College, William Deresiewicz’s Tsunami, and better ways of thinking about university costs
I’m an on-the-record fan of William Deresiewicz, which made reading “Tsunami: How the market is destroying higher education” distressing. It blames problems in contemporary higher education on capitalism and markets, but I think it ignores a couple of things, the most important of which is the role in colleges in raising prices, increasing the number of administrators, and reducing teaching loads for tenured faculty.
Beyond that, Deresiewicz discusses Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which is a dubious place to start; see, for example, “Shock Jock for one critique. In it, Tyler Cowen notes that “Most of the book is a button-pressing, emotionally laden, whirlwind tour of global events over the last 30 years” and that “The book offers not so much an argument but rather a Dadaesque juxtaposition of themes and supposedly parallel developments in the global market.” Klein’s book reminds me of the bad academic writing that assumes the dubious evils of capitalism without quite spelling out what those dubious evils are or what plausible alternatives exist.
Returning to Deresiewicz: “College is now judged in terms of ‘return on investment,’ the delivery of immediately negotiable skills.” But this might simply be due to rising costs: when college was (relatively) inexpensive, it was easy to pay less attention to ROI issues; when it’s almost impossible to afford without loans for middle-class families, it becomes much harder. ROI on degrees that, in contemporary terms, cost $20,000 can be safely ignored. ROI on degrees that cost $150,000 can’t be.
Second, even at public (and private non-profit) schools, some people are getting rich: the college presidents and other managers (including coaches) whose salaries range well into the six figures and higher.
Presidents and other bureaucrats make popular punching bags—hell, I took a couple whacks in my first paragraph—and perhaps they are “overpaid” (though one should ask why Boards of Trustees are willing to pay them what they do), but such highly-paid administrators still aren’t very expensive relative to most colleges’ overall budgets. I would like to see universities exercise greater discipline in this area, but I doubt they will until they’re forced to by markets. At the moment, schools are underwritten by federally-backed, non-dischargeable loans taken out by students. Until we see real reform,
The only good answer about the rise in college costs that I’ve seen come from Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Their short answer: “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” Unfortunately, it’s more fun pointing fingers at evil administrators, evil markets, evil capitalism, and ignorance students who want to know how much they’re going to make after they graduate.
At the very least, Why Does College Cost So Much? is a vastly better place to start than The Shock Doctrine.
These questions are getting more and more play in the larger culture. Is College a Lousy Investment? appears in The Daily Beast. “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College” appears in The New York Times. A surprisingly large number of people with degrees are working in jobs that don’t require them: in coffee shops, as bartenders, as flight attendants, and so on. That’s a lot of money for a degree that turns out to be primarily about personal development and partying. So what should students, at the individual level, do?
To figure out whether college is a good idea, you have to start with what you’re trying to accomplish: getting a credential or gaining knowledge. If the primary purpose is the latter, and you have a strong sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it, college isn’t automatically the best option. It probably is if you’re 18, because, although you don’t realize this now, you don’t know anything. It might not be when you’re, say, 23, however.
Part of the problem with discussing “college” is that you’re discussing a huge number of varied institutions that do all sorts of things for all sorts of people. For people getting $200,000 English degrees from non-elite universities, college makes less sense (mine cost about half that much, and in retrospect I might’ve been better off with a state school for half again as much, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and seems to have worked out for me, as an individual). For people getting technical degrees from state schools, college does a huge amount for lifetime earnings. Talking about these two very different experiences of “college” is like talking about eating at McDonald’s and eating at New York’s best restaurant: they’re both about selling food, but the differences dwarf the similarities.
In response to paragraphs like mine, above, we’re getting essays like Keith Burgess-Jackson’s “You Are Not My Customer.” Burgess-Jackson is correct to say that not everything can be valued in terms of dollars—that’s a point that Lewis Hyde makes in The Gift and others have made in terms of market vs. non-market economies. The question is whether we should view university education through a market lets.
When tuition was relatively cheap and quite affordable in absolute and relative terms, it made sense to look at universities through a “gift”-style lens, as Burgess-Jackson wants us to. Now that tuition is extremely high, however, we basically don’t have the luxury of making this choice: we can’t be paying $50,000 – $250,000 for an undergrad degree and have the attitude of “Thank you sir, may I have another.” It’s one or the other, not both, and universities are the ones setting prices.
Comments like this: “Good teachers know that most learning, certainly all durable learning, is self-effected” are certainly true. But if Burgess-Jackson thinks that his students aren’t customers, wait until the administration finds that no one will or wants to take his classes. Unless he’s a publishing superstar, I suspect he’ll find out otherwise. I’d like universities to be less market-oriented and more gift-oriented, but an era of $20,000+ comprehensive costs for eight to nine months of instruction just doesn’t make that orientation plausible.