Colleges Bobbing for French Fries.

Education has always been a commodity like any other. Sellers set the price at what the market will bear. Calling colleges and universities “not-for-profit” hides from this reality. The only difference between Chrysler and a college is that colleges have no shareholders or proprietors.[1] Therefore, increased revenue goes directly to the employees. The reverse is also true. In a period of revenue constraint, the costs are taken out of the hide of the employees.

Suzanne Mettler has argued that the political gridlock in Washington has kept federal aid, like Pell grants, from rising enough to keep an increasing burden for tuition from falling on ordinary families. At the state level, the requirement to balance budgets and a widespread hostility to taxes has intersected rising costs for Medicaid and prisons to force cuts to state aid to public institutions.[2] Access to college is becoming a privilege of wealth instead of motor of American prosperity.

Barton Swaim isn’t buying it.[3] First, he sees a huge expansion of the scale and activities on the part of colleges and universities since the mid-1980s. “Departments and schools have multiplied, lavishly expensive student facilities and high-tech research centers have gone up even during recessions, well-paid administrators have multiplied like locusts, and federal grant-money has poured in at ever-increasing rates.” Why has this happened? “When government pays the bills, prices always go up.” Sellers charge what the market will be bear. Second, Swaim argues that the supposed recent “cuts” in state-funding for education are usually presented in terms of a falling share of state budgets, rather than as inflation-adjusted real dollars. (Swaim himself doesn’t bother to give any figures to support his alternative interpretation.) Implicitly, what is needed is some market discipline. Third, Swaim’s interpretation fits into the narrative of the unforeseen—and disastrous–consequences of liberal good intentions. Mettler, he says, “is right that American higher education is no longer the force of equality and opportunity that predominantly liberal policy makers intended it to be. What she misses is that those policy makers are to blame.”

What does Swaim get right and what does he get wrong? First, he’s right about the fact of the huge expansion in activities since the mid-1980s. He’s just wrong about the cause of it. Simply put, there are too many colleges and universities relative to the demand for them. They compete by multiplying academic program to reflect the latest fad, degrading academic standards, engaging in an amenities arms race, and multiplying recruitment and support staffs (i.e. administrators). We need a shake-out.

Second, he’s wrong on the cuts-in-state-financing-causing-tuition-increases issue. Tuition at public school has spiked much more than has tuition at private ones. This is the product of cuts in state aid. (See: “College costs: the old eat the young,” 27 September 2014.)

Third, he misses (or dodges) the chance to talk about the equivalent unforeseen—and disastrous–consequences of conservative good intentions. The war on drugs and the conversion of tax cuts from a rational policy choice into a primitive fetish (of the religious, rather than the sexual sort[4]) have been just as much exploding cigars as anything liberals have advocated.

[1] On the other hand, when is the last time you heard of a student recall? Jus sayin.

[2] Suzanne Mettler, Degrees of Inequality (Basic Books, 2014).

[3] Swaim, review of Mettler, Degrees of Inequality, WSJ, 14 March 2014.

[4] Although I suppose that someone could work up a funny patter on the parallels with BDSM. If that’s how you roll.


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