Not difficult as in complicated, like the force of windload on a high-rise building. But difficult as in contentious, as in perhaps uncharitable, as in perhaps unanswerable at any rate.
- There are about 18 million undergraduate students in the US, up almost a third since 2000. How many of them, really, are good enough to be in college? That can’t be answered until we decide what college is for.
- There are about a million and a half instructional personnel in US. How many of them, really, are good enough to be college faculty? That can’t be answered until we decide what college faculty ought to be good at.
- There are about 4,700 degree-granting colleges and universities in the US. How many of them, really, ought to be here? That can’t be answered until we decide what a college ought to be responsible for.
- There are about 55,000 people per year receiving PhDs from US universities. How many of them, really, are among the intellectual elite of the nation? That can’t be answered until we know what we want a really smart person to be able to do.
- Americans collectively hold roughly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, more than auto loans ($1.1T) and credit card loans ($730B), but way less than the $8.4 trillion in mortgage debt. How many of those student loans, really, represented a wise investment of money? That can’t be answered until we know exactly why we’re buying college costs.
You can’t talk about higher education without getting into some of the most fundamental questions of social life. I mean, if you go into your neighborhood tavern and ask one person after another, “What should a college be responsible for?”, you’re going to get a dozen different answers, very few of which will include supporting pre-professional sporting teams or harvesting billions of dollars from the National Science Foundation. But in that array of answers lies the crux of our problems. We haven’t thought carefully and publicly about what college is for, what individual schools should be responsible for, what faculty should be good at, what the PhD designates, or exactly how our educational spending breaks down by category.
This coming project, ostensibly about adjunct faculty, is going to have to open the doors onto vast, unresolved questions. Not to answer them—wicked problems have no answers—but to make it clear that our tame answers aren’t sufficient, and that dozens of mutually exclusive tame answers have gotten us where we are today.