Education and opportunity

by John Quiggin on May 22, 2014

I’ve got a piece up at the Chronicle of Education, with the title Campus Reflections (paywalled, but there’s a version at my blog) making the point that a higher education system is, in important respects, a mirror of the society that created it, and that it helps to recreate. If that’s true, it follows that the idea of education as a route to equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcomes, is misconceived. This idea has always been popular among social democrats and even more so by advocates of ‘The Third Way’, who needed it to justify their abandonment of policies aimed at equalising outcomes.

Thinking about the point in this more general context, I’d want to qualify the ‘mirror’ claim a bit. There have been important instances where access to education has been substantially more egalitarian than access to resources in general, so that education did serve to promote equality of opportunity and perhaps also some equalisation of incomes (since it reduced the correlation between access to good jobs and ownership of wealth). The creation of universal public education systems in the 19th century was one example. These systems were far from being equal: they typically streamed students along class lines. But even giving working class kids the basics of literacy and numeracy was a big step forward, and there were opportunities for the bright and determined to do much better than that. The GI Bill in the US was another (if readers can point me to a good source of more detailed info on this I’d be grateful).

But, to the extent that education is a market commodity, it will be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. So, in the absence of a strong policy push in the opposite direction, unequal access to education for young people will reflect the unequal wealth and income of their parents. The US higher education system, like the health system, mirrors the outcomes of labor and capital markets pretty closely. It does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else to take their chances.

{ 113 comments }

1

JM Hatch 05.22.14 at 2:47 am

One of the advantages of having MOOC’s & lectures on-line and public from Ivy League schools is seeing that many of those classes are not really that advanced compared to what decent quality public universities offer. ie: Ivy League schools don’t really offer a better education. However they do tend to have a larger number of bright students, who do a better job of claiming an education on their own, but even so the bright students are not even plurality at Harvard – This must be so if the Ivy League can graduate the likes of Bush Jr.

So what do Ivy League schools offer, if not a better education? Membership in a club, and all the social benefits thereof. They also act to train up the little fresh blood (ala Kennedy family) that slips in, how to work and protect the system. The expense is to discourage the hoi-polloi, diluting the value of the membership. The rare full scholarships for the occasional peon that the selection process predicts can develop innto future overseers to do the dirty work (ala Bill Clinton), and lastly to political cover for the class system overall.

2

bad Jim 05.22.14 at 7:23 am

My sister and I graduated from UC Berkeley, my brother from San Diego State, back in the good old days when it was basically free. Their kids mostly attended schools in the State University system: Sonoma, Humboldt, Long Beach and San Marcos, Cal Poly, Los Angeles; much more expensive but still a good value.

The voters no longer support education because taxes are evil, and because they consider education a merely private benefit. “Why should I pay to educate someone else’s kid?” is a complaint I’ve heard for fifty years. There is no longer a consensus that the entire society benefits from an educated public. Back when I was an employer in a manufacturing concern, I took it for granted that the people we hired had a decent education, just as I took it for granted that we had good roads, reliable power and clean water.

At some point, back in the 70’s, we gave up on building the future. Maybe landing on the moon was the big mistake. Been there, done that. Punch the snooze button. Maybe it was civil rights, the counterculture, women’s lib, sex and drugs and rock and roll. Perhaps the optimism and altruism that followed the second world war was an aberration, a dream that vanished in the harsh light of day.

3

Phil 05.22.14 at 7:46 am

We sent both our kids to fee-paying schools (‘public schools’, as they’re known), on the basis that they’d be happier in an environment where being academically-oriented was treated as normal & valuable. We were disappointed and surprised to find that half or more of their classmates had come from fee-paying primary schools, which are known as preparatory schools for a reason – by all accounts they spend most of year six taking past papers from public school entrance exams. Of course, in theory any kid who doesn’t make the – genuinely quite academically demanding – grade will be chucked out at a later stage, but in practice, well, there are tutors, and who cares if [s]he’s having to work at it a bit as long as [s]he’s getting a Good Education? Besides, even if you can’t learn to be bright, you can learn how to revise, how to manage your time in exams, how to participate in class discussions, and generally how to do what the bright kids do – even if they’re doing it because they find it easy & enjoy doing it, and you don’t. We thought we were buying into a system based on selection on ability & orientation, with motivated teachers teaching smart and academically-oriented kids; that does exist, but alongside or around it there seems to be this other system, which is basically a mechanism for reproducing privilege by translating parental income into educational attainment. We found this a very depressing thought.

Teaching first-year students at my post-92 institution, I always want to start the year with a lecture on privilege…

“A lot of what you’re going to be doing over the next few years depends on thinking for yourself, getting your thoughts in some kind of order and – most importantly – saying what you think. Some people do that at school; some kids spend quite a lot of their time at secondary school being asked what they think, and learning how to answer in a well-ordered way. Some kids have that experience at home. I think it’s fair to say that most kids don’t have those experiences: most parents don’t care about developing their kids’ debating skills, and most teachers don’t have the luxury of being able to ask the kids what they think, as distinct from teaching them what’s in the lesson plan. So some kids – a minority of kids – come to university much better prepared than others; they may not have studied the subjects we study here, but they’ve had practice in how we study them. These kids are lucky – they’re privileged. But that doesn’t mean that university life, and the way we study things at university, are only for the privileged kids. Everyone has ideas about the world. Everyone has personal experiences they can draw on. Everyone can read a book. Everyone can tell a story and build an argument. You’re going to be doing all those things, and most importantly you’re going to be pulling all those things together, striking sparks off what you read with your own personal convictions and vice versa. Everyone can do that. Not everyone has the privilege of practising to do that at school, but everyone – as an adult – can do it. I know from experience that some first-year students find it scary to be asked to think on their feet or write from their own point of view; they just aren’t used to it, and they want to know how to give the right answer and have done with it. If that’s you, try and get past it as soon as you can. Don’t be scared of developing your own ideas. Don’t ask what the ‘right answer’ is. Start thinking about how you can pull those elements together – what’s in the books and the lectures on one hand, your own experiences and ideas on the other – and by the end of three years you’ll be doing it as if you’d been doing it all your life; and you’ll be having fun with it. And the chances are you’ll be getting really good marks.”

Maybe next year I’ll actually say it.

4

david 05.22.14 at 8:28 am

Not everyone can build an argument, at least initially, with reference to Holbo’s thread a week ago. Taking it as given that it’s possible to teach a student to argue, it still takes a considerable time and effort to do so, and these are not necessarily applicable skills outside the exam hall.

I suspect that telling students to “write from their own point of view” is active sabotage – privileged students will give time-tested points of view which they have been exposed to by an educated, intellectual upbringing, but unprivileged students will clumsily try to reason from first principles – very much a recipe for disaster. When an hour of classes costs upwards of $300, spending that time muddling through basics just to fulfill the lecturer’s romantic notions of self-discovery is a recipe for very expensive and pointless debt, whilst your privileged peers roll their eyes and cut class to dig through succinctly prepared notes passed to them by their cousin’s classmate. Or, more likely, go network even more.

5

Main Street Muse 05.22.14 at 10:25 am

I’d like a source that says success comes only to those who attend the Ivies. Indiana (PARTY CENTRAL, as per Paying for the Party) is on this list of top schools that launched future CEOs, as is Notre Dame, Rutgers and UVA. http://bit.ly/1sXIWWV

I also want to put forth the theory that the Ivy education is responsible for the much of the morass of the global economy. MOST bankers come from Ivies – there is a lack of morality and ethicality on Wall Street. Somehow, this cannot come from just the job – somehow this ability to accept the gross immorality on Wall Street is condoned and emphasized in those august classrooms that allow those graduates to screw over everyone, their clients included. Most in positions of power in DC seem to come from Ivies. And Congress is at its lowest approval rating ever, with good reason. The Ivy education has not led to a better society, at least in America. (Though TR was the product of the Ivies and he gave us much to gnaw on about government’s role in protecting the country.)

In America today, inequality is so firmly embedded by the time students go to college – thanks to the practice of using property taxes in some areas to pay for K-12 education – it is almost insurmountable. If you read Paying for the Party, you’ll note that the education provided by the university (IU!) was irrelevant – the wealth of the families and their connections were the ticket to a job for those who graduated in 2008 – the moment of crisis for the economy.

That said, my father and his sister were the first in their family to graduate college – my father went on to law school thanks to the GI Bill (he served in Korea during the war – seems a fair return on the nation’s investment.) My life growing up was dramatically more affluent than his was growing up. I live and work in a state that is shredding its investment in public education – from K-college. It is a horror unfolding right now. An absolute horror.

6

Trader Joe 05.22.14 at 11:42 am

MSM
Most bankers do not come from Ivies. As a proportion they are certainly well represented, but its far below ‘most.’ As a general comment, the Wall Street banking community is drawn from people who are very high academic achievers (most all graduate top 10% of their classes from wherever they graduate) and competitive achievers – sports, debate, leadership roles etc. Its this combination of very bright and very competive (i.e. smartest guy in the room and thinks he’s entitled) that creates some of the behavior you see.

P.S. This isn’t to say there aren’t privledged ringers who get jobs due to connections or other non-merit reasons, but this doesn’t predominate despite popular perception.

7

Christina 05.22.14 at 12:30 pm

@Jim #2

Or, as Piketty shows, inherited wealth started gaining ground against earned wealth? I believe the turning point is indeed 1970.

8

Barry 05.22.14 at 1:15 pm

Main Street Muse 05.22.14 at 10:25 am

” I’d like a source that says success comes only to those who attend the Ivies. Indiana (PARTY CENTRAL, as per Paying for the Party) is on this list of top schools that launched future CEOs, as is Notre Dame, Rutgers and UVA. http://bit.ly/1sXIWWV

I’d like to see a cite from John’s post where he actually made that argument.

9

engels 05.22.14 at 1:30 pm

Not sure how I got there but after reading this, Google brought me to website of Cherwell (venerable crappy student newspaper at UK Ivy-equivalent) which contains the following, which I think is evidence for something:

Cherwell articles recommended for you
Graduate starter salaries rise
College choice affects graduate earnings
Oriel grad replaces Countdown’s Vorderman
Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor highest paid in UK
Grad pay still lags behind Tabs

10

Wonks Anonymous 05.22.14 at 2:44 pm

Is Ivy League education really a “market commodity”? My understanding is that the total number of students at the Ivies has barely budged since the seventies, despite the demand being so high. They have endowments, so they don’t even need tuition (they supposedly have plenty of financial aid available for the non-wealthy). Of course, only a tiny percentage of students attend those schools.

