Why Disrupting Higher Education is Difficult

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting theory about STEM education that seems spot on:

Different universities are structured differently, but what I recall from reporting on university finance when I was in college was the following dynamic. The STEM departments received large quantities of outside money to conduct research, and they used their pool of graduate students as laboratory labor. An increase in the number of undergraduate students the STEM departments had to teach was a drain on the supply of graduate students, since graduate students would need to be diverted from lab work to teaching assistant work. In the humanities, the situation was quite different. The humanities departments don’t have lucrative outside research grants that require graduate student labor. Instead, their economic problem is a lack of demand for the labor of humanities Ph.D. students. An influx of undergraduates into the major prompted a disbursment of central university funds to employ more teaching assistants and lecturers thus helping to solve the problem of underemployed humanities Ph.D.s. Not coincidentally, the humanities faculties tended to be very eager to recruit people into majoring in their field and were eager to get nonmajors to  take at least a few elective classes. The STEM faculties, by contrast, tended to ward people off with intro classes designed to scare people away and complicated webs of pre-requisites that aimed to weed out nonmajors.

This is also a reminder that transforming higher education is always more difficult than it seems because universities are vertically and horizontally integrated into a range of different institutions. Researchers around the country might say they wish tuition was 90% cheaper (via online distance learning, for example), but if that type of disruption requires them to acclimate to new systems for student labor, funding, and reputation maintenance, they’ll probably fight the changes. Another example is big-money collegiate athletics. The disruption of higher education is a threat to that institution, and in the end athletic departments, boosters, and many fans will likely choose to fight change.


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