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New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a column this past weekend reflecting upon a soon-to-be-released documentary on higher education in America. Here’s the core of Bruni’s argument:

One set of questions kept coming to mind. How does our current system of higher education square with our concerns about social mobility? What place do the nation’s universities have in our intensifying debate about income inequality? What promise do they hold for lessening it?

The answers in “Ivory Tower” and beyond it aren’t reassuring. Indeed, the greatest crisis may be that while college supposedly represents one of the surest ladders to, and up through, the middle class, it’s not functioning that way, at least not very well....

In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, roughly 75 percent of the students at the 200 most highly rated colleges came from families in the top quartile of income, he said. Only 5 percent came from families in the bottom quartile, and while that’s up from 3 percent in 1994, it’s no huge advance or cause to rejoice.

He goes on to observe that the well-endowed Harvards and Yales of the world can provide the kind of need-based financial aid necessary to enable students from poorer families to join their student bodies, but, even then, most of the students enrolled in elite universities come from socioeconomically elite families.  A survey of Harvard’s Class of 2017 found that while 30% of the incoming freshmen reported family incomes under $80,000, a similar percentage reported incomes over $250,000.  (The median income in the U.S. is just above $50,000.)

Bruni doesn’t really fault these schools, which spend an enormous sum of money on need-based financial aid. (Harvard spent $182 million in the 2013-2014 academic year.) The real problem, he says, is in America’s public universities, where tuition increases have exceeded income increases. The part of the story to which he points is declining public expenditures on higher education, which have led those universities not only to raise tuition, but to recruit students whose families can afford to pay the sticker price. This means that even some of the best and the brightest of our needy students aren’t heavily recruited by or don’t look seriously at our supposedly affordable, pretty good public institutions.

The only solution Bruni proffers is spending more tax dollars on public higher education. Given the deficits the federal government is running and the pressures that various sorts of entitlements are placing on state budgets, this strikes me as a non-starter. Are we really going to bill our grandchildren to pay for our children’s education? Can we raise taxes enough to provide “adequate” funding for American higher education? Are we going to rob Peter (other social welfare programs) to pay Paul (higher education)?

It seems to me to make more sense to look at the costs associated with higher education. Let’s start with the palatial dorms that affluent families (those who can pay full freight) expect to house their kids. Let’s then look at the student centers with their food courts and the fitness centers with their obligatory rock climbing walls that are all the rage in colleges and universities dedicated to competing for student (and state) tuition dollars. Let’s consider the burgeoning administrative bureaucracies in student affairs, business affairs, and fund-raising. Some are required for the sake of regulatory compliance, some to deal with the myriad personal and psychological problems students bring with them to campus, and others to manage and fund the increasingly expensive business American higher education has become.

I can’t finish without mentioning the instructional side of things. Especially at flagship state universities, research competes with teaching as a principal faculty function. This takes professors out of the classroom, to be replaced all too frequently by less well-trained and equally distracted graduate teaching assistants. It requires expensive investments in research facilities that serve the professors and their research teams, but don’t really enhance the undergraduate educational experience. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether those who fund public research universities pay more attention to the patents they generate than to students they educate.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand and appreciate our scientific research establishments. At best, they not only provide us with a more complete understanding of the world in which we live, but also with the inventions necessary to sustain our prosperity. But they are expensive and don’t always pay for themselves through grants and revenues.

We ask a lot of our universities, some of it appropriate and some of it dubious. A hard look at higher education from the vantage point of access and social mobility can’t just begin and end with a demand for more money. Let’s think about what’s required to enable students to make the most of their intellectual and academic abilities and then consider whether our colleges and universities are in fact providing it. More money won’t solve the problem, if we haven’t considered what matters the most. And I’d be willing to bet that what matters the most is what goes on in and around the classrooms, not in the student centers, gyms, and administrative offices.

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