11

Tim 05.22.14 at 3:12 pm

“So, in the absence of a strong policy push in the opposite direction, unequal access to education for young people will reflect the unequal wealth and income of their parents.”

Is a “residential” college experience the only one worthy of the name of college? How does the expansion of higher education into “working-adult” higher education after the GI Bill affect our analysis of the “market” of higher education?

12

Phil 05.22.14 at 4:00 pm

I suspect that telling students to “write from their own point of view” is active sabotage

I’m proposing to encourage those students who aren’t used to it to get used to writing (and thinking) from their own point of view, so as not to be permanently out-competed by the minority of students who are used to it. How you get “active sabotage” out of that I don’t know, but whatever rocks your boat.

13

LFC 05.22.14 at 4:13 pm

From the OP:
the idea of education as a route to equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcomes, is misconceived

More than 40 years ago, Christopher Jencks and his co-authors offered empirical support for a version of this argument (i.e., education is not a reliable/good route to a more egalitarian income distribution) in their book Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (1972). The book was controversial, and some of its findings might have seemed to be in tension, though not necessarily in contradiction, with contemporary and later evidence that showed a rough correlation between earnings and level of education. I don’t remember the book well (I read it a very long time ago), nor do I know much about the subsequent evolution of Jencks’s work and views.

14

Chatham 05.22.14 at 4:26 pm

I see no reason why any public money should go to institutions with selective admissions. Most seem to understand why this is so egregious when it comes to K-12 education, but overlook the problem in tertiary education.

15

Plume 05.22.14 at 5:25 pm

Your 20% figure is about right. Which goes back to what I’ve been saying about liberals. They basically are cool with massive inequality. They just don’t want the kind conservatives want, which is major concentration at the very top of the pyramid. The 1% or higher. Liberals generally fight for the top 20%, being technocrats, unconsciously or consciously, and believing, consciously or not, in “meritocracy” primarily via education. But, because they’re so invested in the idea of that meritocracy, and the possibility of entering it via higher education, they lose sight of systemic factors which make a mockery of both. While they do have a better moral compass than conservatives, it still falls woefully short, because it basically leaves out 80% of the population. If liberals are aware of this, they hope to salve their conscious by pushing for safety net programs. If not, they can sleep well at night.

A better way to organize society, however, is to make those safety net programs all but unnecessary. Make charity all but unnecessary. And you do that by radically shrinking the gap in pay/compensation between all types of work, and by making work available to anyone and everyone who wants a job. That should be the government’s responsibility. To see to it that no one goes without work who wants it, ever. And, to never, ever base access to public sector goods and services on the ability to pay.

Education, for example, should never be funded according to the wealth of a particular area. That obviously just reifies existing inequalities, deepens them. Until we can truly even the playing field, we have to do the inverse of this. Base expenditures on existing inequalities. The poorer the locality, the more funds and resources are sent to that locality from one central pool. Again, until we even things out — and then we can even out funding and resource allocation, etc. etc.

In short, liberals and conservatives get things wrong. The answer is much further to the left.

16

Main Street Muse 05.22.14 at 5:34 pm

To Barry @7 – I was responding to this quote from the OP: “The US higher education system, like the health system, mirrors the outcomes of labor and capital markets pretty closely. It does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else to take their chances.”

I agree that higher ed generally does a “great job” for the 1% who go to Ivies. I disagree with the idea that only the Ivies provide a “great job” or that college is adequate but expensive for the next 20% and that most college grads must just take their chances. I also think that for the very bottom tier, the issue is in inequality is established in K-12. For those in the struggling school systems (at least in America), college is too late to worry about inequality of education.

To Trader Joe: Investment banks cull most of their new hires from Ivies. At the height of the bubble, nearly half of Harvard grads ended up on Wall Street. (And that’s just one of the Ivies.) These are not the people dealing with the rank and file people who want to cash their paychecks, clearly. These are the firms that provided the world with instruments that blew up the economy. Good for the Ivy-educated investment bankers. Horrible for the rest of us.

17

Plume 05.22.14 at 5:41 pm

My comments above, of course, are meant to be generalizations, and are so, pretty much to the point of absurdity. But within the absurd often lies foundations for further discussion, reflection and potential reassessments. They often provoke cries of exceptions, which are assumed already. Exceptions galore, in fact.

But can anyone truly deny that if one is a liberal, they are not an egalitarian? And if one is not an egalitarian, how on earth can they claim to want a truly fair, democratic, and even playing field? If one is not an egalitarian, can they, without laughing inside, honestly claim to want “equal opportunity”?

18

lemmy caution 05.22.14 at 6:05 pm

Education generally increases inequality. The people who do well in school do better than the people who do poorly in school. Better schools are not going to change this much if any (although they are good thing by themselves).

19

Trader Joe 05.22.14 at 6:13 pm

@15MSM
It may well be true that half of Harvard MBA grads ended up on Wall Street that would be a couple hundred hires, its not the case for Harvard (or any other Ivy) undergrad. Pick your favorite bank and you’ll find the percentages – at JPM its less than 20%, at Citi its about 15%….most of these banks interview at 40-50 schools and draw from them just about proportionally. UVA, Notre Dame, Michigan, Penn State all are in the top 10 of hiring in addition to the expected Harvard, Yale, Penn, Columbia….I’m not disagreeing they are there. I’m disagreeing with your statement of “Most” – its just not correct.

20

Barry 05.22.14 at 6:31 pm

Main Street Muse 05.22.14 at 5:34 pm

” To Barry @7 – I was responding to this quote from the OP: “The US higher education system, like the health system, mirrors the outcomes of labor and capital markets pretty closely. It does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else to take their chances.””

Which doesn’t prove you point.

21

Rakesh 05.22.14 at 6:36 pm

Quiggin’s piece on his website is interesting, and has a lot of good links. A student alerted me to the great percentage of students having to take remedial classes though they have been accepted into the state universities. They have to take (and often do need) these remedial courses if they want to handle university-level work, but do not get credit for them. This slows down graduation (Quiggin is absolutely right that even the graduation rate at six years can be astonishingly low at state universities) or, in the worst case, makes it impossible due to the money used up in courses that do not give credit towards graduation. Many of the problems of access to higher education are concentrated in this type of remedial education.

22

Metatone 05.22.14 at 8:05 pm

It’s not just about “ability to pay” – what we’re learning is that supply (of graduates) doesn’t automatically create a demand for graduates.

In the UK, university has been expanded – but the economy hasn’t found much use for the extra graduates overall…

Thus, to generalise, you can educate more people, but it doesn’t mean that the economy is ready to use them – and without that, you don’t even get mobility, let alone any effect on inequality…

23

Plume 05.22.14 at 8:38 pm

Metatone,

So what is the logical answer to that problem? The public sector educates and creates jobs. It makes sure there is never a shortage of jobs per available workers. The more students it churns out, the more jobs it creates to keep them all employed. And, unlike the private sector, it does not have to be caught up in phony excuses about “the markets made me do it.” So it can set its own wage/price/high-to-low ratios. It can control this as it creates both supply and demand. And as it adds millions of new workers via the public sector, the private sector benefits as well, with an increase in demand for goods and services, and future (highly educated) workers, if they decide to move out of the public realm.

I would make all business publicly held, the means of production publicly, democratically held. But, short of that, a vibrant public sector, working alongside the private, would benefit workers, students, consumers — citizens in general — and, ironically, privately held businesses as well.

24

Map Maker 05.22.14 at 8:46 pm

“it can set its own wage/price/high-to-low ratios. It can control this as it creates both supply and demand. And as it adds millions of new workers via the public sector, the private sector benefits as well, with an increase in demand for goods and services, and future (highly educated) workers, if they decide to move out of the public realm”

Which has impressed me greatly in Zimbabwe. Perhaps paying university grads 70,000 GBP to occupy unused coal mines and closed shipyards in Scotland would resolve the UK issue.

25

Lee A. Arnold 05.22.14 at 11:35 pm

Okay John Q. please tell me how crazy this is:

1. Both education and basic healthcare have so many different kinds of failures, on both their supply sides and demand sides, that they do not work as markets.

2. Neither basic education nor basic healthcare generate proper ROI’s to private financial investors, except by penalizing the producers (the teachers, the doctors and nurses) by paying them less to provide the services, AND/OR penalizing the consumers (the students, the patients) by making them pay more for needing them. (Because both basic education and basic healthcare are human needs, not consumer wants.)

3. Therefore government monopsonies are required for both basic education and basic healthcare. I think most of the people in the world have gotten this far in accepting the argument.

4. Note, however, that because basic education and basic healthcare can never be structured so as to give a proper ROI to private investors, it is only an illusion that the private ROI on these can be increased by routing it through the return on government bonds to private investors.

5. Therefore the government monopsonies for both basic education and basic healthcare should not be funded by the fiscal authority, they should be funded by the monetary authority. In other words, for basic education and basic healthcare, government should print the money as a monopsony, and circumvent the private financial system.

6. If the private economy wants to piggyback on those with markets that provide higher-end services, then please proceed, by any private means.

26

Lee A. Arnold 05.22.14 at 11:50 pm

Note that the private financial system has also underperformed for us, on other grounds. This is not all they cannot do! We (the global People) have printed about US $20 trillion (?) over the last few years for QE and other “facilities” (love that term!) Why? To allow the private financial system to unwind their trades in the interbank markets (i.e. repo), in order to preserve the structure of the ownership of assets among the Great and the Good, and in order to prevent throwing the rest of us out onto the street… But notice that we were forced to bail-out the elite essentially because they were UNABLE to finance proper, sustainable economic growth that would benefit everybody. Here we are using the word “unable”, yet again: because the system has resorted to serial bubbles at least since Reagan: savings and loans, tech stocks under Clinton, housing and mortgage derivatives under Bush, and now it looks like the stock market may be the focus again. It certainly does not seem like structuring basic education and basic healthcare to provide market profits to private investors is a truly “rational” approach, in any of the senses of that term.

27

Lee A. Arnold 05.23.14 at 12:00 am

And if I may, I will cease after this.

What I see is that economists focus on cost reduction by markets and prices, and ignore cost reduction by other institutions: institutions in general.

A partial market (e.g. government monopsony) may reduce MORE costs than a full market, by reducing OTHER costs, including ones that are non-monetized, such as people’s time and efforts. There is not only market failure, there are transaction costs introduced in trying to correct failure for a market. This stuff is rarely if ever counted. Even something such as HSA’s (healthcare savings accounts) inject an additional transaction into the system, yet with no real value-added. Well, why do that? Why waste our spacetime on HSA’s?

