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The 21st-century retreat from public higher education

By Michael Konczal

One striking thing about the current global recession, a crisis that has hit those in the United States with weaker education backgrounds much harder than others, is that one response has been the massive retrenchment, austerity and abandonment of the promise and ideal of public college education.

This is not only a U.S. phenomenon. One thing I learned in graduate school is that the best thing a professor can do is tell you who to read, so let me give you a reading list of the best of what I've seen recently. On the current situation in England, I recommend Collini here:

Much of the initial response to the Browne Report seems to have missed the point. Its proposals have been discussed almost entirely in terms of "a rise in fees." ... But the report proposes a far, far more fundamental change to the way universities are financed than is suggested by this concentration on income thresholds and repayment rates. Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). ... This is more than simply a "cut," even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.

You see the protests in England, and there will be more in the United States. Especially after another round of fee hikes at the University of California system, 8 percent this time, along with University of California at Berkeley, the flagship of public education in this country, joining the "elite" club of the few institutions that charge over $50,000 tuition, fees, room, and board, for out-of-state students in that case. (That club is less elite than it used to be, as it's roughly doubled in the past year from 58 to 100.)

Here's UC President Mark G. Yudof's letter explaining this, featuring such language as: "This system of premier research campuses, medical centers and national laboratories remains on course to serve coming generations of Californians" (note education and teaching doesn't show up, merely research facilities whose products can be sold off after the fact) and nonsense like this that does little to inspire: "A mounting collision of irreversible forces-demographic, economic, environmental and social-could lead to a new dawn of progress and prosperity, mirroring other fundamental transformations that have occurred across the state's history." New dawn? This isn't the talk of someone who is seriously trying to save the ideal of public education.

Here's a series of articles by Peter Byrne about how the losses that UC suffered from bad investment decisions is much larger than the shortfall from state cuts.

The battle isn't really over the humanities anymore (though the humanities are going to take the brunt of this), but the actual idea of education as a public good, the idea that someone can develop their full capabilities in the wealthiest nation on Earth without entering debt peonage. That said, Aaron Brady has argued (here and here) the clear case the problem proposed is usually one of bad faith, that humanities tend to cross-subsidize the sciences, as sciences like medicine are expensive to teach (labs, chemicals, machinery) and humanities like English are less so (a book).

Last, one of my favorite thinkers, Wendy Brown, on DIY U-style online education:

What are some of the challenges of contemporary brand capital in marketing an elite product? To expand the market for the brand, and cheapen the cost of its production, without so degrading both the cache and the quality that consumers will replace it with cheap knock-offs or substitutes; to out-run open-sourcing and pirating; to keep the brand alive over time; and to be on the front curve of every new wave in markets and technologies. It is the measure of the marketization of public universities that these challenges, rather than that of providing a first rate higher education to an ever-changing public, are now organizing the university’s future. …

Some facts are in order here. To date, for-profit high quality on-line liberal arts education has been a financial disaster for most institutions engaged with it. ... A second group of facts is also important for understanding the economics of a proposed UC cyber campus. The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges. It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs. Moreover, the high rate, much studied, seems impossible to fix. … Why do drop out rates matter? Because students pay for courses and programs they don’t complete. ... Millions of former students are now “under water” with debt from on-line courses of study they never completed and/or whose benefit they never reaped. Indebted alumni of on-line education are thus joining the ranks of homeowners paying off mortgages on properties whose value is lower than the loan or which they no longer even own. …

As is well known, no matter how “high touch” it is, on-line education inherently isolates and insulates students, deprives instruction of personality, mood and spontaneity, sustained contact, and leaves undeveloped students’ oral skills and literacy. Countless studies reveal that on-line courses necessarily dumb down and slow down curriculums. They reduce as well the critical, reflective and reflexive moments of learning, moments of developing thoughtfulness, navigating strangeness and newness, and of being transformed by what one learns. On-line education necessarily emphasizes what Edley refers to as “content retention,” rather than what liberal arts education has long promised: the cultivation of thoughtful, worldly, discerning, perspicacious, and articulate civic-minded human beings. Thus to substitute on-line for on-campus education, especially in those first two years of college when students are initiated into university level inquiry, is to spurn the enduring Socratic notion of learning as a “turning of the soul.” It is also to privilege those courses that conform best to large-scale cyber teaching, those with the most information-based content. It would thus further orient students and the future of the university toward education conceived simply as job training and credentialing.

That right now is the moment our country is turning toward the idea of massive indebtedness as a prerequisite toward participating in the 21st-century economy is incredibly cynical, given how much worthless debt is hanging like an albatross around the neck of this fragile recovery.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He blogs about finance, economics and other topics at Rortybomb and New Deal 2.0, and you can follow him on Twitter.

By Michael Konczal  | November 12, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
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What an absolute, utter crock of bullshit.

See the blue line.

Posted by: krazen1211 | November 12, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

great piece, but I'd add that the states have been turning away from that model for three decades. It's very easy to think students should pay more for their education when you compare it to other forms of state govt spending, and year-by-year, that choice has been made again and again.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | November 12, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

The reason there is a need for a "retreat from public higher education" is that the cost of such education are SOARING.

