Value for Money in College Education

A Pew Research Center report from 2011 made two interesting points. First,” less than half of members of the general public agrees [that students should pay for their own college education], with a majority saying either the federal or state government, private donors, or a combination of those should pick up the largest share of a student’s college tab.” Second, “nearly 60 percent of Americans say the U.S. higher education system is not providing students with a good value.” These attitudes put average Americans sharply at odds with college presidents and faculty, who feel themselves best by Yahoos.

It’s time for some plain speaking. First, college does cost more than most families care to afford. Second, most colleges don’t give good value for what they charge, at least not in educational terms. Third, it is the same general public that complains about low value for a high price that is the cause of these problems. An examination of the historical record makes this clear.

One part of the explanation comes from demography.  The Baby Boom (from 1946 to 1964 approximately) went through American society like a mouse through the rattlesnake my college room-mate used to keep.  In the Forties and Fifties a tsunami of students hit the schools.  In the Sixties and Seventies the same tsunami hit the colleges.  The result of massive demand was a huge increase in the size of colleges and college faculties.

Then the Baby Boom gave way to the Baby Bust.  This brought a decline in the number of 18 year-olds in 1982 and for years to come. The number of students no longer matched up with the size of colleges and faculties.  What to do?  In business, of course, lots of places would just have gone under, like nail or tanning salons. Supply would have returned to balance with demand.  Not in higher education however.  Colleges fought for survival. First of all, they molted into country-clubs attached to classrooms.  Sports facilities, luxury dorms, and improved food services became the hall-marks of a good college. Second, adult education and degree-completion programs multiplied. Third, they played to the American reverence for diplomas, if not for learning as an abstract concept.  Everyone emphasized the economic value of more education.  Everyone celebrated a liberal arts education for all as a form of democratization.  Graduate programs to confer credentials sprang up like mushrooms.

The end result was that not enough colleges were down-sized.  Instead, they passed the rising costs along to others: to parents (through tuition increases), to students (through larger student loan debt), and to taxpayers (through government aid to higher education).

A second part of the explanation is cultural.              On the one hand, we are living with the consequences of a regulatory society created to pursue well-intended, but ill-defined goals like “justice” and “well-being” for citizens.  The outcome of this has been the growth of a massive apparatus of administrative staff at every college.  If you compare a college phone directory of twenty years ago with one of today, you will be able to measure the scale of the growth of administrators, new offices, assistants, and secretaries.  These people largely respond to mandates imposed by the federal and state governments, and accrediting agencies.  The costs of those mandates, however, are carried by the colleges and passed on to the consumer.

On the other hand, we are living with the consequences of the “de-bourgeoisification” of the American middle class.  Being bourgeois used to mean valuing hard work, self-restraint, living on less than you earn in order to have savings and–in old age–to be able to leave “an estate” to one’s children to help them get started in life.  It did not mean being happy or “fulfilled.”  Even so, bourgeois used to have a positive association.  Since the 1960s being bourgeois has gone the way of fedoras and torpedo bras.  Increasingly, the cultural emphasis has been on individual fulfillment and happiness.  There isn’t much that is fulfilling or happy about hard work, so it is de-valued.

The average American home now has five books in it.  The average home also has a big screen TV and a huge range of channels on its cable package.  You can’t get literacy or analytical skills from reality shows or video games.

Furthermore, in 1950 about 40 percent of students never finished high-school.  They didn’t need much education to drive a truck or work a drill-press or dig a ditch.  THEN high school and college were for people willing to do the work and to respect authority in the form of unreasonable teachers and parents angry about report cards.  NOW the schools have shifted toward keeping kids in school regardless of the cost to the state of education.  The quality of education has suffered because it isn’t fashionable to do the work required for learning and almost impossible to coerce kids with threats of flunking out.  Parental authority also has declined.  (You try involuntarily institutionalizing somebody over the age of 14 in any state except Utah.)

The outcome of all this is that many students come to college without the intellectual or cultural or psychological capital that their predecessors brought.  They struggle–or don’t bother to–in the classes.  They require remedial course work and second chances.  The survival imperative driving many colleges leads to a dilution of course work and grading standards.  They need the tuition, so they need the students.

For many students, college is a rite of passage, not an education.  They get to live away from their parents for the first time.  They’re semi-adults on their way to being minor-league adults on their way to being full-scale adults on their way to being safely dead where nothing can go wrong now so they’re Winners!  (The movie “Trainspotting” may have been repellant, but it wasn’t wrong.) The country-club with classrooms environment reinforces this feeling.

Public attention has focused on the real-estate bubble and all the evidence of corporate misbehavior.  Much less noticed was the explosion in ill-considered consumer debt and use of home equity loans to finance consumption.  Basically, most people don’t save a ton of money to pay for their kids’ college education.  The attitudes reflected in the Pew survey are unrealistic on several grounds.  First, it would be one thing publically financing the higher education of some sort of elite.  In fact, most students in college are not part of some intellectual elite.  Second, the money just isn’t there.  The federal deficit is going to be cut through some combination of tax increases on most people and spending cuts for all.  How we would expand public aid to everyone seeking a college education in that environment is beyond me.  Certainly, Princeton could buy the moon if it was for sale. However, most colleges do not have large endowments to provide additional income.  Public colleges live off direct state aid and tuition.  Many private colleges are in the same leaky boat.  That means that the “someone” who will pay for college if parents and students don’t pay will be—parents and students in their capacity as taxpayers and tuition-payers.

Is there a solution to this problem? Sure. Shape up. Turn off the television. Get rid of the xBox. Take the kid to the library once a week. Ground the kid if the grade report isn’t good. Paint the house during your summer vacation or drive out to Gettysburg, but forget about going to Disney World or down the Shore. I hate having to quote Chris Christie, but “why are you mad at the first person who told you the truth?”


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