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What Tyler Cowen Gets Wrong About What’s Wrong with Higher Education | Inside Higher Ed


In a recent Bloomberg column, Tyler Cowen offers his diagnosis of what ails higher education. In a piece titled, Higher Education Is Headed in the Wrong Direction, Cowen gestures toward the “Woke and PC stuff” but then spends the bulk of the less on the “gradual, less visible changes that also contribute to the declining status of the US system of higher education.”

What does Cowen worry about when he worries about higher ed?

His first concern is the potential for a diminution of status among elite institutions, brought on by universities prioritizing labor force-friendly majors such as computer science and engineering over the humanities and social sciences. As important discoveries in CS or engineering are likely to come from companies rather than universities, higher education may be in danger of losing its recognized role as the engine of knowledge creation.

I’ve not heard institutional status as an argument to invest in the English department (at least not since I started working in academia), so maybe my friends in the humanities have found a champion in Cowen.

The second troubling higher ed trend that Cowen mentions is the “ ongoing mental health crisis among America’s youth.” No argument from me on this one.

Third, Cowen worries that the best and brightest choose any career path as long as it is not academia. Mirroring the complaint of every professor since the University of Bologna was established in 1088, Cowen observes that faculty must deal with “ too much bureaucracy and not enough time for the academic work itself.” I imagine some future professor will write the same sentence 935 years from now, and it will still be equally valid.

Surveying the landscape of his fellow academics, Cowen is less than impressed. He writes, “Bureaucratization is eating away at the free time of professors. Much of the glamour of the job is gone, and my fear is that the system increasingly attracts conformists”.

There you have it. Higher ed is in crisis because of research-intensive institutions losing status, crappy student mental health, and a career as a university professor is no longer glamorous.

Wait. What?

Nothing about public disinvestment? Nothing about the shift of higher education from a public to a private good?

Cowen does not express concern about the demographic headwinds facing tuition-dependent Northeast and Midwest institutions.

Nor does he write about the inadequate investment in community colleges at every level of government.

Wealth concentration, income stratification, and higher ed’s role in mirroring (or even accelerating) those trends are not mentioned.

Nor does Cowen place student debt or stubbornly low graduation rates into his narrative of a higher ed system in crisis.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to read Cowen write about the future of higher ed. I’ve read his books and blogs for years.

A few years ago, I was asked by Cato Unbound to respond to one of Cowen’s essays in that journal.  Those pre-pandemic days of 2019 are a bit foggy, but I recall that Cowen was gracious and generous in the back-and-forth.

Perhaps he will see this piece and share more of his thoughts about the future of higher education.



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