Who Should Pay for College?

photo_51975_wide_largeIn the Chronicle, William Deresiewicz reviews a documentary about higher education. After several bad paragraphs about student loan debt, he makes interesting points about the higher education crisis. Even if he doesn’t think that student loans are a crisis, he does think that the entire system of higher education is in hot water. He demands more public financing of higher education funded by a tax hike on the wealthy and upper middle class, changes in the administration of colleges, greater activitism by faculty and college students, and a serious examination of expenditures by administrators.

There was a manifesto-like feel to the end of the essay.

The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal. That distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry. That have no use for larger social purposes. That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right…

The problem of costs, to be sure, is not a one-way street. Higher education must indeed increase efficiency, but how? Institutions have been willing to spend on everything in recent years except the thing that matters most: instruction. Dorms, deans, sports, but not professors. Piglike presidential salaries, paid for by hiring adjuncts. Now, with MOOCs and other forms of online instruction, the talk is more of the same. My friends, they are coming for you. The professoriate no longer has the luxury of thinking that all this is someone else’s problem. If you want to save your skins, let alone ensure the future of the enterprise, you need to wake up and organize against the people who are organizing against you. The fact is that by focusing exclusively on monetary issues, the current conversation prevents us not only from remembering the higher objectives of an undergraduate education, but also from recognizing just how bad a job our institutions have been doing at fulfilling them. Colleges and universities have a lot to answer for; if they want to regain the support of the larger society, they need to prove that they are worthy of it.

…If service workers can demand a $15 minimum wage, more than double the federal level, then those who care about higher education can insist on the elimination of tuition and fees at state institutions and their replacement by public funding furnished by taxes on the upper 10 percent. As with the minimum wage, the campaign can be conducted state by state, and it can and should involve a large coalition of interested groups: students, parents, and instructors, to start with. Total enrollment at American colleges and universities now stands at 20 million, on top of another million-plus on the faculty. That’s a formidable voting bloc, should it learn to exercise its power. Since the Occupy movement in 2011, it’s clear that the fight to reverse the tide of growing inequality has been joined. It’s time we joined it.

4 thoughts on “Who Should Pay for College?

  1. “That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right…”

    I agree that one of the worst trends in our market-dominated society is the refusal to recognize the worth of “that which can’t be bought or sold” (or to pretend that we can monetize it).

    But, I am generally unsympathetic to the desire to add everything we would like to have as a society to the column of “rights.” Higher education is not a basic human right. Education is, but whatever constitutes “higher education” (especially in the form of the right to participate in the particular right of passage that constitutes American higher education — the first time living away from home, in an environment where your intellectual/self growth is the purpose of the institution and your only responsibility) is not a basic human right. I think it is sloppy usage that undermines the meaning of basic human rights.


  2. Deresiewicz is living in a fantasy world where he has more importance than he does in actuality. There are people who are hostile to the infantile left-wing politics of the typical college professor, and to the mindless drivel that constitutes a large portion of current scholarship, but that doesn’t mean hostility to critical thinking or to scholarship. Even people with infantile left-wing college politics can produce valuable work, so long as it focuses on useful things like historical patterns of rural economic organization. (E.g., William Cronon.)

    There are working class subcultures in America that are hostile to higher education generally, believing that honest men and women work with their hands, but the members of those subcultures have very little political power. If Deresiewicz wants to blame them for the ills of American higher education, he is spouting nonsense. If he thinks that the MDs at Goldman Sachs or the partners at Cravath are hostile to higher education, he is spouting even worse nonsense.


  3. I would be very wary of instituting a program of increased significant taxation based on income. Give people a strong incentive to *not* be in the top 10% of income, they’ll find ways to be in the top 10.1%. On paper. Incentives work.

    One way to do this without killing the economy would be to elimate carried interest. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/opinion/carried-interest-an-unjust-privilege-for-financiers.html

    However, there is a sad truth behind Deresciewicz’s article. Why go to college? The reasons cited by Thrun & Thiel, and their ilk, actually have very little to do with education as properly understood. Very few of the people who go to college want an education. They want a credential, they want the social contacts, they want a job at the end, they (or their parents) want high-class marriages. But they don’t want to contemplate the meaning of life or hone their intellects. Unfortunately, if you give something away for free, people do not value it, even if they know it has value. We also should not be pressuring every high school student to attend college. Of those students who complete college, a small share of those who originally start, few wanted intellectual stimulation.

    So I would propose these steps:

    eliminate carried interest

    restrict college access to students able to complete college at a standard college.

    If a college pays any of its officers more than a stipulated amount, it loses its nonprofit status. Perhaps something along the lines of “no more than 4 times the median or average college instructor’s salary (whichever is lower.)” “Officers” to include the coaches, of course.

    Allow students to discharge student loan debt through bankruptcy.


    Notwithstanding all that, off the cuff, I tend to believe people are making rational choices. College is a luxury good. People are not forced to send their children to college.

    The people critcizing the “college bubble” should found their own colleges. They should prove their version of What Colleges Should Do will work in the marketplace. I suspect they’ll be tripped up by those old devils, Supply and Demand, as well as Conspicuous Consumption. (Which concepts one should encounter in a standard “college education.”)

    For all the whining about luxurious dorms and climbing walls, etc., I think they’ll find few parents willing to pay enough tuition to support a decent faculty, for a bare bones campus. You see, you can visit dorms, dining halls, and sports facilities. You can’t visit the intellectual world of colleges. You have to take that on faith. American parents seem very unwilling to believe, “Yeah, they don’t keep up with their campus maintenance, but they support the academic side lavishly.”

    Claiming that someone else should be required to pay for your Ideal World won’t work.


  4. Private and public colleges aren’t all that different in cost, it’s just that the public colleges get a lot of their money from the taxpayers. I’m kind of with Deresciewicz on the idea that lower-quintile income people ought not be taxed to pay for college education which will overwhelmingly benefit upper-quintile people.

    I think we have drastically raised the value to employers of the certification function because we have made it so much harder to assess people before hiring them and to fire people if they don’t work after a hire. Since mistakes are so costly, why not stick to Yalies? And I share with Cranberry the idea that real education is only somewhat associated with credentialing. And that you can do a lot by making college debt dischargeable in bankruptcy: HUGE effect on lenders in looking at whether the borrowers’ plans make sense, and on students thinking, ‘well, perhaps an extra three thousand for the school with the climbing wall and the carpet on the dorm room floor is not so good an idea’.


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