28

Plume 05.23.14 at 3:15 am

Map Maker @24,

Yes, this is all true. Because whenever a nation decides (in the future) to innovate and use non-profit, public sector models to their full advantage — which has never happened, btw — they must, after all, make sure they copy the worst possible previous incarnation of said innovation. It’s a rule. Set in stone. They can never move beyond past failures. They have to scour the earth for the very worst possible examples of any attempt at this, and then make sure they never rise above any of it, anywhere. Actually, not only can’t they rise above past failures, according to the Handbook for Knee-jerk Cynics, they have to set new records for futility and incompetence . . . thereby making all new attempts at progress forever worse than all previous attempts.

Isn’t that right?

29

John Quiggin 05.23.14 at 3:42 am

@Lee Arnold All this is pretty much right. My new book, if it is ever finished, will cover this kind of thing

30

bad Jim 05.23.14 at 6:54 am

Much of this discussion has treated elite universities as though they were significantly different from public schools. Unfortunately, increasingly, they’re not. Berkeley was basically free when I went there, now it’s a luxury good. I don’t think this is the international norm; it’s my poorly informed opinion that most wealthy countries provide kids higher education more or less for free.

As they should. Look at Silicon Valley or biotech: notice the nexus? Universities make us rich! Don’t eat the kids (Jonathan Swift), don’t turn them into oil (Nicholas Hoffman), turn them loose to make us money!

(Forgive me. I was at a neighbor’s house tonight for a meet-and-greet for the incumbent member of the county board of education, whose well-funded opponent basically wants to get rid of public education. Orange County, California, actually has excellent schools, but a considerable faction refuses to be blinded by science.)

31

Robespierre 05.23.14 at 7:50 am

Lee A. Arnold @ 25:

I pretty much agree, but I can’t quite follow you moving from point 5 to point 6.
What’s wrong with covering education and health spending with taxes? Just because the government pays a certain interest on the money it borrows, there is no reason it should aim for a return on investment, especially since it can conscript money in the form of tax revenue.

32

Vanya 05.23.14 at 11:08 am

I would submit that elite MBA programs have contributed more to the global economic morass than “Ivies”. Worldwide there are only a handful of MBA degrees that really matter (Harvard, Wharton, Stanford), these schools teach little of practical value that couldn’t easily be learned on the job, but are very good at teaching “networking” and teamwork, which sounds benign, but in reality means that the global financial elite ends up being heavily dominated by a small class of self-selected, ideologically like-minded degree holders. And unlike the Ivies, which are still 90% American, the top MBA programs (and I might throw in Harvard’s Kennedy School and Harvard Law School’s LLM program to that group) are truly global and are a key tool for coopting the elites of Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico, etc. into the existing global world order. I know from experience that Ivy League grads represent a very wide range of ideologies and aptitudes, from right-wing military officers to radical queer theorists to inner city physicians to carpenters. However, I have been struck through my career how identical the world-view of people with elite MBAs seems to be, and they are a large fraction of the 1%.

33

Trader Joe 05.23.14 at 11:30 am

@32 Vanya

So which is it? The elite MBA’s teach “little of practical value” or, by your account, instill a commonality of mind-view that has allowed their graduates to infiltrate the global world order and dominate the 1%? Seems like, at least from the student’s perspective, they were taught quite a bit of practical value – a skill set that allows them to accumulate significant wealth and power – not a bad return on a $100k of tuition.

Its fun to tar and feather the Ivies and business schools, but the students select the schools as much as the schools select them – to a great extent its people with a bent towards competitiveness and shall we say self-centered ambition that attempt to enter these programs and then leverage the connections in the ways you describe – the schools may be the facilitators, but they don’t form them from a lump of clay – they brought their own skills and dispositions with them and developed from there.

There are any number of Ivy and B-School grads that went on to do things society values more highly than derivative twinned asset backed securities and they used the same connections, ambition and competitiveness to succeed in those fields of endeavour as well.

34

Josh G. 05.23.14 at 1:55 pm

bad Jim @ #2: “At some point, back in the 70′s, we gave up on building the future. Maybe landing on the moon was the big mistake. Been there, done that. Punch the snooze button. Maybe it was civil rights, the counterculture, women’s lib, sex and drugs and rock and roll. Perhaps the optimism and altruism that followed the second world war was an aberration, a dream that vanished in the harsh light of day.

Exactly what went wrong in the 1970s has been studied by many people (Rick Perlstein, David Frum, Jefferson Cowie) and there doesn’t seem to be any consensus answer.

I suspect it was due to the confluence of several different factors. The postwar era of shared middle-class prosperity ended in 1973, due to the sudden shock of the Arab oil embargo. (This was made worse by massive war deficits and the concomitant end of Bretton Woods.) Unfortunately, this was also shortly after African-Americans were finally beginning to be integrated into mainstream U.S. society, and about the same time that feminists were pushing back against the rigid gender roles of the previous decades. The result is that white working men saw women and blacks start to make progress at the same time as they themselves were stagnating or regressing. And the temptation to make a connection between the two proved irresistible. And demagogues of the 1% like Nixon and Reagan were all too willing to make that connection for them.

Post-WWII American society was generous because it could afford to be – there was plenty to go around. Once that stopped, the divisions quickly came to the surface, and workers started fighting among themselves in bitter, resentful squabbles over a zero-sum game. And the result is that when growth did pick back up, almost all of it was seized by the 1%, due to the lack of any real class solidarity among American workers.

35

Layman 05.23.14 at 2:59 pm

Trader Joe @ 33

Its fun to tar and feather the Mafia and organized crime, but criminals select the Mafia as much as the Mafia selects them – to a great extent its people with a bent towards competitiveness and shall we say self-centered ambition that attempt to enter these programs and then leverage the connections in the ways you describe – the Mafia may be the facilitators, but they don’t form them from a lump of clay – they brought their own skills and dispositions with them and developed from there.

36

John Garrett 05.23.14 at 3:22 pm

Everything is more complicated. The Ivies and the elite MBAs do produce far too many who just want money; but in my experience at least, more Harvard kids go into ill or unpaid nonprofit and public service than at any other school I know much about. And, Plume, I totally agree with your view of liberals and equality, and the need for everyone who wants to work and free safety nets, but I also look at the failure so far of any government, however well intentioned, to provide efficient and intelligent services. Welcome to the IRS and FDA. We can’t forget the iron law of bureaucracy: it grows? So what’s the answer? I only know that I don’t know.

37

JW Mason 05.23.14 at 3:26 pm

It does a great job for the 1 per cent who go to the Ivy League Schools (and whose parents are mostly in or close to the top 1 per cent of the income distribution), does an adequate but expensive job for the next 20 per cent or so, and leaves everyone else to take their chances.

As someone who teaches students with family incomes well below the top quintile, I have trouble seeing this view of non-elite institutions as anything but snobbery. John, a question: What research has led you to the view that places like CUNY don’t provide a good education?

38

Harold 05.23.14 at 3:34 pm

When you have prep schools like Choate wasting their hapless students’ time with vanity courses in “entrepreneurship” (I have seen their brochure), it is hard to the the “elite” schools as imparting anything of particular value. The proof is in the pudding.

39

Plume 05.23.14 at 3:42 pm

Josh G. @34

Post-WWII American society was generous because it could afford to be – there was plenty to go around. Once that stopped, the divisions quickly came to the surface, and workers started fighting among themselves in bitter, resentful squabbles over a zero-sum game. And the result is that when growth did pick back up, almost all of it was seized by the 1%, due to the lack of any real class solidarity among American workers.

This seems partly false and partly true. In reality, we still can afford to be generous. There is more than enough to go around, as exemplified by such stats as these:

CEOs now pay themselves well over 300 times their rank and file. During the so-called golden age, it was 20-25 times as much. And in Fortune 100 companies today, it’s even more absurd. On average, CEOs make a 1000 times as much as their rank and file. Again, no such massive gap existed back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, though it was still too high even then, at 20 to 1, give or take.

Just 85 human beings at the top of the pyramid now hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. In America, the richest 400 hold as much as the bottom 60%. From 1977 to 2007, the top 1% hoovered up roughly 60% of all income. And the richest 20% worldwide consume 85% of our resources, leaving just 15% for the “bottom” 80%.

In short, we could easily flatten out income and resources to the point wherein everyone would be quite comfortable. Personal income in America was roughly 13.5 trillion per year, as of 2012. The top 1% took in nearly 25% of all income as of that year, and the top 10% took in more than half. Spread the income of just the richest 10% across every household, and the average would be in the 50K range. If we shared total income across all households, the average would be in the 100K range. As in, there is plenty to go around. And there always has been.

40

LFC 05.23.14 at 3:44 pm

37/38
I think it’s possible to get a good education at a wide variety of institutions, if the student is serious and seeks and gets good advice/mentoring etc. (The elite schools may provide some not-strictly-educational advantages in the way of contacts and ‘brand’, at least for some students, but the impact of those varies from person to person.)
Harold — since J. Quiggin’s post is about post-secondary education, what prep schools do or don’t do is not very relevant here, it seems to me.

41

Josh G. 05.23.14 at 4:08 pm

Plume @ 39: Yes, I agree with you that there is plenty to go around now, it’s just being disproportionately hoarded by the 1%. That, however, wasn’t the case in the mid-1970s. Unless there was some way to prevent the end of Bretton Woods, the Arab oil embargo, and the stagflation resulting from both, the mid to late 1970s were going to be a zero-sum game. It could and should have gotten better in the 1980s when growth really did pick back up – but by that time, Reagan had already formed a new political coalition that used reactionary positions on social issues to buy off the white working classes and ensure that wages stayed down. And that basically remains where we are now. Had wages kept pace with productivity over the past 3 years, the median family income would be something like $90K. As things currently stand, it’s barely half that.

Only the breaking of the Reagan-era coalition and the establishment in power of a new progressive movement can fix this. And accomplishing that, as far as I can tell, basically means waiting for the Silent Generation to die of old age. I believe it was Max Planck who said that science advances one funeral at a time – the same could be said of American politics.

42

CJColucci 05.23.14 at 4:12 pm

37/38

The main difference in the education you get at, say, Harvard over the better CUNY schools is that Harvard is full of kids who got into Harvard. This has a certain amount of actual educational benefit as you work with and against kids who got into Harvard. Of much more practial importance, however, is that you now know a bunch of kids who got into Harvard, and that network can be invaluable.

