Wednesday, August 28, 2013

College Cost Crisis

I have more or less sworn off political topics, as there is already a surfeit of opinionated grumpiness available on other blogs.  I may have views on the candidates to head the  FED, or suspicions concerning the probable economic results of Obamacare; but I don’t flatter myself that they have authority, much less general interest.  Just now, however, the President in his recent remarks concerning the daunting cost of higher education has taken up subjects to which I have given a certain amount of serious thought over many decades of my professional life as a college professor.  Putting it rather bluntly I don’t think the President sees the fundamental problems facing American higher education very clearly.  Furthermore the steps he proposes do not seem to me very promising in addressing even the secondary problems he does see.

            The President correctly notes that (1) college costs, already high, are rising; (2) many students can attend college only by incurring crippling debt;  (3) college admission does not necessarily mean college completion; and (4) a college degree does not necessarily guarantee a job.  He then proposes that the Department of Education should start evaluating colleges in terms of their cost containment, retention rates, and vocational effectiveness.  Only students matriculating in high scoring institutions would be eligible for government-backed student loans.

            I tremble at the prospect of being dependent upon the evaluation of the Department of Education for almost anything, but never mind.  The President is trying to address real problems, but is he really doing that?  For instance, how good an indication of institutional quality is “graduation rate”?  Less good than you might think, and certainly less good than President Obama implies. 

            The highest tier of selective colleges and universities is so high that some institutions could fill the freshman class with valedictorians.  The second tier might have to stoop to the occasional salutatorian.  I spent most of my career in the top tier, but it is largely irrelevant to the current discussion.  My first academic job was relevant.  It was at the huge University of Wisconsin in Madison.  The great state universities are one of the glories of our unique American democracy, and the University of Wisconsin was, and still is, among the great ones.  I was very impressed by the institution’s admissions policy at that time, which in a nutshell was this.  Any certified graduate of a Wisconsin high school was guaranteed admission to one of the campuses of the University; but applicants were encouraged to evaluate their preparation and motivation realistically, since they were not guaranteed to succeed at course work or to graduate.  They were offered an opportunity, not a meal ticket.  Flunking out was an actual possibility.  The world is full of people who had “a year or two” at such institutions.  They are witnesses to educational integrity, however, not institutional failure.

            The continuing rise in college tuition has many causes, but one of them is undoubtedly the easy availability of cheap government money.  Institutions of higher education long ago became past masters of the “government grant”.  So have professors.  This is especially true of scientists and engineers, but I myself have more than once enjoyed largesse distributed by the National Endowment of the Humanities.  Getting the government to pay undergraduate tuition fees, if only by proxy, is already keeping more than one marginal institution in business.  Encouraging institutions to “teach to the test”—that is, to define their educational mission as the eligibility to be supported by government-backed tuition loans—strikes me as bad policy.

            A large, stable, and financially viable middle class is an indispensable rather than a merely desirable condition of American democracy.  And home ownership is certainly a laudable and realistic middle class aspiration.   It is not, however, an inalienable right.  A few years ago a lot of greedy bankers, egged on by governmental cheerleaders, decided they could make a ton of money by pretending that it was.  The devastating result was the mortgage crisis.  Already some voices are proclaiming—one hopes in ignorance rather than in demagoguery--that college tuition should be free for all.   

            We do have free education in this country.  The trouble is that quite of bit of it is appallingly inferior in quality.  We are shocked, rightly, at the huge disparities of wealth we see around us.  We should be no less shocked at the huge disparities (eventually related) in the quality of public education.  A high school graduate of the class of 1913 knew how to read and write.  Basic literacy—on which all learning depends--was not the province of “higher education,” as it increasingly is in America in 2013.  It should not be necessary to incur crippling debt to learn the multiplication tables to eight or ten, or how to write a simple declarative sentence, or how to distinguish between its and it’s.  A high school diploma was once a serious credential in this country.  It still is for some, but for far too many it is a mere calendrical marker and a license to apply for “higher”—and very costly—education.