Thursday, April 10, 2008

Liberal Arts Colleges: A Boutique Industry

Someone once remarked to me that the liberal arts colleges are a "boutique industry."

I've often thought that the success of liberal arts colleges in the early 21rst century has certain parallels with other successful industries where quality is prized over quantity. We have these kinds of industries all over Oregon, especially in Portland, and they are thriving. Hand-built bicycles, craft brewed beer, good coffee, even locally developed paint (I'm taking a break from using some Yolo paint right now).

David Brooks makes fun of the success of these types of businesses in Bobos in Paradise. The way he describes them is: they find a way to make something that used to be a kind of commodity item, a part of normal, everyday life, like coffee (which used to cost 5 cents and tasted about the same everywhere) and make it really fancy and expensive.

The article today in the NYT about fancy food at college campuses, I think, reinforces the tie between these pleasure, comfort and health-oriented boutique industries and that more lofty industry that is liberal arts higher education.

It's great that we're seeing better food on College campuses, especially for me since my campus is far away from all the good restaurants in Portland. But the fact that colleges can afford to cater to this kind of desire really reflects big endowments and big tuition (paid by people with big incomes). It's a sign that liberal arts education is just as much about a "lifestyle" as it is about learning, personal growth, etc.

When I was in school at University of Wisconsin in Madison, I shopped at Woodmans, and drank a lot of Leinenkugels, which was just $7.50 a case in 1989. I can barely pick up a six pack of Full Sail for that much anymore.

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