The recent discussion about what drives the expansion of non research/teaching related activities in American higher education (see below) has a great deal of unreality to it. So, here follows a refresher course on why folk choose to spend a lot of money to have their children join an elite liberal arts college education (I hope my debt to Veblen is clear):
1. It is a form of status seeking and conspicuous consumption.
2. It provides a) a valuable social network, not to mention b) opportunities for assorative mating.
3. It is a life-style choice (see 1). It may also be the case that the enormous social (residential) infrastructure is worth the money in keeping retention/graduation rates very high (see also 4b).
4. It a) teaches one a lot of important social skills in b) a protective environment.
5. And for a minority group of students it is an escape from one's class.
To all of these education is a noble ornament. To be valued for its utter uselessness.
6. It can provide useful knowledge for further (professional) education
7. It provides a signalling device to future employers (and friends, lovers, etc).
8. It broadens the human spirit, enlarges the mind in all kinds of beautiful ways...
It is an extraordinarily wasteful enterprise. But...it turns out that it also create a lot of riches for people devoted to the life of mind (i.e., contributors to the blog). It is that willingness to accept wastefullness that allows the Humanities flourish where PhD projects are risky adventures rather than safe bets (cf. the grant system in Europe), etc.
If anybody wants to know what an efficient university looks like they should come to my Spartan office in Ghent. (I had to steal my office furniture from colleagues' disposals.)