Academia’s Consumer Fraud


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It is fascinating to see people accusing others of things that they themselves are doing, especially when their own sins are worse.

Academics love to say that businesses are not paying enough to people who work for them. But where in business are there people who are paid absolutely nothing for strenuous work that involves risks to their health?

In academia, that situation is common. It is called college football. How often have you watched a big-time college football game without seeing someone limping off the field or being carried off the field?

College athletes are not to be paid because this is an “amateur” sport. But football coaches are not only paid, they are often paid higher salaries than the presidents of their own universities. Some make over a million dollars a year.

Academics also like to accuse businesses of consumer fraud. There is indeed fraud in business, as in every other aspect of human life — including academia.

When my academic career began, half a century ago, I read up on the academic market and discovered that there was a chronic over-supply of people trained to be historians. There were not nearly enough academic posts available for people who had spent years acquiring Ph.D.s in history, and the few openings that there were for new Ph.D.s paid the kind of salaries you could get for doing work requiring a lot less education.

My own pay as a beginning instructor in economics was not high but it was certainly higher than that for beginning historians.

Now, 50 years later, there is a long feature article in the February 17th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education on the chronic over-supply of historians. Worse yet, leading university history departments are resisting demands that they keep track of what happens to their students after they get their Ph.D.s — and inform prospective Ph.D.s of what the market is like.

If any business operated this way, selling customers something that was very costly in time and money, and which the sellers knew in advance was almost certain to disappoint their expectations, academics would be bursting with indignation — and demanding full disclosure to the customers, if not criminal prosecutions.

But The Chronicle of Higher Education reports “faculty resistance” to collecting and publishing information on what happens to a university’s history Ph.D.s after they leave the ivy-covered walls with high hopes and low prospects.

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  • davarino

    And those would complain its not worth it to go to college. Well what did you expect when you got a degree in communications, $100,000 a year? Ya its an easy degree to get but do your research to find out if its going to pay a descent wage before spending 5 years of your life and being disappointed. I know this isnt Thomas's point but I just had to vent because I often hear the "college isnt worth it" crap along with the "living wage" crap.

    McDonalds wasnt meant to be a career that would support a family. Its a perfect job for a high school kid to learn how to work. Then move on

  • aspacia

    Sowel is absolutely correct. Even at the high school level the first question for a history teacher is what sport can you coach. Several high school teachers have dual degrees in history/English, history/math. Actually, now it is called Social Science, and history is lumped in with psychology, economics, government, social studies, etc.

  • ILIA

    "Gypsy faculty." That was a new term for me. Guess what I am. Even in many more serious fields the situation is the same. I'm training as an engineer now after a PhD in Mathematics and 6 fluently spoken foreign languages.

    • truebearing

      Let me give you an inside tip on a huge and growing market where your education would be perfect: teaching the millions of uneducated Americans who graduate from high school unable to spell their own names or add two plus two and arrive at the correct sum more than 50% of the time.. Start a private tutoring company for teaching our gifted and talented. As things are, our schools are operating according to the unnamed but over-funded mandate: "all children left behind."

  • Jim_C

    Those grad students in history and other departments are not unlike the college athletes. They're involved in something of a devil's bargain. Grad students are given tuition waivers and sometimes stipends in order to teach or tutor hordes of incoming undergraduates general education courses. They provide much-needed labor, but then pursue a degree that holds little chance of professional advancement.

  • Jim_C

    "But apparently many academics are too busy pursuing moral crusades in society at large to look into such things on their own ivy-covered campuses."

    Sowell says this as though 1. "Pursuing moral crusades in society" is something professors shouldn't do; and 2. they're not aware of this situation.

    1. Professors have been involved in "moral crusades in society at large" for as long as professors have been in existence. Historically, such a thing was always part of their mission. You'd think Sowell, who pretends to an interest in history, would know this. No doubt he also sneers at them for NOT being active in their communities, as well.

    2. Academia is keenly aware of this situation and there are articles all the time calling for this or that "overhaul." But universities, even private ones, are subject to various bitterly competing interests and pressures: internal departments, boards of trustees, consumers (tuition payers), community/partnerships, etc. They are not the same animal as "a business," nor should they be, nor could they be. Pretending to compare the two is absurd.

