Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Education and Antibiotics

It's a common trope that big pharmaceuticals don't have a lot of enthusiasm for developing new antibiotics. Because microbes evolve, the useful life of one of these drugs is limited, and just as bad, antibiotics actually tend to cure problems. This is in contrast to 'maintenance' or 'lifestyle' drugs like blood pressure medicines or Viagra respectively. The demand for those is probably more related to advertising and sales efforts than to underlying conditions, and can be therefore developed into a profit stream that lasts until the patent runs out.

I wonder if higher education isn't doing the same thing? We often use phrases like 'life-long learning' in mission statements, but in fact if that means that students don't need us anymore it's not going to generate us any more revenue. One billboard on my commute reads "Come for the Bachelor's, Stay for the Master's." The Dept. of Education seems to buy into this vision, as does the Lumina Foundation, with goals for college completion to increase. But does life-long learning really mean paying tuition for the rest of your life? As a business model, it's hard to argue with. We can keep inventing degrees and diluting the market with higher and higher credentials to produce demand for ever more elite educational status. That's cynical, and I don't mean that this is happening intentionally, but successful strategies tend to emerge out of chaos via evolutionary pathways.

One obvious opportunity is a new degree between a Master's and a PhD. The latter is too big a jump, so splitting it in half would be an economic win. What's halfway between a 'master' and a 'doctor?' Perhaps "'Advanced Master's" or AM degree? No, A stands for Associates, and that won't do. Better for marketing purposes to borrow from the other direction: perhaps PhM, for Master of Philosophy. I know it's ugly, but just like that stain on the carpet, you'll get used to it eventually.

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