All posts by Oliver Lee

Academic Work May Not Be Worth Your Time or Effort

This is an excerpt from a September 8 article published by Vox,
“I Have One of the Best Jobs in Academia. Here’s Why I’m Walking Away.”

Despite all the finger-pointing directed at students (“They’re lazy! They’re oversensitive! They’re entitled!”), and the blame heaped on professors (“Out of touch and irrelevant to a man”), the real culprit is systemic. Our federally backed approach to subsidizing higher education through low-interest loans has created perverse incentives with disastrous consequences. This system must be reformed.

When I started out, I believed that government regulation could solve every problem with relatively simple intervention. But after four years of wading through this morass, I’m convinced these solutions should be reevaluated constantly. If they’re not achieving their objectives, or if they’re producing too much waste in the process, they ought to be scrapped. We can start with federal funding for higher education.

The quickest and most painful solution to the crisis would involve greatly reducing the amount of money that students can borrow to attend college. Such reductions could be phased in over a span of years to alleviate their harshness, but the goal would remain the same: to force underperforming private and public universities out of business. For-profit universities — notorious for their lack of anything resembling good academic intention — should be barred altogether from accessing these programs; let them charge only what consumers in a genuinely free market can afford to pay for their questionable services.

Without the carrot of easy access to student loans, enrollments would shrink. Universities would be forced to compete on a cost-per-student basis, and those students still paying to attend college would likely focus their studies on subjects with an immediate return on investment. Lower tuition costs, perhaps dramatically lower at some institutions, would still enable impoverished students eligible for Pell Grant assistance to attend college. Vocational education programs, which would likely expand in the wake of such a massive adjustment, would offer inexpensive skills training for others. The liberal arts wouldn’t necessarily die out — they’d remain on the Ivy League prix-fixe menu, to be sure, and curious minds of all sorts would continue to seek them out — but they’d no longer serve as a final destination for unenthusiastic credential seekers.

In the time that’s allotted to us to in life, we have to make many choices. Opting to pursue an unmarketable career solely because one loves it is an available option. But that decision has consequences. In a university system like ours, where supply and demand are distorted, many promising young people make rash decisions with an inadequate understanding of their long-term implications. Even for people like me, who succeed despite the odds, it’s possible to look back and realize we’ve worked toward a disappointment, ending up as “winners” of a mess that damages its participants more every day.

Had I known sooner, I would’ve given up on this shrinking side of academia many years ago, saving myself plenty of grief while conserving the most valuable quantity of all: time. No one should have to wait so long or sacrifice so much of it for a system like this. Time is money, and we must spend it wisely. Until something is done — something that isn’t just a quick fix, something that looks long and hard at the structure of the present university system and tears it up from the foundation, if that’s what it takes — the academy is no longer an investment of time worth making.


Oliver Lee is an attorney and assistant professor of history.