Tuition rates are on a consistent violent upward trajectory. Much of that is associated with increased "costs" at the colleged and universities, namely higher administrative overhead, and higher salaries for professors.

Higher education can get away with it because the government so heavily subsidizes tuitions. Even though the rates keep going up, people keep paying.

At some point higher education is going to have a "come to Jesus" moment, because they won't be able to fill their classrooms with paying students anymore. When that happens, we will start returning to a more sane cost structure.

Posted by: WEW72 | November 12, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I see that Ezra slept through class when Supply & Demand, effects on prices was discussed.


Posted by: illogicbuster | November 12, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

WEW72: You have it exactly backwards. The reason the cost of education is soaring is that public education is being abandoned. As the states cut back on the amount of money they contribute to the universities, tuition goes up and up to fill in the balance.

While you're right that administrative costs have gone way up, salaries and labor costs for the people actually teaching in classrooms has gone way, way down. Fifty years ago, most professors in most classrooms had reasonably good salaries with benefits. Nowadays, salaried professors with benefits are a minority, and their compensation is not rising at all (most are taking actual cuts to their salaries). Instead, most people teaching in university classrooms are contingent labor, some combination of graduate students, temporary lecturers, and non-tenured faculty, people who get substantially reduced benefits if they get any at all, and make much less money than a tenured professor (as well as having no long term job security). As bad as all this is for the teachers themselves (and the students as well), it's excellent for the bottom line, which is why the "rising cost of education" complaint is completely bogus. Universities are spending lots of money; they're just not spending it on INSTRUCTIIoN.

That's why that quote from Mark Yudof is so telling: the people in charge of the nation's premiere public university don't view instruction as a high priority; instead, they see universities as a place where research and information is developed (at taxpayer expense) which can then be dumped onto the private sector (so other people can make money off it). Public universities have become huge corporate enterprises -- intimately integrated into the larger economy -- and the money which students (and the state) pay for educational fees gets used to subsidize private industry, albeit indirectly.

Posted by: aaronbady | November 12, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

" namely higher administrative overhead, and higher salaries for professors"

ah, ignorance is bliss.. professors make LESS than they did 30 years ago, while administrator make more... and atheltic coaches make millions.

inter colliegiate athletics costs and spending have risen more than any single aspect of higher education, followed by presidents pay, and admin executives.

Posted by: newagent99 | November 12, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"I see that Ezra slept through class when Supply & Demand, effects on prices was discussed.


I see that you somehow slept through the fact that Ezra has been on vacation and that guest bloggers have been writing all the posts, including this one, for quite some time. Notice the "By Michael Konczal."


Posted by: Nylund154 | November 12, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

"the idea that someone can develop their full capabilities in the wealthiest nation on Earth without entering debt peonage. "

Rubbish. You can't have it both ways. Either college offers a garagantuan wage premium, in which case going in debt to go to college is a good investment, or it does not have a gargantuan wage premium and it's a bad investment.

Which is it?

Posted by: SamM3 | November 12, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Here's the problem, my alma mater Penn State lists about 300 majors in undergraduate admissions alone. Each one of these has it's own constituency grasping for dollars. Though there is no doubt duplication, each one has professors that teach a few classes each week. Each one has at least some kids who have borrowed substantial sums of money to support those sometimes few professors who work in these areas

It's like Google gone nuts on steroids. (For the uninitiated we often laugh at Google because they have so much cash flow that they throw it in every conceivable endeavor, whether or not they will actually make money on just a few)

If college was a busines,s you would immediately stop sending out money in all directions and concentrate on what you do well. However since an endless supply of tuition money is available through borrowing, colleges don't have to make those choices. They can just raise tuition.

It is Econ101 that when you have endless promotion of something as a necessity which is in limited supply with high barrier levels to entry into the business, you have an incubator for massive inflation.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 12, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm sympathetic to the exploding costs and the idea that we should educate everyone as much as possible. But, the truth is, there is some reason to believe that college isn't for everyone and isn't the best use of our resources, even when ignoring the fact that too many kids just party and sleep their way through school without learning all that much.

For a lot of the jobs people end up doing, its hard to say why its necessary to take some hodge podge mix of English, sociology, poli sci, marketing, etc. courses for four years. Vocational schools, apprenticeships, on-the-job training might be much more efficient and effective ways to give people the skills they need.

Ask yourself what you do and what you would do to best train someone to do your job? For some, (engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.) the answer may indeed involve many years of schooling, but for most of us, we could probably think of a training system that would take less than four years and cost less than whatever hundreds of thousands of dollars a BA now costs. I bet in a lot of cases, 4 months of being "mentored" on the job would teach more than 4 years in a classroom.

From a "signaling" perspective, one could also argue that a BA has lost a lot of meaning as it becomes more ubiquitous. I also think that as it becomes more commonplace, it dilutes the quality of both the students and the professors as we expand the ranks of both, making the experience even less worthwhile.

I have my days where I think the whole thing is a sham and that nearly every university is now little more than one a long and expensive diploma mill. Its just a con to get more tuition money to subsidize everything. Some of those things, like quality research, are good, but some of it is also just a way to line the pockets of certain people.