43

Plume 05.23.14 at 4:19 pm

John Garrett,

Actually, the federal government has shrunk dramatically, both in real numbers and far more markedly as a percentage of the population, over the last few decades. We now have fewer federal employees than we had in 1962, when the population was roughly 140 million people lighter.

There are fewer public sector workers, responsible for goods and services for far more people, and with far more curbs on their ability to do even halfway decent work. From the beginnings of the neoliberal era (early 1970s), lawmakers in the pockets of their corporate masters have placed handcuffs on public servants, primarily to make it nearly impossible to govern business interests which created those handcuffs in the first place. For instance, there are laws on the books that make it illegal for the EPA to even know what is in some 80,000 industrial chemical compounds (“trade secrets”), much less regulate them. Several states have made it a felony for anyone to publicly reveal the chemicals used in fracking, with more on the way. The CDC and NIH have long been blocked from doing any research on gun violence, if their findings lead to the conclusion we need tighter controls on guns.

Yes, government does screw up, often. But no more often than the private sector. And it is the private sector which does its damndest to make sure government screws up, to further alienate people from their strongest collective voice. In short, it is in the best interest of corporations and the rich to make government look as rotten as possible, and for the Reagan meme — government is the problem — to become second nature. It’s a pipe dream, under the circumstances, but I am certain that if our public sector were set free, if the private sector took its boot off the neck of the public sector, it would work just fine — if it were truly a democratic body, etc. etc..

To me, it is the private sector which corrupts government and ensures its weakness, incompetence and inefficiency, because that is in its best interest.

44

Plume 05.23.14 at 4:32 pm

Josh G.,

Why Reagan is seen as anything but a disaster is truly mystifying. During his regime, we had the second worst recession in our history up until that time; the second worst stock market crash; we went from a creditor to a debtor nation; we went from trade surpluses to trade deficits; our debt tripled in size; wages fell for the rank and file, and the surveillance state saw its greatest increase in power and scope up until that time. Growth, as you mention, was all at the top.

As for zero-sum games. That is what capitalism is. It’s built that way. It’s supposed to be zero-sum, because m-c-m depends upon it, though in its complexity it can hide this, and in its production of shiny objects, it can fool consumers. It also hides this via outsourcing of jobs to developing countries, or internally to the working poor, so horrendous pay and working conditions are well offstage, unseen by the top 20%. Whenever and wherever there is profit, someone wins and a great many someones lose. The bigger and more complex the business, the markets, the connections between them, the bigger the gap between the losers and the winners.

Right-libertarians would have us believe that everyone “wins” in a capitalist system. They can only hold on to that fiction, that fairy tale, by limiting their analysis to roughly two people, and a selective sampling at that. Seller and affluent buyer. They have no desire to look further into the matter.

45

engels 05.23.14 at 5:07 pm

What research has led you to the view that places like CUNY don’t provide a good education?

According to this site it looks like a ‘sell’…

46

John Garrett 05.23.14 at 5:11 pm

Plume, violent agreement in principle, but have you actually dealt in depth with either the federal or state or for that matter local bureaucracies? I’m not here talking about teachers social workers service providers, but the permanent and entrenched bureaucracies whose mission, it often seems, is to make sure nothing happens. Examples: why does it take six weeks to get a passport? Why does it take 18 months for the stamp of approval for a 501(c)3? Why is the main job of planning and zoning boards to prevent rather than to create? To implement a future we both desire would, I fear, require a complete transformation of both the systems and the people of these disfunctional, depressed and depressing systems.

47

Jerry Vinokurov 05.23.14 at 5:29 pm

Berkeley was basically free when I went there, now it’s a luxury good.

Berkeley was not free by any means when I attended a decade plus ago, but at the time of my graduation, a semester there cost approximately $2500. It’s not well over 3 times as much. And, ironically enough, the people I spend the most time convincing of the utility of public education are the same people who saved boatloads of money on my education by sending me to a UC, namely, my parents.

48

SamChevre 05.23.14 at 5:34 pm

Plume @ 43

Actually, the federal government has shrunk dramatically, both in real numbers and far more markedly as a percentage of the population, over the last few decades.

True, but probably not quite true the way you think. What has shrunk dramatically is the post office, the army, and to some extent the DoD bureaucracy–the civilian bureaucracy has grown quite a lot. (The data series are here for totals, here for non-Post office civilians with the DoD broken out.

It’s also worth noting that State and local agency employees are much more controlled by federal policies than was the case in 1962.

49

Lee A. Arnold 05.23.14 at 5:39 pm

Robespierre #31: “What’s wrong with covering education and health spending with taxes?…no reason it [the government] should aim for a return on investment…”

Okay well at the risk of trying John Quiggin’s patience, let me try this. I see two reasons. The first is theoretical and speaks to Quiggin’s post on how the system of social spending becomes a mirror of the society. The second (in my next comment) is about a contingency from the inequality of results.

1. First: Higher taxes could be the wrong way to go. Tax revenue is subtracted from household balance sheets. Households are replenished by a) income from work, b) return from savings, and c) consumer borrowing. These are all dependent upon the private financial system, which receives or disburses various ROI’s from each transaction according to market principles.

Thus although government may not need an ROI on education, the taxpayers are forced to require an ROI anyway, because taxes come out of the private economy which is expanded with money via lending by the private financial subsystem, i.e. lending to real business and individuals (firms and households). That lending requires an ROI to private finance, or else it will not be lent.

In other words, the need for an ROI to the private financial system from basic education or basic healthcare, is transitive, not only through the interest on government bonds, but also through household balance sheets.

But of course both basic education and basic healthcare really do not have ROI’s, or at least, do not have calculable ROI’s. These are forms of “investment” from which the returns are incalculable, incalculable for a small handful of complexity reasons: the returns may be greatly deferred in time and place; they are dynamical; they are N-dimensional.

So to get back to Quiggin’s post, one reason the educational system “mirrors” the society is because education is wrongly supposed to be a market commodity that is consumed and requires an ROI. I think we might start to solve a lot of problems if we jettison that characterization.

(There is another theoretical concern here. As I diagrammed the basic tenets of macro with an animated flow chart (click on my name above), it dawned on me that the monetary economy is based upon a SINGLE big avenue of money expansion: from the private financial system, via lending to households and businesses. There are certainly historical reasons for this. But I couldn’t find any reason why that had to remain true, and why we cannot introduce money by a second avenue too, i.e. introduce it directly via government printing, let’s say for non-market goods that do not have calculable ROI’s. The traditional response is, “This will cause inflation,” and I accepted that blindly, but I do not think so anymore. It certainly may introduce another route of corruption, and voters would have to get more serious about learning the issues — admittedly, a tall order — but, considering the enormous corruption we have to suffer in the private financial system with the way things are now, I’m not convinced that it would be worse. It might be better.)

50

Lee A. Arnold 05.23.14 at 5:40 pm

[continuing from #49] 2. The second reason for avoiding more taxes is increasing inequality, which again gets back to Quiggin’s post. I am trying hard not to stray too far afield. There makes a problem for plans to increase taxes.

A. Inequality is getting worse due to winner-take-all markets in information technology and finance, due to disemployment by capital-biased technological change (and globalization, which I think is temporary by comparison), and perhaps due to r>g.

B. We are in a period of growing government spending, which at best levels out after another 50 years, before tapering down slowly.

C. Increased taxation to cover this is possible and in absence of inequality may be desirable, but as it is now, the people with the money find it easy to avoid.

D. The majority social belief is that government spending (and regulation) is always inefficient and always causes inefficiencies elsewhere in the economy, and indeed, that the size of government has caused the current malaise. This widespread belief is false, but it is still being pushed by some big names in economics, and certainly, piling more taxes on top of a populace that is already strapped for cash is not going to disprove it in the short term.

Note that this is part of the right-wing tribalism; see a compiled list of attributes from sociology and political science here– http://crookedtimber.org/2014/04/30/right-wing-tribalists-a-lost-cause/#comment-525389 This needs to be taken into account, to get to a better world. This tribalism promotes both individualism AND hierarchy. After reading Corey Robin’s Raritan article “Conservatism and Counterrrevolution”, it seems to me that we are still dealing with a deep change in the 18th century (as a Robespierre may well know already?) when, in social thought, the overriding Western religious cosmology and philosophy which came from the Neoplatonists, called the Great Chain of Being, was transmuted from being a static entity (wherein you accepted your station in life), into an allied belief in individualistic ascension upward into a hierarchy via effort and merit (the remarkable and nonpolitical part of the story is in Arthur O. Lovejoy, continuously in print for almost 80 years now, for a very good reason). This was a very nonscientific or pseudoscientific evolutionism, a sort of precursor to Darwinian evolution in the next century, (which then twisted Darwin into “social Darwinism” and so on).

If that is the case, i.e. if in conservatism we are dealing with some sort of fundamental epistemological predisposition that is still very widespread throughout the population, then the way to fight it may NOT be to go along with the premise that things should be funded by taxes in a system of inequality that requires any thought or mention of an ROI.

51

Plume 05.23.14 at 5:41 pm

John Garrett,

Again, one answer is local, state and federal governments are all woefully understaffed. Hire enough people to support a growing population, and those long waits all but go away. Change the culture from one which constantly bashes the public sector to one that appreciates it, and you get another leap in production and speed. Survey after survey shows public sector employees have very low morale . . . something that was much less the case before the paradigm shift into “government’s the problem.”

People with low morale tend not to show much in the way of urgency. Knowing before hand that they are held in contempt doesn’t exactly make them want to jump to. Self-fulfilling prophecy, etc. etc.

As for the specific case of those 501cs. That is also a case of too few staff, and waaay too much interference from private sector power groups via their toadies in DC. The IRS law would actually prevent virtually every political group from gaining tax exempt status, because they would all fail the “exclusive” part when it comes to social welfare. But the language has been stretched in practice to the surreal, and I imagine low level employees are massively confused. Make the law the law, adhere to it, don’t stretch it, and hire enough staff to implement it, and qualifying groups will get much faster service.

But above and beyond all of that, as is exhaustively shown in Leo Panitch and Sam Ginden’s excellent The Making of Global Capitalism, our government generally does everything it can to promote, defend, expand and bail out the capitalist system — pretty much from Day One. The business of our government is business. That’s what the history shows. I don’t think it’s accurate to say it stands in the way of innovation. It has, in fact, done most of the key innovation itself through time, which it then hands over for next to nothing to the private sector. Again, because our government is in business to promote, defend and expand (and bail out) business. In short, business complains. But no other government on earth has done more for it than ours.