    • JoJoJams

      Dude, re: point 2 = "are subject to various bitterly competing interests and pressures: internal departments, boards of trustees, consumers (tuition payers), community/partnerships, etc.", describes "a business" just as well! In short, YES!! you CAN compare the two! Wow! You usually have better replies – but if you can't see that this one was a mistake on your part, well, academia is even more worse off than I've come to believe! And re: point 1) Sowell's point was basically, "before you remove the mote from your neighbor's eye, remove the log from your own". He was stating that he feels they spend too much time on societal "activism" and not enough time on…….TEACHING! He's made some valid points – you, on the other hand – not so much. At all…

      • Jim_C

        Not hardly. Sowell was saying that academicians presumably can't see the inequities and inefficiencies. I refuted: plenty of articles they write on those topics. Then he says they can't see this because they're too busy being activists. To what can he attribute this claim? Something concrete–or a strawman he'd like to set up?

        In business, there are lots of pressures, but there is always a bottom line, and there is almost always a place where that buck stops. It is necessarily an authoritarian structure, and each unit must produce results. Profit is beautiful and elegantly simple.

        What is the "result" in academia, where profit is not the overarching motive? An informed citizen? A specialist? Job placement rate? A winning football program? Research awards? Community partnerships? High enrollment?

        In fact, in my post above, I show that these grad students are pure efficiency: extremely low-cost instructors for huge numbers of students. It is the degree they receive in exchange for their labor, according to Sowell, is the scam. Well, they enter into that contract willingly. Is that the university's fault? Would Sowell blame the business for employing the low-wage worker? Come on.

      • Jim_C

        Not hardly. Sowell was saying that academicians presumably can't see the inequities and inefficiencies. I refuted: plenty of articles they write on those topics. Then he says they can't see this because they're too busy being activists. To what can he attribute this claim? Something concrete–or a strawman he'd like to set up?

        Business is subject to pressures, and inherently more risky. If some unit does not produce results, you make changes. Results are measured in dollars. And the buck stops at the top. Whether you have a small business or a big business, you have an authoritarian structure. Profits are beautiful and elegant in their simplicity.

        What's the bottom line in the university?

        • truebearing

          You're missing the point. Sowell is pointing out how academia is misrepresenting their product: education that results in a commensurate job.

          If a business sold a product that worked as poorly at producing the advertised results as many degrees do at helping grads secure jobs, that business would be subject to charges of false advertising and fraud. No one is charging these universities with fraud despite the fact they are blowing smoke up a lot of skirts, and putting the victims of academic fraud far more deeply in debt than the vast majority of criminal cons ever would.

          Essentially, what Sowell is asking is: why aren't universities held to some kind of truth in advertising rules.

          The bottom line for the universities should be conspicuous honesty…but we all know how far down honesty has sunk on the priority lists of liberal educators.

  • burkasrugly

    History is not the only worthless degree. What about Journalism, Art, etc.? . All these froo-froo courses are there for is to keep professors in a cushy job so they can bash hard-working Americans whom they always look down upon. The public is paying the bill for these uppity people who wouldn't know a real job if it jumped up and bit them in the butt.

  • http://LechDharma.blogspot.com Lech Dharma

    I didn't realize that about Historian degrees, fifty years ago, or more recently. No wonder there are so many historical revisionists publishing controversial—i.e. "marketable"—books. If a PhD cannot find work, he can always write a controversial book. The more outlandish the claims—from a "lettered" historian—the more marketability the book has.

    Labor is a competitive, supply-and-demand market—even for highly-educated laborers. As the labor needs of society shift,.public Universities have a moral obligation to honestly inform their customers how best to invest their time and effort—and "someone's" tuition money.
    .

  • oldtimer

    As for the comment that college football players are not paid, most are on full scholarships, education, room and board, etc. Isn't that being paid?

  • PAthena

    Academics treat other academics worse than dirt with the tenure system. Secretaries, janitors, and other staff at universities are hired usually with probation of around nine months, and without having to prove that there aren't other better secretaries, janitors, etc. But "tenure track" professors have to work for six years and then go through an arduous process to prove that there are no others better than them. Six years are not necessary to find out if a teacher is working out. but, like secretaries, janitors, etc. can be determined within a year. The emphasis on research does not help, since it encourages much busy work. Frequently, professors are denied tenure in order to save money by hiring someone else at a lower salary. (Several of my friends have been denied tenure – i.e. fired – for this reason.) Incidentally, having tenure means only what it means for secretaries, janitors, etc. who have passed probation – they can be fired for cause.