Maybe I'd feel differently if the quality of incoming students was anything but sadly pathetic, but the American high school system is really failing our children. College often seems just like four years of babysitting as so few students are actually prepared to learn what we supposedly are meant to teach.

Posted by: Nylund154 | November 12, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I'd also argue that some schools are little more than professional sports franchises with unpaid athletes. Everything else is just window dressing.

Posted by: Nylund154 | November 12, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

"Either college offers a garagantuan wage premium, in which case going in debt to go to college is a good investment, or it does not have a gargantuan wage premium and it's a bad investment."

True. One problem is that students and their parents don't have the data to guide their educational investment decisions. If colleges and universities provided information on the rate of return on their graduates' tuition investment, the advantage of a college education would be clearer. We are told that that the average college graduate will make x% more than a high school graduate during his or her lifetime. However, the data isn't granular enough to help students make their decisions other than to go to college. Everyone 'knows' that an Ivy League education will on average provide better financial returns than State College; if so, by how much?

The federal government has proposed using student debt-to-income ratios as one measure to determine whether private online colleges and universities should remain eligible for federal aid. It's a just a matter of making this type of information on both online and traditional institutions of higher learning available to prospective students and their parents.

Posted by: tuber | November 12, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"I see that Ezra slept through class when Supply & Demand, effects on prices was discussed.


Posted by: illogicbuster"

I see someone took econ 101 and think they're an expert.

Posted by: newagent99 | November 12, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

"WEW72: You have it exactly backwards. The reason the cost of education is soaring is that public education is being abandoned. As the states cut back on the amount of money they contribute to the universities, tuition goes up and up to fill in the balance."

That explains why private university costs have been static, whereas public university costs have been exploding.

When state governments cut back, they do inflate the rate of growth for tuition (e.g. 6% overall cost growth turns into a 10% tuition hike to the student), but the underlying cost growth rate is high as well.

Despite state government freezes/cuts, the amount of dollars effectively earmarked and flowing into the education sector is growing rapidly which is the source of the upward cost spiral.

Consider that inflation adjusted tuition at Harvard fell slightly from 1900-1947, but has since expanded more than 10x, again in inflation adjusted terms.

The subsidies (public and private) push universities to compete on ammenities and professors and the like, not on price.

Posted by: justin84 | November 12, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

The cost (actual cost) of publicly-funded higher education is rising at a pace greater than that of privately-funded higher education. One interesting comparative measure of the cost of higher education is the annual cost to maintain one square foot of lawn. If you pick your favorite public and private institution and compare, you'll note that the public institution spends about 100 times what the private institution spends. Much of this cost differential -- which extends beyond lawn care into virtually every facet of university operation -- is due to the over-regulation, mismanagement, and union graft present in public universities.

If the cost of public higher education could be brought under control -- perhaps simply by starving the beast -- the fees paid both by students and by taxpayers would be reduced. Admittedly, it's pie-in-the-sky thinking that any liberal would cut costs to help promote the future public good, but making a few cuts in public higher education spending does seem like a good thing.

Every employee of every public university should agree to an immediate 20% pay cut: those making more than $100,000 per year should volunteer for an immediate 40% pay cut. Help cut fees paid by students! Help taxpayers, too! Who's the first liberal to sign up???

Posted by: rmgregory | November 12, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

'I'd also argue that some schools are little more than professional sports franchises with unpaid athletes. Everything else is just window dressing.'

True. But in many of those schools, men's basketball and men's football carry some of their own weight.

Posted by: krazen1211 | November 12, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Great article about new college dorms. It's an arms race.

Colleges have spent millions of dollars renovating or building new dorms in order to offer the same sort of suburban comforts that many students are accustomed to.

“Fine arts has studio-based production, so capital and facility costs are high,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the nonprofit group Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, speaking of colleges in general. “Piano tutoring is pretty much one to one in a room with a piano. Pianos are expensive. Agriculture is expensive because of the lab costs, which means a barn.”

Posted by: krazen1211 | November 12, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

True. But in many of those schools, men's basketball and men's football carry some of their own weight.

Posted by: krazen1211 | November 12, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

actually at many universities they carry more than their weight. They carry the whole Athletic dept budgets.

I concur with those that would like some light shone on the salaries of administrators at universities and professors.

Why is it when the the supply side of the healthcare costs rise exponentially we feel it necessary to badger those who we think are the drivers of those costs (ie insurance) but when education costs rise exponentially we feel like the blame doesn't belong on the universities? What do they do with their endowments? I know I read somewhere several years back that some of the endowments at major universities like Mr. Matthews' could cover the cost of tuition for every student if necessary and then some. Where does all the money go?

Someone needs to call in the Sunlight Foundation's divison that handles the private sector on this one.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 12, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

The endless rise in tuition rates is a serious problem in higher education, as is administrative bloat.

But there are deeper problems, particularly at the level of research universities, where the whole model of instruction and research seems to be a house of cards just waiting to collapse.

Grad students, in particular, are victims of the system. An increasing number of people are calling attention to the problems. For example:

100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School

Posted by: Sven2 | November 13, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

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