That was the name game .  Now we’re playing (and have been for quite some time) the blame game.  The Occupiers, with some encouragement from Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House, have been blaming the financial industry for their woes.

There’s more than enough blame to go around.  Consider, for example, Congress’ role in pumping air into the subprime bubble, whose bursting was one of the principal causes of our economic downturn.

But today, I want to talk about higher education, where the long and steep upward climb of tuition offers at least prima facie evidence of yet another bubble.  We’ve been willing to pay more and more for our “higher” education because it was supposed to be the guarantee of a good job upon graduation (hence a good investment of time and money) and because the government’s willingness to subsidize it (thorough grants and guaranteed loans) would help insulate us from the real costs.

The Occupiers aren’t the only ones wondering about the former.  There are lots of reasons to ask about the value of a college education, not just in terms of the connection between credentials and the marketplace, but even in terms of the more intangible relationship between higher education and a life well-led.  That latter relationship is, for me, the central concern, but in terms of the economics of higher education, it’s a luxury good.

Properly understood, of course, it’s a relatively cheap luxury good.  You need students, professors, and great (or at least good) books.  Unfortunately, however, we’ve lost our focus on that time-honored nexus (the first discussion of it that I can think of is in Xenophon’s Memorabilia ).  Instead, we have professors who have science envy and need to do ground-breaking research (which means studying things that have in the past, for better or worse, been neglected and inventing new ways of looking at things, as if novelty were always a good thing).  And we have students who wish to be entertained and coddled in country club-like surroundings.  Finally, although I’m leaping ahead of myself a bit here, the fact that so much of this already bloated enterprise is financed by the federal government means that there are significant costs connected with regulatory compliance.

So a good that ought to be relatively simple— Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other —becomes increasingly complex . . . and expensive.

It has become all too easy to criticize American higher education for both its frivolousness and its expense, but the Obama Administration is fixated on access, which to it means spending more taxpayer money.  This, as Instapundit Glenn Reynolds points out , means pumping more air into the bubble:

The real problem is that we’ve been running a higher education bubble, one that — like the real-estate bubble — has been pumped up by cheap government money. Since 1999, student loan debt has increased by 511%, while disposable income has increased by only 73%.

As he points out, ”when the government subsidizes something, producers respond by raising prices to soak up as much of the subsidy as they can. College is no exception.”  And when government pays, it wants a return on its investment.  Hence the aforementioned regulatory burdens, not to mention the much feared “gainful employment” rule that some are discussing, and the sometimes well-intentioned but often problematical efforts to sell college education as civic education .

With all this money and indebtedness floating around, it is difficult to talk about the real purposes of higher education.  On the one hand are those who speak of the marketplace, which makes students consumers.  This is a fundamental distortion of the teacher-student relationship and requires the illusion that students know what it is they need.  At best, you get more or less sophisticated vocational education out of this.  At worst, you get edutainment.  On the other hand are those whowould respond to these abuses by regulation, so that we educators give students what those who purport to speak for the taxpayers think they need.  Again, the best possible result is more or less sophisticated vocational education.  The worst is some sort of standardization and indoctrination.

Perhaps it would be good if the bubble should happen to burst.  We might then be able to speak freely about the real and varied  purposes of post-secondary education (some “higher,” some more or less vocational).  And we might explore simpler ways of recovering Mark Hopkins’s log.

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