How not to talk about the crisis in higher ed

by zunguzungu

(You may, for your amusement, speculate where the seven swearwords I originally employed in this piece originally resided. My original reaction was considerably less charitable to Mr. Yglesias.)

Nonsense like this makes me wonder why I ever read Matt Yglesias. First he cites this:

College tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades. Between 1990 and 2008, tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the consumer price index. Raising the Pell grant’s maximum doesn’t address this underlying problem. Constant transfusions of public money help keep the patient alive but do not stop the bleeding. What’s to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008? At first, I stood with progressives who say the federal government should increase grants and rein in the parasitic student-loan business. But while the student-loan industry has been part of the problem, and more grants are part of the solution, there is more to this story.

And then he parodies himself by declaring that “the only viable solution is to find ways to apply technology to the problem.” His commenters rightly took him to task for the incredibly underthought notion that replacing teachers with the internet will somehow save education, and though Anya Kamenetz isn’t nearly as dumb as he makes her sound (she doesn‘t claim the things he has her claiming), the way he takes her work to frame the problem and the solution are simple-minded and wrong-headed to the extreme.

Here’s why. As our Harvard educated pundit looks out on the world of higher ed, he agrees that the problem of rising tuition and student loan debt is a problem. And he thinks to himself “Hey! Costs of the product are rising! We must find a more efficient method of production.”  And so, as industrialist-of-education, he decides to turn to technology to lower those costs of production. Open source! Public domain! University 2.0! Google U!

What he’s missed is the real substance of Kamenetz’s analogy to health care. Tuition isn’t rising because the costs of education are suddenly on the upsurge; tuition is rising, for one thing, because the “public option” is getting the shit kicked out of it.

Of course, to my mind, Kamenetz mostly misses the point as well. She writes:

The higher-education system has a lot in common with another great challenge our country is confronting: health care. Colleges, like hospitals, have little incentive to conserve resources or compete on price. They can actually gain prestige by raising tuition. They shift costs to students to make up for gaps in state funding and then hand out grant money to the applicants they want the most, not the ones who need the most help. Community colleges dedicated to serving the poorest get a fraction of the public money that goes to flagship state universities.

And this isn’t all wrong. Ridiculous textbook prices are an important part of why university education is so expensive, and open source stuff is a way to address that (which universities have been mighty slow and mighty feeble in making use of). But as Peter Levine points out, open source course materials only cut tuition costs if the price of course materials is a significant portion of tuition. And they’re not. It’s a deck chairs on the titanic sized part of the larger problem, which is this:

1. Because a huge proportion of the jobs that provide an even moderately comfortable and secure living require, at a minimum, a college degree, universities provide an enormously valuable commodity.

2. To the extent that universities can charge whatever they want, they will. And they will, as a result, price that commodity — which represents one of the few real avenues for class mobility left — out of the reach of anyone not already comfortably ensconced in the middle class.

In other words, by approaching the problem of tuition costs by reference to production, Kamenetz and Yglesias seem to docilely assume that university administrators and Boards of Trustees and so forth are just mechanically passing along the cost of the product to the consumer. Tuition is rising, they notice, so the cost of education must be rising. And yet isn’t it strange that in the same period of time in which tuition has risen, steadily and consistently, we have also seen the steady and consistent replacement of tenured full time faculty with part time and contingent faculty in those same universities? Which is to say, as costs of instruction have fallen dramatically, the price of an education has risen!

Shock! Could it be that universities are acting like corporations? Could it be they’re focusing on the bottom line by minimizing expenditures and charging as much as the market will hold? And could it be that, since the market demand for a college education is extremely robust, universities are able to charge quite a shitload of money and the fact that they are, in fact, is the reason that tuition, fees, and student debt are all rising? As a passenger in the “University of California” section of the Titanic that is American higher ed, I’m pretty much convinced that this is the case. And if it is, then the methods of cost containment that people like Kamenetz describe will simply make the universities themselves more robust, having a much less direct impact on student costs themselves.

Which is why real lesson here — and the important point Kamenetz and Yglesias seem to have missed — is that a not-for-profit government run public option would be the only meaningful way to reverse the trend. We used to have that; it was called “public universities.” But while the UC system has gutted the old master plan for higher ed in the state of California, it’s just part of a general trend you can see everywhere in public education. My alma mater in Columbus Ohio now charges double what it did when I was an undergrad, all of nine years ago, but most of that spike happened before the recession. And we’re seeing that everywhere; from a presumption back in the day that student fees were more or less nominal, the sort of thing my parents could pay for with a part time job, we have come to a point where student loans are virtually unavoidable, and we’ve gotten there steadily and consistently. The market will bear it, so that’s how education gets priced.

There are all sorts of ways to skin this cat. But the most basic piece of the puzzle is  that upward economic mobility through education will happen only to the extent that an education costs less than it’s worth. Which is to say, if you have to buy your way into the middle class, you will only get there if you’re already there. That isn’t hard. But that means that if public universities don’t artificially depress the market value of a college education, the market will — as it does — ruthlessly redress any ineffieciencies that exist, pricing tuition upward and upward until higher ed ceases to exist (to the extent that it still does) as a meritocratic alternative to inherited privilege. And the United States Government has, as a body, ceased to regard doing so as a positive good.