52

Plume 05.23.14 at 5:49 pm

Sam,

Even if you remove the agencies you list, the percentage of public sector workers has shrunk radically. It was roughly 14.4% of the total labor force under Nixon, and fell under each subsequent president. Obama’s percentage is the lowest, at less than 8.9%.

In short, public sector workers are being asked to do more, for far more people, with far less support — and a great deal more enmity ranged against them. I think we need to reverse this. And with unemployment still being a major problem, it’s an obvious twofer, one that should have been addressed at the very least back in 2008. Instead, we cut public sector workers, which was and still is sheer madness in light of the problem.

53

JW Mason 05.23.14 at 6:21 pm

According to this site it looks like a ‘sell’

The cost numbers there are completely bogus. In-state tuition at CUNY is $6,000 a year; they’ve inflated that by an order of magnitude with some made-up room and board numbers.

54

John Quiggin 05.23.14 at 6:34 pm

@JWM I did cite a bunch of research in the linked article, where I spelt out my position more fully

Similar processes have worked themselves out in the second-tier state university system. Although barely mentioned in many discussions of higher education (since most of the participants in these discussions were educated at private institutions or state flagships), non-research intensive state universities represent the core of US higher education. Where they perform well, they represent a high-quality, lower cost alternative to the research-intensive flagships. Where they perform badly, they are disaster areas, with as few as 1 per cent of students graduating in the standard four years. Even allowing six years, a large number of state universities graduate less than 25 per cent of their students.

Google suggests that CUNY fits my claim pretty well in general (though it has more good schools and less bad ones than the sector as a whole). The top CUNY schools are very good, but the worst, CUNY York College, has a six-year graduation rate of 19.5 per cent. And the community colleges are all below 25 per cent

http://nypost.com/2011/08/29/city-cum-laude/

55

Plume 05.23.14 at 6:43 pm

John Quiggin,

As an Aussie, you probably already know that the New York Post is owned by your countryman, Murdoch. But in case you didn’t, it’s not exactly known for its rigorous veracity. More for it’s vigorous audacity.

From reading your excellent Zombie Economics and various articles here, I take it that you and he share little. Perhaps another source would be better? Don’t want to give him more traffic, do you?

;>)

56

John Quiggin 05.23.14 at 6:47 pm

Plume, I’m aware of all that, but I figured a link from a comment thread wasn’t going to do much. Here’s another source for the 19.5 per cent number, but without the good news about the better schools

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/50-state-universities-with-best-worst-grad-rates/

57

John Quiggin 05.23.14 at 6:48 pm

Also, I should add, Murdoch is no longer my countryman. He gave up Australian citizenship to get US media licenses. We’ve allowed dual citizenship since then, but he wasn’t grandfathered in, and hasn’t (somewhat surprisingly) bothered to demand a special deal from our government, which would surely comply.

58

Harold 05.24.14 at 12:03 am

The “elite” are giving their children a flawed education even before they arrive at Harvard. Most of the courses (AP courses, for example) are geared to make the student look good on standardized tests or the college application.

59

Vanya 05.24.14 at 5:56 am

@Trader Joe – ” the schools may be the facilitators, but they don’t form them from a lump of clay” – exactly. That’s why I am quite comfortable in saying those schools don’t teach much in the way of practical skills (accounting, finance, marketing, etc.) that you couldn’t easily learn elsewhere. Elite B school programs are primarily filters for talented people with a certain skill set and mind set. Actually you seem to have missed my point entirely. The problem is not that these schools create “evil” people, it is that they concentrate and reinforce an ideological homogeneity among the global elite, with the emphasis on “global”. An inability of our elites to think outside of certain limited ideological boxes has contributed directly to our current economic doldrums.

60

Clay Shirky 05.24.14 at 2:45 pm

Further to Josh G @34: Unfortunately, this was also shortly after African-Americans were finally beginning to be integrated into mainstream U.S. society, and about the same time that feminists were pushing back against the rigid gender roles of the previous decades.

This is such an underappreciated point — the 30-year shift in this country from elite education to mass education, starting in 1945, also saw a strong masculinization of the student body. There were proportionally fewer women in college in 1946 than in 1896; there were 1.5 million total college students in 1940, while in 1947, there were 1.5 million former soldiers alone in the system.

The twin sources of funding in the 1940s for our particular Trente Glorieuses — the Morill Act (GI Bill) and the rise of Federal Research funding kicked off by Vanevar Bush — were explicitly tied to military rationales (demobilization and combat superiority, respectively). Then Sputnik caused the states to suddenly expand the dollars coming into the system in the second half of the Golden Age, to a degree unprecedented in the history of American higher education (including the first half of the Golden Age.)

The oil shock has been mentioned upthread, but it was accompanied by legislative frustration with campuses as sites of increasingly radical protest against the Vietnam war, and then by the dreadful end of that war itself, which occurred, as Josh G notes, at the same time that women had finally returned to the 40% of the student population they had held in 1940, accompanied this time by increased African-American attendance.

States raised the proportion of funding for public universities every year from 1962 to 1974. The first year they reversed that trend was also the first year where the percentage of white men attending fell (though women and blacks continued to increase their numbers.)

I know correlation does not mean causality an all, but damn…

In the last two generations, American higher education has been massive, inclusive, and well-funded, but never all three at once.

61

Harold 05.24.14 at 3:45 pm

Very good point, I believe the push for Calculus and tech as pontes asinorum (or whatever), replacing languages, was a part of a shift move to skew admission and financial aid to male students.

62

Harold 05.24.14 at 3:48 pm

Also rise in popularity economics and political as undergrad majors part of trend of militarization of education.

63

John Garrett 05.24.14 at 3:54 pm

There is also a not too surprising correlation between the drop in jobs and income for newly minted lawyers and the shift in many elite law schools to a student body which is at or exceeds 50% women. The shift in MBA and elite science programs, where there are still jobs, has been much slower. Duh.

JG

64

bianca steele 05.24.14 at 4:18 pm

@63 The Vox Day theory of higher education. Hooray.

Cynthia Ozick has written about how she and her (gay male) best friend were surrounded in English courses by older veterans who were interested in only practical matters, and how the two of them, by contrast, were the ones who were really interested in literature and learning in the old-fashioned sense.

65

Harold 05.24.14 at 4:40 pm

Political science, I mean .

66

Bruce Wilder 05.24.14 at 7:18 pm

Clay Shirky @ 60

The Morrill Act of 1862 established the system of land-grant colleges, where the teaching of agricultural sciences, engineering and military officer training was mandated. It was the culmination of a movement for the founding of colleges endowed with land-grants; Michigan State University, founded in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State and a land-grant institution, is often taken as the model. The Morrill Act of 1890 — one of several extensions and expansions of the original 1862 program, this one aimed particularly at the former Confederate states — prompted the creation of a number of historically black colleges in the southern states. In all, over 100 colleges and universities were founded as a result of the Morrill Acts.

The GI Bill was officially, the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944″.

67

LFC 05.24.14 at 8:11 pm

John Garrett @63:
There is also a not too surprising correlation between the drop in jobs and income for newly minted lawyers and the shift in many elite law schools to a student body which is at or exceeds 50% women.

I’m dubious about the implied claim here, since the elite law schools are prob. feeling the impact of the downturn in the legal market less than the non-elite law schools are.

68

LFC 05.24.14 at 8:12 pm

correction: legal job market

69

LFC 05.24.14 at 8:17 pm

Harold @62
Also rise in popularity [of] economics and political [science] as undergrad majors part of trend of militarization of education.

I’m also dubious about this. The drop in student enrollment in humanities in recent yrs, w corresponding increase in social and nat. sciences, is more likely a result of perceived labor market trends. There’s nothing nec. inherently conservative about pol. science; all depends on who’s teaching it. Fairly big bulge of left or left-liberal pol scientists in 60s, many still teaching. Indeed it seems clear that university faculty views in general are more liberal/left than pop. as a whole: see Neil Gross’s recent bk.

70

LFC 05.24.14 at 8:19 pm

71

Harold 05.24.14 at 11:46 pm

I am perfectly aware that there are lots of professors who are more liberal than the general population. I would say that some of the smartest people have gone into poli sci and econ in recent years, unquestionably.

But students are part of the general population, and they don’t go into Poli sci or econ because they are liberal or because they are smarter than average but because they think it will help them to get a job. A job in investment banking, for example.

72

LFC 05.24.14 at 11:53 pm

but because they think it will help them to get a job

largely agreed on that — see 2nd sentence of my comment @69

73

Watson Ladd 05.25.14 at 1:16 am

I assure you, my mother made clear that the Loeb classical library was more important to my education then the AP tests. From the Hutchins/Adler perspective on what education was to be, public education in the US has never had the aim of education of the population. If we look at it purely economically, than the US result is the effect of having very different preferences among consumers.

Take two towns. Both control their school boards. Both aren’t doing so well economically: they used to have a factory, but it’s closed down. The terrain is rough, so you don’t go in or out. And now I tell you one is in Kentucky and the other in Vermont. Which do you think is going to have a better education system? In urban areas like Chicago the schools are run as a jobs program, rather than an education program. Trying to find out anything about school board candidates and what they think is a real PITA.

Can the US do better? Sure. It can start by increasing standards for teachers, removing control from school boards that fail to improve schools, and give federal aid not for getting the worst students to an inadequate position, but for getting more of your students into college or careers. Sadly since George W. Bush I haven’t seen that much national leadership on this question: Obama seems focused on the tertiary level, but end of the day there is only so much you can do about college when the middle schools and elementary schools do so badly.

74

JW Mason 05.25.14 at 3:39 am

John, your piece claims to describe trends in higher education, contrasting the present situation with some period in the past (1970?) when higher education supported and/or reflected a more egalitarian society. But you do not provide a single piece of evidence for the argument you claim to make. Let’s go your piece point by point.

You state that Ivy League institutions “massively overrepresent” the 1 percent and overrepresent the top 20 percent. Is this overrepresentation greater or less than it was in the past? You offer no information.

You write: “Under the famous 1960 Master plan, the top 12.5 per cent of Californian high school graduates were guaranteed a place in one of the flagships UC system schools, the top third would be able to enter the California State University and the community colleges would accept all applications.” OK. But what fraction of high school students, in California and elsewhere, from various GPA quantiles, actually did attend UC or CSU in 1960, and what fraction do today? You offer no information.

You mention rising tuitions. No doubt tuitions are higher than in 1970, when many public universities were free. But how much do typical American college students actually pay, at various income levels and at various types of institution? You offer no information.

