Tuesday, June 19, 2012

America's Most Overrated Product: Higher Education. A Redux

A friend, Scott Lubbock, sent me one of many notes I've received that describe college graduates's unemployability. (Not to mention the half that drop out.)

He writes of his college-graduate son: "He's not much more employable beyond the restaurant work he has done the past five years."  Scott included a June 2012, Harper's column excoriating colleges.

I responded with this:

Beyond the dollar cost, one of higher ed's enormous underconsidered costs is the opportunity cost: what your son could have been doing with his time if he wasn't at college being taught and not remembering endless arcana in that four-to-six-year-long summer camp we call college. 

Then there's the decrement to self-esteem that accrues from not understanding significant percentages of what those brilliant esoterica-obsessed, often poor-communicating professors teach.

Yes, I agree with much of the Harper's article but it downplays how the government's continuing to raise the amount of taxpayer-funded financial aid encourages colleges to raise tuition more. Colleges think, "Ooh good, the government is providing more financial aid, so now we can raise tuition more."  If government provided no aid, colleges would be forced to reduce their prices because far fewer than the 70% of high school graduates who now attend college could afford to pay their sticker price. Can anyone reasonably think it requires anywhere near $100,000 of student money to educate a student for four years at U of O on top of the enormous taxpayer-paid subsidies that it gives to public universities? Could it cost anywhere near $250,000 that brand-name private colleges charge a student? (And private colleges too receive tremendous amounts of government financial aid.)

Higher ed is business at its worst--a horribly overpriced product providing remarkably little value other than the piece of paper, with unconscionably little and usually hidden information on total four- and six-year charges, let alone how little students actually benefit in learning and employability. 

I do like the article's only slightly tongue-in-cheek summary of the conservatives' view of higher ed:
 College is a gilded re-education camp, where innocent children of the entrepreneurial class are turned into brainwashed Maoist cadres, chanting slogans and grinding away the hours in a sexual frolic. The university's scholarly departments they believe are filled with political extremists; its graduates are snobs; its concern with diversity is a form of censorship; its scientists tell lies to further the "global warming" power grab.
The best antidotes to higher education's robbing and damaging our children, our future, would be to educate the high school counselors about alternatives to that ripoff, yes ripoff, we call college, and to force colleges to provide consumer information, just as we require food to contain nutritional information and tires to bear a report card in its sidewall.

Indeed, I strongly advocate colleges continuing to receive our taxpayer-paid largesse only if they post on their home page a consumerist College Report Card that would shine a light on how much people actually pay for how little. One of my TheAtlantic.com columns makes that case. Click HERE to read it.


Maria Lopez said...

Many conservative economists argue that higher education has value as a signal that a person was smart enough and together enough to be admitted and finish.

If this signaling account of the value of higher education is correct than higher education does have value to the individual even if not many valuable skills were taught. From the perspective of society, however, it could be replaced by other sorts of contests.

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, its signaling value is how higher ed has gotten away from providing such a shoddy product. Especially because the taxpayer gives it billions every year, we needn't accept that. That's why my call for each college being required to post a substantive Report Card on itself before being eligible for taxpayer dollars.


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