Reader Nick Gardner kindly calls to my attention this essay from The Atlantic. I've noted a number of perfectly sensible pieces like this over the last couple of years, but let's step back a bit and ask what it all means:
1. The cost of higher education in America is now quite extravagant, far more than most families in America can afford. Tuition, room & board, miscellaneous expenses at a private liberal arts college can easily run $60,000 per year.
2. The cost of higher education in America is not extravagant because of a vast conspiracy of malevolent actors: it is extravagant because, for reasons the economist William Baumol diagnosed long ago, the cost of hiring highly educated individuals to work closely with young people in developing their knowledge of literature, science, and arts is expensive, and gets more expensive over time, because what they do can not be automated, yet these teachers still have to pay their bills.
3. One alternative, of course, is to turn the teaching over to people who will do it for less. The unknown in the capitalist economics of higher education is what difference this makes. We honestly do not know the answer to that question. Equally honestly, the experiment involved in finding out the answer--it is not natural, since it is dictated by the demands of capitalist efficiency--involves sacrificing people in a way that, I assume (perhaps naively), most ethics boards would not approve.
4. We do have some "natural" experiments, in the form of the higher education provided in many of the wealthy European countries and in the state flagship campuses in America: there faculty-student ratios are not very good, individual attention from teachers harder to come by, and so on. Yet these institutions graduate many extremely capable and accomplished young people. My guess is that the future of higher education is going to look more like the University of Paris and the University of Texas Systems and less like Haverford and Colgate (though the latter, wealthy liberal arts colleges have the resources and the status to continue offering their unique educational experiences--it's the less wealthy, less distinguished liberal arts colleges that will disappear over the next fifty years I expect).
5. But these latter "natural experiments" fail to control for a crucial variable: namely, how different kinds of students fare in different educational environments. Obviously many individuals flourish at large public universities; but how many don't precisely because of the environment? We have no idea. It does seem unlikely, of course, that smaller classes with more individual attention from highly educated faculty members are going to be worse for students--and there is no evidence suggesting otherwise.
6. The current flurry of market-based defenses of liberal arts education are a response to #1 and #2, since in America the only publicly intelligible defense of great expense is great financial reward.
Just to be clear, if the fortunes of the idle rich in America--like the Koch Brothers, the Walton Children, the Trump clan (or is it "klan"?) and so on--were confiscated and reallocated for human well-being, the future of higher education here might look very different. But right now that seems unlikely as America veers further to the authoritarian and neoliberal right.