You write that “a large number of state universities graduate less than 25 per cent of their students.” How does that compare to 1970? You offer no information.

Most students who attend these institutions take on high debt and get little or nothing in return. Steadily shrinking funding has produced more disasters, and compromised quality even at the best of these institutions.

No information here, pure grandstanding. Public institutions offer “little or nothing” to students? These are the words of someone who just doesn’t like public higher ed.

after initial enrolment only about a third of California community college students have completed a degree, about half have dropped out, and around 15 per cent are still enrolled

The relevant question is, what was happening to these student back in your beloved 1970? This goes to a basic lack of understanding in the whole column. Outcomes like graduation rates reflect both what happens in the institution, and the population it enrolls. Far more young people enroll in college than did 50 years ago. By definition, a more universal system is going to enroll more people with serious challenges, who would have been excluded under a more selective system. Similarly, community colleges, which are the most accessible part of higher ed, are going to serve the population with the least preparation and the greatest obstacles. That’s what these numbers show.

John, you don’t realize it, but you are on the side of the 1 percent here. The position you are taking is, unequivocally, a position against universal higher education. I guarantee you, a system that is genuinely open to students with the greatest personal challenges, with the greatest deficits in their K-12 education — an egalitarian higher ed system, in other words — is going to be precisely the system that shows “bad” outcomes in terms of graduation rates. Harvard is always going to look good on these metrics — that’s the privilege of being super selective.

The truth is, higher ed in the US is one of our most egalitarian institutions, and also one of pour most important bastions of nonmarket values. I doubt you would write a piece arguing that unions are pointless, since they’re almost all corrupt and they’ll never overcome inherent differences in ability. But you’ve written the moral equivalent here.

75

LFC 05.25.14 at 3:53 am

Watson Ladd:
Sadly since George W. Bush I haven’t seen that much national leadership on this question: Obama seems focused on the tertiary level, but end of the day there is only so much you can do about college when the middle schools and elementary schools do so badly.

Obama has had at least one or two programs spec. designed to encourage reform/innovation in public schools (the badly named ‘race to the top’ being one). Whether they have worked well or are well conceived, I’m not sure. As for the GW Bush NCLB legislation, it put too much emphasis on test scores to the exclusion of almost everything else, or such is the impression I have from what I’ve heard and read about it.

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JW Mason 05.25.14 at 4:00 am

In the mid-1960s, around 30 percent of American 18 and 19 year olds were enrolled in college. Today, around 50 percent are. But according to you, John, that does not represent any kind of broadening of access to higher ed, because the public institutions that are serving all those additional kids are providing “little or nothing” of educational value. And you know this because — well, because you’re a snob who looks down on those of us who teach at nonselective institutions. Or do you have some actual evidence you’ve been hiding?

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LFC 05.25.14 at 4:05 am

@JW Mason:
I didn’t read the Chronicle piece, but it seems one of the pts JQ was making in the post here is that education is not necessarily a good route to more equality of outcomes in income/wealth distribution. That argument, made, as I pointed out upthread, by Jencks et al. more than 40 years ago, need not in itself imply that public higher education in the U.S. is ‘part of the problem’ or simply a reflection or reinforcement of larger trends in the society and economy. If that is the argument JQ is making in the Chronicle piece, then I think your criticism is prob. well taken. But whether improving access to and quality of higher ed., important as a goal in its own right, will lead to better (i.e., less inegalitarian) distributional outcomes seems to me a more open question — though I don’t know the recent research on this issue.

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JW Mason 05.25.14 at 4:33 am

I didn’t read the Chronicle piece

Probably you should.

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JW Mason 05.25.14 at 4:41 am

The drop in student enrollment in humanities in recent yrs

… does not exist.

Share of total BAs in humanities:

1970 – 17%
1980 – 14%
1990 – 16%
2000 – 17%
2010 – 17%

Source.

It amazes me, on a blog populated largely by academics, how much urban folklore about academia is accepted as fact.

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bad Jim 05.25.14 at 7:02 am

Shakespeare didn’t have a degree in English, which started to bother people in the late nineteenth century. Galileo didn’t have a degree in physics or astronomy, though he taught those courses. Schumann couldn’t get a degree in music, but Mendelssohn hired him to teach composition. Before Jefferson started his own school, the only choices any university offered were law, medicine and divinity.

Nevertheless, people still sought higher education, even when there was no possibility of acquiring credentials in their area of interest. Nowadays people major in this or that, and wind up doing that or this.

They’re just kids, because only kids have the plasticity to accept a torrential download of information, to have the least chance of learning a new language, for example. We allow them to take control of their lives, even though many of them haven’t even managed to get laid. Obviously this doesn’t work, but neither do the alternatives.

If this is at all a good thing, and there seems to be nearly universal agreement that it is, at least for the privileged young, then it ought to be free and available to everyone. I’d like everyone to learn an extra language and be comfortable wielding a wrench, handy with an axe and a simile and a hammer and a computer. It would most likely be cheaper than not educating them.

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John Quiggin 05.25.14 at 11:11 am

JWM, we seem to be talking at cross purposes and you’ve raised lots of points that I’m not really following.

Obviously, I’m commenting as an outsider, and from an Australian perspective the big question (being debated in Oz right now) is whether a highly stratified system like that of the US is a good model to emulate. I argue that the US model isn’t working well and that stratification is central to that failure.

The Australian system isn’t egalitarian by any means, but it has nothing like the Ivies at the top, and very few for-profits at the bottom. The gap between the top public universities (equivalents of the state flagships) and those of lower status (universities of technology, regional universities and former teachers colleges) is much smaller than in the US (they all grant PhDs, for example). There is more or less universal access, in the sense that nearly everyone who applies can get a place somewhere. And, at least in recurrent terms, they all get the same funding for undergraduate teaching, although the long-established places have advantages in capital.

I’ll try to respond to some of your points later, but that’s where I’m coming from.

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LFC 05.25.14 at 12:53 pm

@JWMason
Probably you should.
Well, JQ said the piece was paywalled and I don’t have ready access (from the computer at which I’m usu. sitting, that is).

It amazes me, on a blog populated largely by academics, how much urban folklore about academia is accepted as fact.
Correction accepted re total humanities BAs. I’ve read however that there’s been a steep decline in the last few yrs in humanities majors at the top level of the stratified US higher ed system, and I was guilty of extrapolating from that to the system as a whole. Which admittedly was bad on my part.

I notice you managed to not comment on my central pt/question re education’s relation or not to egalitarian ec. outcomes. Since you’re an economist I wd have thought that issue deserved some consideration. I said I don’t know the recent research on it, but maybe someone else does.

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LFC 05.25.14 at 12:56 pm

P.s. That question arises from the first graph of JQ’s post, where he refers to:
the idea of education as a route to equality of opportunity, let alone equality of outcomes being misconceived.

is it misconceived? or not? what does the research show? (probably conflicting things, but I’m not sure)

No one in this thread, as far as I can tell, has directly addressed this.

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LFC 05.25.14 at 1:10 pm

@bad Jim
Shakespeare didn’t have a degree in English

Shakespeare’s formal education occurred in a primary school of that era, where he learned some Latin and read some of the classics (though not as much as if he had been able to go further and on to university (was it Christopher Marlowe or some anonymous contemporary who twitted S. for having “little Latin and less Greek”?)). Partly b/c S. was S. (i.e. a genius), his not having gone to Oxford or Cambridge was entirely irrelevant.

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JW Mason 05.25.14 at 2:19 pm

notice you managed to not comment on my central pt/question re education’s relation or not to egalitarian ec. outcomes.

There are many dimensions on which education and equality interact and the direct impact on income distribution is not the most important or interesting one. Personally, I am more interested in education as a tool for political engagement and as part of a good life in itself, than in its contribution to earnings. In any case, the relevant question — which John Q.’s column posed but didn’t answer — is whether access to higher education has followed the same trend toward increased inequality as other areas of life in the US. In other words: Compared with 1970 (or whatever benchmark period we are using), does someone with a less privileged background have a better or worse chance of getting a decent college education? John seems to think, worse. I think better. But more importantly, I think John hasn’t provided a single piece of evidence for the view that the prospects are worse.

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john c. halasz 05.25.14 at 3:02 pm

JWM @ 85:

I’m not getting your sense of things, as to access to quality education having improved since back in the day. What about that $1.2 trillion in student debt?

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JW Mason 05.25.14 at 3:58 pm

It’s one part of the picture.

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Plume 05.25.14 at 4:58 pm

J W Mason @85,

Back in 1970, several states had free or nearly free college. Now, no state offers this. Back in 1970, even in the states which charged the average going rate for tuition, it wasn’t an impossible hurdle to overcome. I started university in the mid-70s, and remember a semester’s tuition, for full time, in the $300 range. That same school today is in the 7-figure range.

States have slashed their support for state schools, and far more of the burden now goes to students. It used to be with taxpayers.

We should have free college for everyone, everywhere, at all public universities, as is the case in countries like Germany and Norway. If education, or the lack thereof , is the key to inequality — it’s not, but it does make a difference — then people who believe it’s the key should push for 100% equal access. It’s obscene that it’s based on ability to pay, regardless. Absolutely obscene.

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JW Mason 05.25.14 at 6:39 pm

Plume-

I agree with everything you write. But it’s important to be able to see the different sides of a complex reality. Since the 1970s, we’ve also seen a very large increase in the fraction of people from working-class and poor families who attend college. Unless you think that the bulk of public colleges provide “little or nothing” of educational value — a suggestion made by John Q. that I don’t think he can defend — this has to be counted as a major step toward universality.

As far as the costs to students, I think this has requires more careful attention to the numbers than is usual in these discussions. The distribution of student debt is very uneven — at the undergraduate level, average cumulative debt is on the order of $5,000, with the majority of college students reporting no loans at all. In professional programs, on the other hand, the vast majority of students take on debt, with average amounts con the order of $100,000. So overall averages are a very poor guide here.

At CUNY, as of 2010-2011 only 14 percent of students in the senior colleges and only 7 percent of students at the junior colleges took out any loans at all. For students with moderate family incomes, the state’s Tuition Assistance Program will cover most or all of the $6,000 annual tuition costs. So again, the fact that headline tuition at flagship schools has risen very sharply does not necessarily give you an accurate picture of the costs of college for students from less privileged backgrounds.

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John Quiggin 05.25.14 at 7:46 pm

JWM: As regards my “beloved 1970″, I think my only reference to this date was the fact that real wages for workers with high-school only have declined markedly since then, and I made this point not to lament the passing of the good old days, but to observe that, whatever the problems with going to college, the option of not going was even less attractive.

