Grading Congress

October 03, 2003

In any college or university in the country, a student who handed in a report pieced together from out-of-date secondary sources, a report that drew sweeping conclusions from meager and misleading data, a report that substituted random anecdotes for documented evidence, a report that tried (vainly) to hide its skimpiness by filling whole pages with bar graphs and "bullet points" (a sure sign of the absence of real content) -- well, that student would surely flunk the course.

By these or any other standards, U.S. Reps. John A Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, a California Republican, members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, should receive a failing grade for their recently issued report, "The College Cost Crisis." A staff member to the committee said that the report had been in the works for a long time, but that's hard to believe, since any undergraduate with an Internet hookup could have put together this rag-bag mixture of quotes from Newsweek, various newspaper editorials, and interviews with anxious parents in about 10 minutes.

Bereft of anything like an argument, the report instead offers a couple of overheated and unnuanced assertions: Higher education costs are "skyrocketing" and the reason is "wasteful spending" by colleges and universities.

It is certainly true that college costs are rising. The first question is, Are the increases disproportionate to increases in other sectors -- housing, transportation, food, travel, entertainment, books, medical care, prescription drugs? (The answer is "No.") And second, Do colleges and universities charge more because they have to pay more for the goods and services necessary to their operation? Had they bothered to ask, McKeon and Boehner would have found that the answer to the second question is a very big "Yes."

Utility costs are way up, insurance costs (especially for university medical centers) have more than doubled, and the tab for constructing new buildings and renovating or maintaining old ones is out of sight. New security costs have been mandated (but not funded) in the wake of September 11. The cost of information systems -- barely on the horizon in the '70s, the report's favored decade and a time when student registration was still being done manually in the gym -- is now astronomical. The cost of materials and equipment, especially for the new technologies that come with the new sciences (nano technology, neuroscience, bio-everything) developed in the past three decades is soaring. And of course the cost of putting faculty members in the classrooms is higher than it used to be, especially in the increasing number of areas (like computer science, finance, management, engineering) where higher education has to compete for personnel with the corporate sector.

Not only have the costs of these materials and services escalated, but universities are forced to buy more of them because the number of students they are asked to accommodate has grown and continues to grow. Because Boehner and McKeon take no account at all of any of these changes in the real costs of doing business -- changes the universities did not impose, but changes they must live with -- the statistics they invoke with such a flourish are meaningless, or, rather, they are meaningful only within the bizarre and ignorant assumption that everything in the world of higher education is the same as it was in 1970 except for the price of the entry ticket.

If the methodology of the report is shoddy, the assumptions that drive it are even worse.

One assumption is that colleges and universities should be responsive to what Americans believe, as in "Americans believe wasteful spending by college and university management is the No. 1 reason for skyrocketing college costs." But if what Americans believe is false (as it is in this instance), colleges and universities, rather than taking that falsehood seriously and conforming their actions to it, should labor to remove it; they should engage in education, not pandering.

To be sure, the study of what Americans believe is something that advertisers, vendors, and politicians are right to be interested in, and it can even be a proper academic subject, but it should not be what drives the academy's actions.

It is entirely appropriate for General Motors, despite the number of people who (like me) are fans of Oldsmobile, to cease producing that automobile because its public image -- what Americans believe about it -- translates into poor sales. It is not appropriate for a university, an academic not a mercantile enterprise, to decide that because classics, history, German, French, American literature, anthropology, political science and philosophy (among others) are little valued by many Americans and bring in little, if any, revenues, they should be eliminated.

Yet that is exactly what would happen (and in some places is already happening) if the second large assumption informing the Boehner-McKeon report -- the assumption that colleges and universities should run their shops as if they were businesses -- were taken to heart.

This too, according to the report, is something Americans believe: "Americans believe institutions of higher learning are not accountable enough to parents, students, and taxpayers -- the consumers of higher education." But parents, students, and taxpayers are consumers of higher education only in the sense that they pay for it if they want it; they are not consumers in the sense that should tie the operations of higher education to their desires or judgments.

When I go to buy a new suit I know in advance what I want and need -- something for work, something for leisure, something for a wedding -- and I visit various vendors in order to compare products and prices. By definition, however, the recipients of higher education (along with the parents whose experience is 30 years out-of-date if they had one) do not know in advance what they need. If they did, they wouldn't need it, and what they often want, at least at the outset, is an education that will tax their energies as little as possible.

Should we give it to them? Absolutely not. Should we settle curricular matters -- questions of what subjects should be studied, what courses should be required, how large classes should be -- by surveying student preferences or polling their parents or asking Representatives Boehner and McKeon? No, again.

If colleges and universities are to be "accountable" to anyone or anything, it should be to the academic values -- dedicated and responsible teaching, rigorous and honest research -- without which higher education would be little different from the bottom-line enterprise its critics would have it become.

By the evidence of this report -- not the evidence in the report; there's precious little of that -- Boehner and McKeon wouldn't recognize an academic value if it ran over them. Indeed the word "academic" scarcely appears in what they write (if they wrote it), and perhaps this is how it should be, given a performance as slipshod and superficial as theirs is.

But the question remains, If the analyses and conclusions of this report are without weight or insight, is there something better that could be recommended in their place? Shouldn't something be done about the crisis in college tuition costs?

Well, maybe not, if there really is no crisis, as there doesn't seem to be, at least in the public sector. (And wouldn't free marketeers like Boehner and McKeon believe that private universities should be allowed to charge whatever the traffic will bear?) After all, a tuition of from $3,000 to $6,000 a year to attend a premier research university hardly seems out of line with any economic indicator.

But what about the "wasteful costs" that Boehner and McKeon complain of? Since the report does not cite any, I am hard pressed to identify them. However, one wasteful cost does present itself: the cost to the public treasury in labor, materials, and time of producing this wholly meretricious and worthless document.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column for the Career Network on campus politics and academic careers. His most recent book is "How Milton Works" (Harvard University Press, 2001).