Biden’s Academic Market in Full Effect

An uncomfortable debate just got a little personal.

One consequence of President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive large chunks of student debt is a focus on what kinds of degrees the taxpayer is funding. If one personal decision — to borrow money for college — is now the public’s business, then why not another?

Should all degrees be treated equally when it comes to forgiving debt? Is a philosophy degree of similar societal value as one in engineering, since society is now picking up part of the tab?

Let’s face it: No one who’s both serious and honest believes this will be the last such forgiveness. It is now an expectation, included at least implicitly in future borrowing decisions if not a large number of past ones.

That won’t be the only new reality on campus. Here, the universities that aided and abetted the student loan crisis by shepherding all comers on all educational paths into the welcoming arms of the federalized financing facility, at ever higher rates of tuition, fees, living expense and more, may find there is a consequence they hadn’t fully appreciated.

Degrees will be scrutinized for their wider utility beyond the intellectual satisfaction of their pursuers. The university, for centuries revered and protected as a bastion of learning as a good unto itself, will receive the same kind of cold cost-benefit analysis formerly reserved for trade and technical schools.

Again, academia virtually asked for this outcome, given its willingness to help students pile up debt until it became a political issue, in parallel to the vast endowments and bureaucracies its leaders built up simultaneously. To say nothing of their radical politics and incubation of divisive social theories that have also breached the political levees.

So it was a fascinating coincidence this month to see the University System of Georgia unveil a list of 215 degrees it was discontinuing across its 26 campuses.

And a bit of a stunner to see my own listed among the casualties.

The bachelor’s degree in Publication Management, along with its near-cousins in Newspapers and Magazines, will cease to be offered at the University of Georgia.

Twenty-one years ago, a small cohort of us graduated from Athens with an ABJ in Publication Management, which distinguished itself from those near-cousins by incorporating the equivalent of a minor in business. We were guided by one of the most beloved, respected and feared professors at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, Conrad Fink. Fink had been a war correspondent, an editor on multiple continents, and a buyer and seller of newspapers before embarking on an equally remarkable second career of teaching, which ended shortly before his death in 2012. As it happens, he would have turned 90 this past Friday.

This degree, like the others, landed on the cut list because of declining student interest over the intervening years. Maybe it was the absence of a force of nature like Fink to promote and maintain the program. Maybe it was the powerful forces at work within the print media industry that render it increasingly printless. Maybe student tastes simply changed.

If that seems different from what we were considering at the outset, about the economic utility or futility of degrees, think again. The market is at play in both scenarios.

It is the market — from the consumer, i.e. student, side — that informed the USG’s decision to trim its degree catalog. And it will be the market — both economic, in terms of value, and political, in terms of a willingness to subsidize individuals’ poor choices — that determined what goes next. Willing seller, willing buyer, in both cases.

Is that a good thing? From a standpoint of pure efficiency, of the smart allocation of scarce resources, probably.

But from a standpoint of selling the university’s birthright for a bowl of stew, a stew of high-paying administrative jobs, gold-plated student facilities and braggadocious endowments, perhaps not.

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