Since you make a reference to unions, it’s obvious that the decline of union coverage is both a cause and a consequence of the poor outcomes for workers in the bottom 80 per cent of the income distribution, and that mistakes made by unions have contributed to the defeats we have seen. You seem to say that admitting these obvious facts (and analogous facts regarding education) is letting the side down, a sellout to the 1 per cent and so on. I disagree.

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John Quiggin 05.25.14 at 8:02 pm

The core issue for you, I think, is my discussion of state universities (you haven’t said anything about for-profits or community colleges). For the benefit of general discussion, here’s what I wrote

Similar processes have worked themselves out in the second-tier state university system. Although barely mentioned in many discussions of higher education (since most of the participants in these discussions were educated at private institutions or state flagships), non-research intensive state universities represent the core of US higher education. Where they perform well, they represent a high-quality, lower cost alternative to the research-intensive flagships. Where they perform badly, they are disaster areas, with as few as 1 per cent of students graduating in the standard four years. Even allowing six years, a large number of state universities graduate less than 25 per cent of their students. Most students who attend these institutions take on high debt and get little or nothing in return. Steadily shrinking funding has produced more disasters, and compromised quality even at the best of these institutions.

Rereading, I can see an ambiguous use of “these”. The statement about students getting little or nothing in return was not intended as general but as a run-on from the previous sentence, about unis with graduation rates below 25 per cent. It certainly seems to me that if you go to a uni with a dropout rate of 75 per cent, and do in fact drop out, you haven’t received much of value (I accept your observation that debt may not be as a big a problem in this cases). To compound the ambiguity, the next “these”, in “even the best of these institutions” refers to the entire system.

So, with that clarification, do you disagree with my general conclusion that shrinking funding has increased the problems of both successful and unsuccessful state universities, or is your objection to my making the point that some state unis are clearly unsuccessful?

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John Quiggin 05.25.14 at 8:19 pm

Finally, a general observation about discussions of this kind. In US discussions relating to inequality and associated issues, it is very common to adopt the frame JWM imputes to me, and adopts himself, “Are lower-income groups (the poor, the bottom 50 per cent, the bottom 80 per cent) better or worse off than they were in 1970″, with the implication that, if they are better off, there is no problem. For example, JWM asks

Compared with 1970 (or whatever benchmark period we are using), does someone with a less privileged background have a better or worse chance of getting a decent college education?

By contrast, I’m starting from the presumption that given nearly 50 years of technological progress, capital deepening and so on, the benchmark is one where outcomes have improved in line with the productive capacities of society. In the specific case of education, there’s the further point that you need to improve access to education even to stand still, given the declining prospects of workers without post-school education. As in the OP, I’m asking the question “is the education system working to make life chances more equal” and coming to the conclusion “probably not”.

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Clay Shirky 05.25.14 at 9:04 pm

Belatedly coming in to thank Bruce @66 for catching my conflation of Morrill and GI Bills. I meant the GI Bill, as you noted.

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Plume 05.25.14 at 10:24 pm

Another key here. When I first started college, back in the 70s, we were just barely into the beginnings of stagnant rank and file wages. Two, three years in. So the gap between wages and tuition costs was not yet monstrous.

Forty plus years into those stagnant wages, while tuition costs skyrocket, and the gap is insurmountable for more and more people.

I could work part time and manage tuition costs without loans, though I did have to borrow when I went back to school in the 80s and 90s. But in the 70s, I could make enough, even at the paltry minimum wage of that time ($2.50, roughly). When I started doing restaurant work, made tips, etc. it was easier still. Today, kids can’t say that. Not even close. The gap is a grand canyon now.

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JW Mason 05.26.14 at 3:40 am

As in the OP, I’m asking the question “is the education system working to make life chances more equal” and coming to the conclusion “probably not”.

One reason I like framing the issue as today vs back then, is that is a question you can test empirically. How would you test this proposition? Ask whether a counterfactual society with no higher ed would be more or less equal than the actual one?

Seriously, John, what is the concrete empirical evidence that we use to decide if higher ed is making society more equal? What’s the cutoff for student debt, graduation rates, fraction if the population attending? Imagine you were a social scientist, trying to answer this question from an initial position of agnosticism: How would you proceed?

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Bruce Wilder 05.26.14 at 5:03 am

You cannot answer a counterfactual question “empirically”; you can only answer it theoretically. If you have some theoretical insight, you might apply it to interpret what you can observe about the single observable stream of history, and the remnant evidence of contingency in its rubbish.

I think Quiggin has the correct theoretical framework: institutions of education are engines of social reproduction. It’s a dynamic process of reproduction; we’re never simply reproducing a static image of society, but a society that is becoming more egalitarian will manifest a system of educational institutions that make it more egalitarian. That the U.S. is a society in the process of becoming dramatically more equal with respect to sex and race, and dramatically more unequal in terms of income and economic security, is reflected in its educational institutions.

The notion that people can invest in their individual human capital and become individually more productive through education, realizing their individual greater productivity in higher wages or salaries is neoliberal b.s. That’s not how the economy is organized. That said, an educated society is potentially more productive, because education makes possible better systems of social cooperation and the application of knowledge to the control of production processes. Whether a society actually is more cooperative and efficient, and how income is distributed amidst its hierarchy, is the result of collective political choices. Education prepares people to administer the hierarchy, and how much anyone is paid, relatively, is largely a matter of where that person is placed in the hierarchy. And, the general standard of living is a matter of how productive and efficient that hierarchy is, in making use of available resources to produce goods.

The U.S. is disinvesting from its hierarchy, breaking the implicit contracts between the elite and the rest of society, so that the topmost elite can harvest enormous returns. Student debt peonage is part of that political program. The whole economy is becoming less productive and less efficient, as resources are concentrated into sectors, which are parasitic or predatory at the margin, like health care or financial services. For an individual, investing in the education necessary for a career in health care, makes economic sense. If someone is able to do that at a community college or a third-tier state university, their life prospects improve. The value of education in improving incomes is confirmed. (Isn’t empiricism wonderful! We have correlation!) As public policy, it is insane. We’re impoverishing millions with a health care system that costs twice what it ought to, that delivers large incomes to financial services professionals (no doubt with advanced degrees) operating insurance companies or medical-industry conglomerates. And, incidentally, some respiratory therapist with an associates degree has a “better life”.

I do not think it is that difficult to step back and appreciate the big picture, and I certainly do not want to discourage JW Mason, or anyone else, working to educate people, who want education and whose lives will be better for it. Education is a good thing for the individual and for the society — I believe that.

I do want to discourage people from buying into neoliberal piety and simple-mindedness. The economy is not some formless, emergent soup, into which we can simply add more education like spice or vitamins, or where the educated will rise like cream to form a skin across the surface, solving the problem of increasing inequality, a problem that is fundamentally political.

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John Quiggin 05.26.14 at 6:35 am

@JWM Here’s some evidence on the public system, from the US Education Dept. (The situation in the private non-profit sector is worse. Total enrolments are inflated a bit by the for-profits, but they are just scams.)

Over the last two decades, prices net of all grant aid at 4-year public colleges have risen as a percentage of family income for low- and moderate-income high school graduates: from 41 percent to 48 percent and from 22 percent to 26 percent, respectively (figure 4, page 8):
 Between 1992 and 2004, initial enrollment rates of academically
qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates in 4-year colleges shifted downward: from 54 percent to 40 percent, and from 59 percent to 53 percent, respectively (figure 6, page 9).
 The cause appears to have been an increase in the importance of college expenses and financial aid to parents and students between 1992 and 2004 (Table 4, page 17). Differences in family financial concerns accounted for 45 percentage points difference in 4-year college enrollment for in 2004 (figure 18, page 21).
 High school graduates from low-income families who started at a
4-year college earned a bachelor’s degree over three times more often than their peers who started at a 2-year college, 62 percent vs. 20 percent. Their peers from moderate-income income families earned the degree nearly twice as often, 67 percent vs. 34 percent (table 7, page 26). Given current policies, shifts in enrollment from 4-year to 2-year colleges have implications for degree completion.
 Persistence of low-income high school graduates five years after starting at a 4-year college has fallen from 78 percent to 75 percent; for those from moderate-income families, persistence has remained at 81 percent (figure 25, page 27). For those starting at a 2-year college, persistence has fallen significantly (figure 26, page 27).

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JW Mason 05.26.14 at 1:26 pm

John-

This is helpful. I’ll have a full reply in a bit. A few general points now.

First, all of these numbers are comparisons with some date in the past. Which is good! The abstract question of whether higher ed is or is not contributing to greater equality, or whether it’s doing so as much as you or I think it should be, don’t lead to any engagement with concrete reality, I don’t think. Comparisons — over time or between countries — seem like the only way to approach these issues empirically.

Second, there’s a major issue with comparisons across different populations. The report you link to is looking only at outcomes for students with a minimum level of math preparation, which is both an imperfectly representative group and one whose boundaries are changing over time. There’s a tendency in these discussions to only look at outcomes for people who’ve already crossed the initial hurdles. (This underlies a lot of my disagreement with Corey over academic employment also.) But if you want the full picture you also have to take into account the people who never make it pat the first gate. That’s why I prefer metrics like the fraction of the total population that attends or graduates from college.

Third, most of the comparisons you give cover shorter periods. If we are looking at a 10 year window, then yes, it’s likely we can find important metrics by which access to higher ed has become more restricted. My argument is about trends over the last 40 or 50 years.

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William berry 05.26.14 at 2:50 pm

LFC: “was it Christopher Marlowe or some anonymous contemporary who twitted S. for having “little Latin and less Greek”?

Ben Jonson, in a condescending poem— condescending because he liked to think that he had personally surpassed his old “master”!— praising Shakespeare soon after his death.

Incidentally, it is the personal knowledge of, and acquaintace with, Shakespeare by such as Jonson, et al, that helps make the theories of the plays’ alternative authorship so ridiculous.

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Harold 05.26.14 at 4:15 pm

I think what was meant was that Shakespeare did not adhere to imitating classical rhetorical models of composition, as pupils were trained to do in the course of a humanistic education. This increasingly strict adherence to rules and models, became a more and more of a fetish in the seventeenth century. It was part of their intense desire to bring method and order to chaos and violence. People enjoyed it and it was flattering to audiences.

