The latest topic of The City podcast is the higher education bubble, featuring Cate MacDonald, Dr. John Mark Reynolds, and Dr. Holly Ordway. Reynolds makes the point that bubbles can arise when things are overvalued, but that it is important to determine whether that thing is relatively overvalued or absolutely overvalued. That is, to speak of a higher education bubble is to recognize that higher education is relatively more expensive than it is worth, but that it isn’t therefore worth nothing. The challenges facing higher education are various and multi-faceted, and one of the key issues is the necessity of determining how college education ought to be valued.
The podcast also discusses the level of student indebtedness, which is perhaps a sign of the disconnect between cost and value, and this also is a topic that comes up in the recent controversy in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality between William Pannapacker and Marc Baer of Hope College. The point of departure for the discussion is the question, “Should students be encouraged to pursue graduate education in the humanities?” Pannapacker has a long-running column in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the pen name Thomas H. Benton that has addressed issues of graduate higher education and academic culture. In a 2009 piece, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” Pannapacker writes,
It can be painful, but it is better that undergraduates considering graduate school in the humanities should know the truth now, instead of when they are 30 and unemployed, or worse, working as adjuncts at less than the minimum wage under the misguided belief that more teaching experience and more glowing recommendations will somehow open the door to a real position.
The adjunct phenomenon also features prominently in the JMM controversy between Pannapacker and Baer. As Baer contends, “Adjunct is a different problem in which academic leaders are more victims than perpetrators. The real perpetrator, at least for public universities, is the state legislator who has so unthinkingly starved higher education of resources.”
Moving from the state to the federal level, one possible consequence of the Affordable Care Act is that graduates who rely on adjunct teaching to make a living may face a greater squeeze on their already questionable financial livelihoods. As Mark Peters and Douglas Belkin report in The Wall Street Journal, “The federal health-care overhaul is prompting some colleges and universities to cut the hours of adjunct professors” because of the potential costs of providing health coverage to those adjuncts who teach 30 hours per week or more.
The first two pieces from the controversy are available for free on the JMM site: William Pannapacker’s “Should Students Be Encouraged to Pursue Graduate Education in the Humanities?” and Marc Baer’s “‘Graduate Education in the Humanities’: A Response to William Pannapacker.” The concluding pieces of the controversy are available to current subscribers, and you can become one today.