The Problem with Higher Education
This problem in the higher education institutions in the United States is hardly ever openly discussed, even among the people who are most affected by it. The problem is not the cost of higher education, although that is certainly a big issue. No, this problem is even more fundamental than the cost issue. The problem I'm talking about is so little discussed that it doesn't even have a name. It's the problem of how academics operate in the university system, which has increasingly become a capitalistic marketplace. That description needs a little explanation.
Professors Don't Like to Teach
In order to understand the depth of this problem, we need to think about how the university system operates in the United States. The typical undergraduate will take classes from many professors at his or her college or university, but what do these professors really do? Believe it or not, the vast majority of professors do not teach because they love teaching but because that's the only job that allows them to do research in their chosen fields. Teaching is seen as a kind of trade-off. For example, a philosophy professor is probably mostly focused on writing books and papers on philosophy and presenting at conferences. Teaching is often little more than an annoyance.
A Lose-Lose Scenario
This is a strange situation for everyone involved in higher education. When professors don't actually want to teach, the quality of the education they provide suffers. Additionally, when they are forced to teach, the quality of their research suffers. It's a lose-lose scenario. So why does it exist? Well, the basic answer is money. Scholars need money to live, just like the rest of us, so they put up with teaching because it pays the bills, and it pays the bills because undergraduates are willing to shell out (or, more likely, take out loans for) thousands upon thousands of dollars for tuition. In exchange for a few of those dollars, professors teach their courses, and the university keeps on making money.
Academics and Value Inflation
This state of affairs has existed in its present form for several decades, but the real problem lies in the fact that it isn't sustainable. Although most undergraduates go on to join the business world, some become interested in research fields like philosophy or theoretical sciences. Students who want to become researchers study to become professors. This is important, because colleges need professors. However, they don't need as many professors as there are people who want to become professors. In most professions, that wouldn't be a big problem. When a field becomes saturated with potential workers, the value of those workers goes down and those who can't find work look elsewhere.
For professors, however, the situation is different. Because the source of income for academics is not tied to what academics actually do, the quality of academic research can go down without any repercussions for the researchers. For example, in liberal arts and humanities fields, young and old professors alike can churn out poor research, degrading the quality and respectability of the field, but as long as they continue to teach undergraduates, they will continue to get paid. Universities want to attract prestigious professors, but in the contemporary marketplace, the volume of research they do is more important than the quality of the research, which even encourages low quality academic work. In this kind of marketplace, it's no surprise that the cost of higher education is through the roof - there are almost no checks on the quality of the product.