I don’t think Ben Jonson attended university either (he was apprenticed to a bricklayer) but he did have an excellent humanistic preparation. Shakespeare, on the other hand, had read Ovid (standard school-boy fare) and a lot of vernacular literature in translation, such as The Courtier. (He certainly knew French, but I suppose in those days that didn’t count for much, since French was considered just another vernacular and not real learning.) Milton called him “sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child” who warbled “his native wood-notes wild”.

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hix 05.26.14 at 4:24 pm

No tuition fees is absolutly not the same as an ideal that everybody should be able to go to college. Just shows that there is a fiction – and nothing more it is of meritocratic selection of the worthy. There are other ways to undermine that fiction in reality that are just as efficient as tuition fees. From memory ( it might not be quite exact or up to data, albeit the direction im very confident about), Germany has the third lowest college graduation rate in the EU and the one nation with even lower ones, Austria is very similar to the neighbouring conservative German regions (which have lower graduation rates then the German average).

Or to give a more extreme example outside Germany/Norway, France and Brazil have very cheap high status staate Universities that are almost impossible to get in without attending an expensive private school before.

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LFC 05.26.14 at 4:27 pm

Wm Berry:

LFC: “was it Christopher Marlowe or some anonymous contemporary who twitted S. for having “little Latin and less Greek”? Ben Jonson, in a condescending poem— condescending because he liked to think that he had personally surpassed his old “master”!— praising Shakespeare soon after his death.

Thanks. (Thought I might have gotten the attribution wrong, and I did.)

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anon/portly 05.26.14 at 8:14 pm

JQ at 54:

Although barely mentioned in many discussions of higher education (since most of the participants in these discussions were educated at private institutions or state flagships), non-research intensive state universities represent the core of US higher education. Where they perform well, they represent a high-quality, lower cost alternative to the research-intensive flagships. Where they perform badly, they are disaster areas, with as few as 1 per cent of students graduating in the standard four years. Even allowing six years, a large number of state universities graduate less than 25 per cent of their students.

Google suggests that CUNY fits my claim [in the above paragraph] pretty well in general (though it has more good schools and less bad ones than the sector as a whole). The top CUNY schools are very good, but the worst, CUNY York College, has a six-year graduation rate of 19.5 per cent.

CUNY York in Jamaica, Queens, with 57% black and 8% white students, 8000 undergraduate students, about 64/36 FT/PT, has (I clicked on the most recent 5-year period) a 6-year graducation rate of 19.5-25.6%, but also a “still enrolled” rate of 7.6-9.8% and a “transferred out” rate of 35.5-46.8%.

I can’t tell if graduation rates of “transferred out” students are included in the 19.5 – 25.6% number or not, but it would be good to know. There’s a follow-up category of “% Graduating – other UG Programs.”

CUNY Brooklyn, 27% black and 44% white, about 13000 students, about 71/29 FT/PT, over the same period has 6-year graduation rates of 43.3 – 53.8%. CUNY Staten Island, 7% black and 69% white, about 13000 students, about 74/26 FT/PT, has 6-year graduation rates of 45.2-48.1%.

I don’t see how the claim that CUNY York is “worse” in any meaningful sense is justified. Its students have different characteristics than other CUNY branches.

Most students who attend these institutions take on high debt and get little or nothing in return.

According to the site referenced below, 60% of students take on debt and the 75th percentile number for debt-holders is $28,000. It’s hard for me to imagine that most students who attend these institutions “take on high debt,” certainly not if we’re talking about CUNY-type institutions. I suppose it’s possible that most students “get little or nothing” out of it, but I am skeptical about that too. Then when we combine these two things with the word “and” (not “or”!)….

Surely “take on high debt” and “get little or nothing in return” are negatively correlated? Or am I just being too much the optimist? Can the students at CUNY York (et al) really be making such poor choices in such large numbers?

http://www.asa.org/policy/resources/stats/

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JW Mason 05.27.14 at 5:25 am

According to the site referenced below, 60% of students take on debt and the 75th percentile number for debt-holders is $28,000. It’s hard for me to imagine that most students who attend these institutions “take on high debt,” certainly not if we’re talking about CUNY-type institutions.

Again, only 14 percent of students in 4-year CUNY schools and 7 percent of students in CUNY community colleges take on any student loans at all.

Your broader point is very important — you can’t judge education quality on the basis of outcomes like graduation rates, because different institutions serve different populations. Unintentionally but not by accident, John Q. is making the same arguments used by neoliberal opponents of public education. Institutions serving less privileged students will inevitably have worse outcomes; branding them a failure on this basis is just an excuse to shift resources away from them.

John, what outcome are you trying to achieve with this article? I don’t see what end a message of “education always just reproduces the inequalities of the broader society” serves, except to discourage people from trying to make education reflect more democratic values.

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John Quiggin 05.28.14 at 2:15 am

JWM, if you read the OP, you will see that I don’t claim that “education *always* just reproduces the inequalities of the broader society”. I’m arguing, however, that the US higher education system as it is currently structured, broadly does reproduce the inequalities of the society as a whole, reflecting cuts in public funding and increased stratification.

And if this is some sort of neoliberal attack on CUNY and similar institutions, why are its worker representatives saying exactly the same thing

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions – NYSUT’s affiliate that represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York’s state-operated campuses – joined with Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York. The two leaders described public higher education systems with overcrowded classes, a growing percentage of overworked adjunct faculty and outdated physical plants so tight on space that CUNY is leasing classrooms and office space in off-campus buildings not even owned by the CUNY system.

It’s obvious that when the upper tiers of the system are lavishly funded and get their pick of the students, they are going to produce much better outcomes than poorly funded systems with students who need more help, not less. The solution, obviously, is to increase and redistribute funding. That’s never going to be easy, but it’s impossible if you start by denying there is a problem.

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JW Mason 05.28.14 at 12:54 pm

I’m arguing, however, that the US higher education system as it is currently structured, broadly does reproduce the inequalities of the society as a whole

Again, let’s imagine we’re social scientists and want to answer this sort of question. We know that in country X, there is a range of higher ed institutions, some of which are regarded as better than others. We know that students from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to attend the more prestigious institutions. We know that students from less privileged backgrounds often do not attend college at all. We also know that some of the costs of college are borne by students and their families, either out of pocket or via debt.

How do we decide if your proposition is true for country X?

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JW Mason 05.28.14 at 12:59 pm

The solution, obviously, is to increase and redistribute funding. That’s never going to be easy, but it’s impossible if you start by denying there is a problem.

Needless to say, one can acknowledge there is a problem while disagreeing about how to characterize specific problems. I don’t find anything in the PSC statement you quote about reproducing inequalities.

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John Quiggin 05.28.14 at 7:31 pm

@JWM I’m really not sure of your point now. The more (less) these conditions apply in Country X, the more (less) the education system will tend to reproduce existing inequalities.

I present evidence that these conditions apply to a greater extent in the US now than in the past. The PSC statement is additional evidence, supporting the claim of a decline in resources available to institutions serving low-income students.

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TM 05.28.14 at 10:29 pm

hix 101: “Germany has the third lowest college graduation rate in the EU”

This has been lamented for a long time but why? Why on earth would it be desirable that everybody goes to college/university? In the US, the attitude is that if you don’t go to college, you will end up as a burger flipper (you might anyway, but…). Students are pushed into college whether or not they have any interest in academic pursuits and higher education because the perception is that there is no alternative if you want to have a shot at least at a decent living. And that perception is correct, as the famously increasing pay gap between college graduates and the rest demonstrates (see recently http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college-worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html – the discussion is worthwhile to read, especially the readers’ picks; also note that the pay gap isn’t increasing because college graduates’ incomes are going up – it’s because everybody else’s are going down!)

In Germany, it isn’t so because excellent vocational training is available outside of the Universities. And Americans would be so much better off if they had something even remotely comparable. So many students wasting their time and money trying to get a college degree just for the sake of the g***m degree, with the result of the extremely low graduation rates JQ quotes. And that despite rampant grade inflation and, frankly, low academic standards at many institutions.

As an aside, international comparisons of “higher” (“tertiary”) education participation rates are problematic because what counts as higher education isn’t always comparable. If you go to a US community college to learn cooking or machine repair, that is counted as higher education – a 3-year apprenticeship in Germany is not. That Germans are undereducated in international comparison is a misconception due to the difference in educational systems.

I also want to second JQ at 81: “I argue that the US model isn’t working well and that stratification is central to that failure.” The German system is by no means flawless and certainly not nearly as egalitarian as one would wish (despite low or no tuition) but in my experience, the absence of stratification within the higher education system makes a huge difference. When I went to Uni in the 1990s, nobody fretted about whether this is or that institution was “better”, rankings were unknown, as were advice books about college admissions or admissions tests with the attendant test prep and coaching industry. Nobody started a college fund when a child was born, no parents were busy planning their kindergartner’s academic career. In retrospect, and with the benefit of comparison, I must say the whole experience was amazingly straightforward and unbureaucratic: you enroll (in most cases, one didn’t “apply” for enrollment, one just enrolled – it was a right), you study, you pass or fail the exams. You earn a degree and it is understood that the degree is worth exactly what it says it is – nobody cares which institution awarded it. Americans must think I’m making all this up since such a system obviously cannot work. But yes it can.

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john c. halasz 05.28.14 at 11:25 pm

I dunno if this helps or counts as “empirical” evidence, rather than normative judgment, but here it is:

http://mathbabe.org/2014/05/27/obama-has-the-wrong-answer-to-student-loan-crisis/

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JW Mason 05.29.14 at 3:47 pm

The more (less) these conditions apply in Country X, the more (less) the education system will tend to reproduce existing inequalities.

Right. The only valid claims are comparative ones, between two countries or a given country at two points of time. This was one of my main points.

The second question is, does the US higher education system reproduce inequality more or less than it did 40 or 50 years ago? Since (1) far more Americans, especially from less privileged backgrounds, attend college than in 1970 or so, and (2) contrary to popular belief, most low-income college students do not take on large amounts of debt, the correct answer is probably No. On balance, the US system of higher ed is more egalitarian than it was in the old days.

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john c. halasz 05.29.14 at 5:54 pm

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TM 05.29.14 at 6:04 pm

Whether more Americans attend college doesn’t really settle the issue. We need to analyze to what extent the benefits of (higher) education accrue to those already privileged. We would have to take into account not just the number of low-income students attending college but also the extent (which I believe is considerable) to which the higher education system itself is stratified by socioeconomic background. Plus, we must take into account whether those without college degrees are more at a disadvantage now than they were 40 years ago – which they clearly are, according to income statistics (see ref at 109). I think JQ’s analysis does point in the right direction although (afaict) it needs more empirical data.

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