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The Purpose of Gen-Eds Is to Exploit Students for Tuition Money

Summary:
In Cracks in the Ivory Tower, Phil and I argue that most of the dysfunction inside academia is explained by bad incentives. Academics are normal people. They are predominantly if not entirely selfish. Academic rules frequently allow them to pursue their self-interest and externalize the costs onto others. One nice example of this are university gen-ed requirements. Students are usually required to take a range of classes which supposedly teach them different skills and expose them to different ideas. Universities defend gen-eds with student-centered, paternalistic language. “Students need to know how to write, so we make them take composition courses.” “Students need to be well-rounded, so we require them to take a range of courses in many different fields.” “Students should be

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In Cracks in the Ivory Tower, Phil and I argue that most of the dysfunction inside academia is explained by bad incentives. Academics are normal people. They are predominantly if not entirely selfish. Academic rules frequently allow them to pursue their self-interest and externalize the costs onto others.

One nice example of this are university gen-ed requirements. Students are usually required to take a range of classes which supposedly teach them different skills and expose them to different ideas. Universities defend gen-eds with student-centered, paternalistic language. “Students need to know how to write, so we make them take composition courses.” “Students need to be well-rounded, so we require them to take a range of courses in many different fields.” “Students should be fluent in a second language, so they should take a few language courses.” All of this sounds reasonable. When gen-eds were invented, some of the people proposing such requirements were sincere.

But today gen-ed requirements are best explained by the self-interest of faculty. Gen-eds are a form of rent seeking. The official justification of gen-eds is paternalistic, but in reality, academics are serving themselves.

How do we know?

1. First, we can examine the empirical evidence testing how effective these classes are. It looks like foreign language classes, compositions classes, and other gen-eds generally fail to teach the skills they supposedly deliver, even when students must take multiple instances of such classes. In fact, in general, there is little evidence that classes teach students general and transferable skills, and much evidence that they don’t. There’s a big gap between “Students should know X” and “Students should take a class in X”. (Edit/update: P.S., if universities were really concerned with delivering various skills and knowledge, they would rigorously study how effective different methods of instruction are, and pick the ones that work. In fact, as we document in the book, they are utterly disinterested in testing their methods or basing their methods on the best available science.)

2. Second, there are cheaper alternatives to deliver some of the supposed goods of gen-eds. One purported justification for gen-eds is that we need to expose students to different fields so they can make an informed choice for their major. Most students take no economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, etc., in high school, so they won’t know to major in those fields without exposure. Fair enough, perhaps, but isn’t there an easier, cheaper solution? We could have extended orientation programs where students take a 1-2-hour crash introduction to each field.

3. Here’s the real killer. Contrary to what advocacy magazines like the Chronicle of Higher Ed mistakenly report over and over, the humanities are not dying. Actually, according to Department of Education and other public data sources we use, the humanities are growing on campus, with more full-time faculty lines being added. In fact, tenure-track assistant professorships have been growing at a steady rate and keeping pace with the student population. In this book, we definitively prove that the reason the humanities job market is bad is not because the humanities are being cut (they aren’t; they’re growing faster than most other fields), but because humanities PhD programs pump out new PhDs at an even faster rate.

Nevertheless, while the supply of humanities professorships is up, demand for humanities degrees and classes is down and dropping fast.

In chapter 7, we examine which departments are the financially neediest and have the worst job markets. The typical core department, such as economics, has a full-time faculty-to-student ratio of 0.4-0.5. But some departments, such as English or the foreign languages, have FTF-to-S ratios of 2.0. These latter departments also have dropping demand and fewer sources of grant money or outside revenue.

We find that the more financially needy and vulnerable a department is, the more its classes appear on gen-ed requirements. The best predictor that you’ll have to take a class in department D is that D needs the money.

In most universities, funding is tied to butts-in-seats. Every student who takes a class in department D yields $Y for D. Certain departments cannot generate enough student demand on their own, so they game the gen-ed system to force students to consume their classes.

We think this form of rent-seeking is positively evil. Here’s an excerpt explaining why:

The problem is that gen eds have both a high monetary cost and a high opportunity cost for students. If students must take – and pay for – a largely superfluous and ineffectual class, that burden comes out of their time and their bank accounts. And if that student’s education is subsidized by the government, the costs of the superfluous course requirement may extend onto the taxpaying public, who in turn receive an ineffective and overly expensive outcome from these public investments.

 Suppose Jane is required to take two semesters of composition and two semesters of a foreign language. This costs her 180 hours in class plus whatever time she spends outside of class studying. She also pays tuition for these classes, which could be as low as $4000 for the four classes at a relatively inexpensive state university or as high as $26,000 if she’s paying the full sticker price at an expensive private school. Her opportunity cost is whatever her next best options were. If we hadn’t forced Jane to take these four classes, which classes would she have taken instead? Forcing Jane to spend a year in (as far as we know) ineffective writing and language classes comes at the expense of her picking up a minor in something she actually cares about. 

Universities have a fiduciary obligation to not waste students’ time or money. By extension, universities that receive public funding are also obliged for the same reasons to be good stewards of public resources. They owe students a class with intellectual value in return for their tuition dollars, particularly if participation in that course is a mandatory general education requirement.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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