John Mark Reynolds brilliantly takes on both the sociology and economics of higher education. A few slices:
In the midst of the good done by the GI Bill, scientific research funded and spreading the benefits of liberal arts education, came harm. Colleges faced explosive growth that could not be sustained in the long term, but became the “new normal.” They begin to pump out larger numbers of professors and never stopped doing so when growth slowed. In many fields, particularly the humanities, the glut cheapened the value of professors.
Colleges also began to multiply disciplines as money sloshed through the system. Undergraduates demanded greater options and program offerings and as a business colleges responded. Put simply, the more difficult the subject area is the fewer students are attracted to that field of study. Whatever the merits of the fields, less rigorous disciplines began to sprout up all over colleges unrelated to long term social needs or market demands.
College became a rite of passage for the entire middle class and as a result the social aspects of college programs exploded. Many colleges soon had more administrators and social programming workers than professors. Athletics had already become semi-professional, but this increased and soon entered other areas. The “school play” became the drama department and the school choir at even a small school aspired to Eastman School of Music quality. Professionalization led to the growth of programmed “amateur” activities.
All this cost money and was passed on to students and parents in rising tuition. Easy student loans made it possible for anyone to pay, at least for a time, and so the system has continued to this day. Every year tuition goes up and more treats are offered students to attract their dollars. This cannot go on forever, cracks already are appearing, but even if it could there was a great loss.
What got lost? Higher education.
A complementary read would be this post from The Art of Manliness: Is College for Everyone? An Introduction and Timeline of College in America. A slice from that:
A Timeline of Higher Education Post-1944
World War II dramatically changed higher education in America. While enrollment of course dipped a little bit during the war, the research facilities of many colleges became breeding grounds for military advancements. This is when the relationship between universities and the US government really became buddy-buddy. With the success of the war efforts, the attention given to colleges after WWII in terms of funding and grants and bills passed led to increases in enrollment that continue today.
1944 — The 1944 GI Bill has provisions that allow free tuition for WWII vets in order to assimilate them back into a “normal” American life. It’s not actually expected to be very popular, but by 1950 over two million vets had taken advantage of the program. Since colleges knew they would be reimbursed directly by the government, they took to the powers of marketing to encourage vets to enroll. Ultimately, this meant that universities saw two- and three-fold increases in enrollment in just a few years’ time. [ . . . ]
1960s — Because public schools get the majority of government funding, they are able to keep tuition prices low. Private schools, however, are having to continue to raise tuition prices in order to meet inflation and also provide a “luxury” product that would differentiate them from public institutions. In order for people to afford these schools, they come up with creative financial aid packages to get students in classrooms. They utilize a mix of grants, loans, and work-study opportunities. They tout small class sizes, study abroad opportunities, and niche class topics to stand apart from state schools. Since these schools are now setting themselves apart, they of course become even more prestigious to the public, and everyone wants in.
1965 — Community colleges (previously junior colleges) begin to see the genesis of their reputation as “inferior” schools. In the decades following WWII, 4-year institutions were seeing more applications than they could admit. The students who weren’t admitted would go to two years of community college, and then transfer to the 4-year school. Hence they became schools for less gifted students — you only went if you couldn’t get in somewhere more prestigious. In spite of this, students who transferred to 4-year schools after community college actually did better in their final two years than traditional students.