My first post got some good comments and some angry responses that seem to me somewhat to miss the point, but that is probably the fault of my questionable Club Med analogy, and also the fact that I wasn’t upfront enough about how I am thinking very much in second best terms, on the assumption that first best isn’t in the table. Let me try to clarify.
Some commenters objected to Club Med as an analogy because their kids are living in crummy dorms, and their schools don’t have a lot of fancy schmancy rock climbing walls in the gym – or any gym at all that you can go to without paying an extra membership fee. Fair enough. (In my defense, some schools are taking this route. Competing to have the best climbing walls, etc. But I waive this defense. It isn’t the case that the story of contemporary higher education is the story of too many climbing walls in the gym.) I’ve never been to Club Med myself but my understanding is that it’s a fun place where you can do a lot of fun activities, and it costs a lot of money. That was the level at which I intended the comparison to operate: the nice thing about college isn’t the dorm rooms, probably, but all the nice things you can do. There are tons of classes you can take, most notably. There’s also a library and some other stuff. But why not compare college to prison (since the dorm room is as crummy as a prison cell, and you don’t have a private bathroom)? Or the army? Yes, fine. Let these be our comparisons. They will not refute my point but confirm it by other means. If prisoners had to pay for their own incarceration for four years, it would cost them a lot of money. They would ‘graduate’ from prison in serious debt, probably (despite having lived in a crummy grey box). If soldiers had to pay for their own equipment and training, it wouldn’t be cheap. I take it the force of these analogies is supposed to be: but it would be absurd to make prisoners pay for their imprisonment, or soldiers pay for their own training. We shouldn’t make students pay their own way either. Yes, I quite agree. Henry linked in comments to a great piece about the death of the UC system. If US society were politically wise and good, it would reaffirm the commitment that California once made to its young people – no longer. Unfortunately, the US seems determined to do the unwise and bad thing instead. So the question my post asked is: what is the least bad way for the unwise and bad thing to go down?
You could, of course, say the thing to do is scream to the heavens that this thing is unwise and bad. I should have done a bit more of that in the first post. We want higher education to be an engine of virtuous meritocracy but also an engine of democracy. We want people to be upwardly mobile, thanks to education. But we also want the absolute numbers of people who get higher degrees to go up and up. More state support not less would be a good investment and, furthermore, the right thing to do. Such are my beliefs.
That said, you still have to think about second best if you don’t think you are going to get first best.
My basic thought – which my ill-fated Club Med analogy was intended to support: but instead we detoured through prison and the army – is that the paradigm college experience is just plain going to cost a lot. Four years being a full-time student at a residential college, say. That’s not going to come cheap. We shouldn’t beat our brains out about how we can do this thing inexpensively any more than we should beat our brains out about how we could make Club Med cheap, or how we could incarcerate people more cheaply. Or how we should be able to train soldiers, as well as we do now, but at half the cost. There isn’t some conspiracy to artificially inflate the cost of college. We could do different things. That might cost less. (Incarcerate fewer people, or just make them wear ankle thingies rather than living in a concrete box.) But there isn’t any reason to think we can do substantially the same things we already are, just at much lower cost. This is clearly a source of sincere disagreement in comments. Some people think that the rate at which college costs have gone up means that there must be some way to pop the cost bubble and dramatically lower costs back down without sacrificing quality. There’s some conspiracy of incompetence or venality by the administrators/teachers. We need to break the back of that, whatever it is, then things would get better. I don’t really think that’s plausible, but if you think it’s plausible, go ahead and work out your own solution to the problem along those lines.
College is a premium product. A costly good. But a valuable one we want people to have. If the state isn’t going to subsidize its provision, making it available to all, then how will it go?
Option 1: everyone who isn’t rich goes into serious debt to pay for this costly but valuable good.
Option 2: we devise a less premium product. It won’t be as good, but it will cost less.
I distrust Option 1. In fact, I’m paranoid about it, for reasons outlined in this article. I don’t quite drink the full jug of kool-aid. For example, I don’t buy that tuition has skyrocketed ‘because it can’. That is, there’s just a speculative bubble, in effect. I don’t think the growth in administration is quite as sinister as they suggest. It’s largely a function of universities wanting to do so much for students – so many programs and options and choices – which is a good thing. But it creates overhead costs.
I do agree that private for-profit outfits like University of Phoenix are, in effect, trying to get their noses into the huge trough of student loan money. That’s worrisome. The old are eating their young, leaving them holding the debt bag [pardon my mixed metaphor]. I am less worried by things like Western Governors University, which seems genuinely committed to trying to find a way to Option 2. Which makes me sad, but at least it isn’t some private sector trick to saddle students with debt. At least it’s an attempt to keep the democratic ideal of higher education for all alive, even if the dream looks pretty shabby.
Western Governors gives up the dream of a well-rounded liberal arts education. It gives up all the stuff that you can only do hands-on, in person. It gives up college as a formative social experience. It gives up a lot. But what it provides is worth something, and it’s not clear they are charging more than it is worth. It just makes me depressed to look at it, is all. But I can’t really argue with the logic of it, if the alternative is Option 1.
Final point. Some commenters objected to the implication that their cash-strapped institutions are emulating the top of the market – are all trying to be Harvard. The Rolls Royce option. Because they obviously aren’t making the dorms nice or repainting the classrooms or any of that. It’s all looking shabby. I said no one was trying to be Kia, but it looks like Kia to them. My analogy was, here again, potentially misleading. The idea was supposed to be this: everyone is emulating the top in that even second and third and fourth and fifth tier schools are structured like Harvard – same array of departments and programs and courses, just stretched fearfully thin, because no money to pay for it. This is aspirational, but also a necessary element of marketing to potential students. You can’t be Harvard but you have to sort of look like the same kind of place.
A better option might be to do a lot less, but hopefully do it better. This is, I take it, the Western Governors model. Not just online but simpler. More streamlined. Not really a university at all, in the traditional sense. Cheaper, as a result. Again, this depresses me. But it might be the way of the future. And it might be less bad for students than pushing them into debt to buy the premium product.
I dunno. [Editor’s note. I accidentally hit ‘publish’ prematurely, when I was planning on messing about with this post for a bit longer. But that’s alright. I really don’t know what I think about all this, in the final analysis. So I might as well do the messing about in comments, rather than in the post itself.]