by Ken Mondschein
Two sides are shaping up in the debate on the troubled state of American higher education. The one, which I’ll call the Tories, looks back to the glory days of Baby Boomer expansion. The humanities and the right to a liberal education are sacred to this camp, as is tenure. Hard times should be made up by cutting sports and over-management; the professorate can take care of itself and the NBA and NFL can run a farm league like everybody else. The irony is that the Tories are the conservatives in the debate, but they essentially take a socialist position. (Caveat: I’m an unapologetic Tory.)
The other, which I’ll call the Whigs, argues that higher ed should be market-driven. Deployment of resources in departments and majors should make financial sense for the school, and the students should be prepared for careers as workers, not philosophers. The Whigs are the revolutionaries, despite their laissez-faire rhetoric, and their star is rising. This is more than an academic question (pardon the pun), but bears directly on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiatives and his stated goal for every American to attend at least two years of college or trade school.
One of the deadliest weapons in the Whig arsenal is the statistic. Here, Richard Vedder argues that we have far too many college graduates—to the tune of seventeen million. Over 18,000 parking-lot attendants and 80,000 bartenders have BAs, he says , and there are 5,057 janitors with Ph.Ds or other terminal professional degrees. Do we, Vedder asks, need so much education if people can’t get hired in the jobs meeting their qualifications? Is it that they have the degree, but not the actual brains to do the work? Are we, as a society, throwing our collective money away by educating the unfit? Or, as he puts it, “even if on average, an investment in higher education yields a good, say 10 percent, rate of return, it does not follow that adding to existing investments will yield that return.” (This is taken from Charles Murray’s very politically incorrect analysis of education in which he says that we can’t educate everyone equally because we’re not all equally intelligent.)
Both Whigs and Tories are arguing from a scarcity model: Tories say that we should increase things on the supply side, specifically by funding everyone’s college dream, while Whigs hold that we are working against market forces to keep demand unnaturally high. What Vedder says is that the college machine is reaching a sort of Malthusian crisis. Like a shark, colleges need to keep taking in freshmen to make a profit. However, the supply of college-ready people is finite. The result is either high dropout rates or a watering down of what a degree means. The solution is to restrict access to higher ed and to limit public subsidies—which very much goes against the Whiggish everyone-deserves-a-chance ethos. With supply limited, value will again rise.
But let’s suppose for a second that Vedder’s correct. What about the intangible value of a college education to those plumbers and parking-lot attendants? Are slinging hash and reading Nietzsche mutually exclusive? How many of those 317,000 waiters and waitresses with BAs are career garçons, and how many are struggling actors and singers? How many have taken a dead-end job because they had to move back to their rust-belt home town to take care of an ailing parent? How many have MFAs and are supporting an artistic vocation? How many of those janitors with Ph.Ds got them in Soviet Russia or online, or just got out of prison, or perhaps like being janitors rather than professors? How many are being discriminated against for being minorities, or handicapped, or lousy dressers, or just plain weird? Moreover, with so many people going to college, there will be people occupying both ends of the bell curve of ultimate benefits. There’s ample room in a country as large as the United States for all these types, including 5,000-plus Ph.Ds who make more money as janitors than adjuncts.
More to the point, can we simply evaluate the worth of a college education in terms of profit and loss? Weigh in below and let us know what you think.
First posted to The Faster Times. Used here with permission.