Friday, June 12, 2009

School Of Hard Knocks

Writing in the Nation, Liza Featherstone comments on the escalating costs of a college education and makes the case for free college education. Her piece is a study in liberal hyperbole, never really touching on economics or any of the different cost-benefit analysis's that ought to be considered. Mentioned in the piece as problems?

* The escalating cost of college that is making higher education unaffordable for some people.

* The declining relative value of federal grant money for higher education.

* The cutting of faculty and faculty pay, somehow seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution to higher costs.

* The inefficient manner in which many universities spend money.

* The lack of minority students.

* The problem of people regarding the high costs of higher education as an individual rather than a collective problem.

The solution, of course, is free higher education, where free of course means paid-in-full by the government. Support is mentioned from a political science professor, but no word on what economists think about the idea. In the midst of burgeoning federal deficits I'd imagine most economists would say it's a bad idea, but that's just me. This doesn't mean that there are no problems with higher education costs (there are), nor does it mean there can't be a federal role in providing access to higher education. If someone proposed a good plan to increase federal spending on higher education, I wouldn't protest if it was a halfway decent plan. The problem is, "free higher ed" would mean higher taxes all around and money that should be for schools siphoned off to federal bureaucrats.

As I started to get into above, you'd have to be insane to think there wasn't a problem with the cost of higher education. Of course, the affordability problem is really one for private schools- public universities already receive tax dollars which is why they can keep costs down as much as they do. And even though the article mentions Sarah Lawrence College and it's $53,000 a year price tag, it ultimately is a private university that you can take or leave.

The real problem isn't the cost of higher education, but the fact that our general attitudes about higher education lead a vast number of folks to ignore questions about costs. Higher education, all higher education is seen as more of a right than a privilege, with the attitude of "I have a right to the education I want, regardless of cost" filtering down to both parents and children. We ignore costs, so schools ignore costs, so to speak. Even amongst private universities, the institutions develop in the mold of large government bureaucracies rather than vibrant, competing businesses.

Additionally, this idea of education as a right encourages a lack of direction amongst students. If we thought of higher education more properly as a commodity we're purchasing, students would take more care to examine the degree programs they select to ensure they're getting return value on their investment. Having received one myself, I'm pretty sure that liberal arts degrees are a dime a dozen and I'm even more sure that a liberal arts degree from a mediocre or even above-average private liberal arts college probably isn't going to get you double the return value of what you'd get from a similar degree from a quality state school.

Is it fair that rich kids can afford to go away to expensive private schools and spend years getting practically worthless degrees? Of course not, but it's no more unfair than anything else the rich can get to do. Our problem as a society is that we've adopted the attitude that each and everyone of us should have not just access to higher education, but access to the carefree higher education of the rich.

The biggest problem with federal money for higher education is that it's offered for all higher education, as though every college degree is created equal. If we know, for instance, that we have a nursing shortage, why not provide greater education subsides to those pursuing such degrees. There are always shortages of math and science teachers so why not provide free education for those going into that field. But is it imperative to subsidize every student who merely feels compelled to go to college? Or as my wife has told me the story of the kid from NYU with the specialized major in wine (not wine making, but wine), why would anyone need a free college education to study wine?


Anonymous rose said...

Good points all.

"Even amongst private universities, the institutions develop in the mold of large government bureaucracies rather than vibrant, competing businesses."

Never thought of that, but that is absolutely true. Why isn't there more effective private competition at the low-middle end univerise of schools? There are publicly traded companies in everything from nursing home operation, to specialty hospitals, to grocery stores. Why isn't there a corporation that specializes in higher-education? Are public subsidies crowding out this possibility at the low-middle end? Seems like a plausible explanation, but I have no clue.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

A few things I should've explained better:

I used the nursing home and specialty hospital (think HIV, diabetes etc) examples because they provide politically sensitive services. Any objection to education being provided by a greedy for-profit chain of colleges under a corporation, would also apply to the provision of all sorts of medical care. Yet the latter exists and provides valuable services and helps to provide competition to other medical care providers.

Does a national chain of privately owned and operated colleges exist and I'm just not aware of it?

12:51 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

I think I barely scratched the surface while posting, but the biggest problem is this incredably fucked up view we as a society take in regards to higher education.

It's relatively easy (at least compared with education) to quantify good medical services. So it's easy to see the best and say "we want that," regardless of whether we can afford it. But what the hell is "the best education?" For a D student in high school who's really good working with cars, is a Yale education really the best we can offer? The point is, what's educationally best varies according to the individual and this notion that everyone needs to go to college only further fucks things up.

And higher ed is so diverse- it's job training for some, advanced intellectual pursuits for others, and a four year party for the majority.

The problem is rather than encourage people to put a value on their education before they make their choices on it, we encourage this attitude that education is all-important and everyone should go to college.

I guess what I'm dancing around in a terribly inarticulate way is that everything about higher ed discourages rational economic choices.

4:57 PM  

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