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Thursday, October 25, 2012

'Higher Education and Theory of the Second Best'

John Holbo:

... My basic thought ... is that the paradigm college experience is just plain going to cost a lot. Four years being a full-time student at a residential college, say. That’s not going to come cheap. We shouldn’t beat our brains out about how we can do this thing inexpensively... There isn’t some conspiracy to artificially inflate the cost of college. We could do different things. That might cost less. ... But there isn’t any reason to think we can do substantially the same things we already are, just at much lower cost. This is clearly a source of sincere disagreement... Some people think that the rate at which college costs have gone up means that there must be some way to pop the cost bubble and dramatically lower costs back down without sacrificing quality. There’s some conspiracy of incompetence or venality by the administrators/teachers. We need to break the back of that, whatever it is, then things would get better. I don’t really think that’s plausible, but if you think it’s plausible, go ahead and work out your own solution to the problem along those lines.
College is a premium product. A costly good. But a valuable one we want people to have. If the state isn’t going to subsidize its provision, making it available to all, then how will it go?
Option 1: everyone who isn’t rich goes into serious debt to pay for this costly but valuable good.
Option 2: we devise a less premium product. It won’t be as good, but it will cost less.
I distrust Option 1. In fact, I’m paranoid about it, for reasons outlined in this article. I don’t quite drink the full jug of kool-aid. For example, I don’t buy that tuition has skyrocketed ‘because it can’. That is, there’s just a speculative bubble, in effect. I don’t think the growth in administration is quite as sinister as they suggest. It’s largely a function of universities wanting to do so much for students – so many programs and options and choices – which is a good thing. But it creates overhead costs.
I do agree that private for-profit outfits like University of Phoenix are, in effect, trying to get their noses into the huge trough of student loan money. That’s worrisome. The old are eating their young, leaving them holding the debt bag [pardon my mixed metaphor]. I am less worried by things like Western Governors University, which seems genuinely committed to trying to find a way to Option 2. Which makes me sad, but at least it isn’t some private sector trick to saddle students with debt. At least it’s an attempt to keep the democratic ideal of higher education for all alive, even if the dream looks pretty shabby.
Western Governors gives up the dream of a well-rounded liberal arts education. It gives up all the stuff that you can only do hands-on, in person. It gives up college as a formative social experience. It gives up a lot. But what it provides is worth something, and it’s not clear they are charging more than it is worth. It just makes me depressed to look at it, is all. But I can’t really argue with the logic of it, if the alternative is Option 1..., it might be the way of the future. ...

    Posted by on Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 12:27 AM in Economics, Universities | Permalink  Comments (46)


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