning for this future. Many have decided that they’re not willing or not able to reduce their spending, so they’re deciding to try to increase enrollment. At a regional school it seems impossible on one hand, but on the other hand you think about stacking credentials on top of each other, or adding graduate programs. And maybe some of that is necessary, because there were reports last week that employers are having trouble finding people to hire because they want to change careers. But it’s still expensive.
Dr. Labaree: That’s the situation of the university following the standard plan, which is the way they’ve always developed: “We need more money? Well, we’ll grow. We’ll just add more students; we’ll add new programs; we’ll add new degrees; we’ll put in new schools.” And that’s worked in the past, but it only works when the population is growing rapidly. It’s not anymore. It’s leveled off; it’s even dropped a bit. And so the old “expand in order to pay the bills” model isn’t necessarily going to be there, which makes them think, “Okay, now what do we do? We’ve always thought that more is better, but how do we survive without adding more money and more people? How do we adjust to this?” It’s hard. I wouldn’t want to be in the position of trying to figure out how to manage that.
Maloney: You know what universities look like internationally. You know what they look like at every level in the United States; you know what K-12 looks like. Again, I know you don’t want to be a futurist about it, but if I could ask you to wave a magic wand, how should higher education look?
Dr. Labaree: I’ve never been a “should” person. Like, “How should it be? How do we fix the system?” I do historical work but I’m really trained as a sociologist, and for me the fascination about schooling is to just understand how it works. It’s an incredibly complex institution that’s developed over the last two hundred years into this huge enterprise. And for me it’s like, “How did that happen? What were the dynamics that made that happen? What are the various needs and functions that this institution is playing for lots of people that has spurred that incredible growth pattern that we’ve seen?” And so just trying to understand it. It was a point I kept trying to make with my students, because a lot of them would be coming in and they’d want to fix school, and I’d say, “Well that’s great, but before you fix them understand them. Figure out how they work, and understand the complexity of them.” If you don’t do that you find yourself in a situation where you’re tinkering with a complex system, making a change to fix this problem, which then generates five other problems, and then somebody else has to come and fix those. Part of the issue for me is that as much as you want to be a critic of schools, one of the things I found in the last couple of books I wrote is that I developed a respect for the institution. Something that’s expanded this far, has drawn so many people and so much money and so much time: it’s like the most successful institution of all time. It’s serving a lot of functions for people and society or else we wouldn’t put up with it anymore. You want to understand that, which then makes you a little cautious to go in and blow it up. Once a week somebody puts out a book that says, “Let’s blow up the system and do it right.” Well, you want to blow up a system that’s going to make hundreds of millions of people very unhappy.
Maloney: I’ve always thought a lot about university mission statements, and I’m always interested when universities write their five-year plans. But as you’re saying the university is great because nobody tried to make it happen; it just happened. Do universities need mission statements? Should we just leave them alone?
Dr. Labaree: Leave them alone. I’ve been involved at universities over the years where the department, or the school, or the university would try to develop a mission statement. They’d set up a committee, and it was a fruitless enterprise. Nobody reads them; nobody follows them. It’s mission is emergent; it’s not imposed. It’s the sum of its activities rather than somebody’s particular vision. And five-year plans smack too much of the Soviet Union for my thinking: trying to plan for stuff you’re not smart enough to plan for. You’re better off letting interesting things bubble up, and fostering that process of emergent problem-solving rather than top-down rational planning. That’s a more effective–not more efficient–but a more effective way of providing social benefit than someone in Sacramento or Washington coming up with a five-year plan for our education system.