Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and author of Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric (Paradigm):
This column joins an ongoing discussion in both the national press and Chronicle blogs about the financial decline of American public universities—due mainly to government budget cuts—and consequent escalating costs incurred by college students. Those are problems raise the question of whether higher education is still worth its cost, both for students and the society that finances it.
The main disputants in the Chronicle have been Richard Vedder, a conservative economist at Ohio University, and Frank Donoghue, a liberal English professor at Ohio State, whose opposing views typify conservative versus liberal ideology on both educational funding and broader economic theory.
I am jumping into this because it strikes me that most arguments on both sides have turned the key issues upside down, to the extent that their main questions concern individual students: Has the cost of higher education come to outweigh the financial rewards for college over high school graduates? Do too many Americans go to college who are unqualified, unmotivated, and thus likely to drop out before graduation, and should more settle for vocational education? Such questions show a typical American tendency to restrict discussion of large social issues to the level of personal attitudes and options within the social status quo, rather than directing attention to the needs of society at large and what changes in its status quo may be necessary to meet those needs.
In this case, I argue that America needs more college graduates and so needs to enact policies to improve academic preparation in K-12 education and make college affordable for large numbers of students who are now denied both adequate preparation and financial access.
To his credit, Vedder does focus his studies on cost-benefit analyses of public higher education, in his book Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (American Enterprise Institute, 2004), as well as several papers for conservative think tanks. There are several points of convergence between Vedder’s general views on universities and those of academic liberals or leftists like Donoghue and me (e.g., criticism of administrative bloat, superstar faculty salaries, and premium on research over teaching), and some points of disagreement that merit extended, collegial dialogue.
However, when it comes to his cost-benefit analyses, the difference between us is stark. One Vedder paper summarized his study on higher education in Michigan for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which “calls into question a growth strategy based on expansion of higher education. Indeed, other results included in the econometric estimation suggest that a better growth strategy would be to put the entire Michigan state government on a starvation diet in order to finance a reduction in the overall tax burden. While higher education expenditures are not growth-inducing, the evidence shows that tax reductions are.” (Another paper published by this center is titled “Privatize the University of Michigan.”)
I see a strange disconnect between Vedder’s views here and much widely circulated information that contradicts them, beginning with reports like Karin Fischer’s in the Chronicle (September 14, 2007) indicating that the U.S. will “soon face an acute shortage of scientists and engineers, which could undermine the country’s global lead in trade and jeopardize its ability to compete.” The Obama administration has recently been stressing the need to reverse these trends, as the Bush administration did before it.
Moreover, overwhelming evidence shows that taxes spent in support of public higher education are one of the most profitable investments a society can make. This was recognized in America for a century before the 1970s when public colleges and even graduate schools were available for little or no tuition. Ever since the vast expansion of government spending on universities following World War II, they have been an essential motor of America’s economy. (Indeed, leftists are inclined to deplore universities’ sell-out to the corporate economy, at the expense of education for critical citizenship.) The return on tax-funded investment in public higher education is beyond measure in the undergraduate and graduate education of both employers and employees in virtually every industry and profession. Government and the military, as well as private industry, are totally dependent on the research and policy analysis provided by faculties—again, a long-running cause for criticism by leftists against universities’ complicity in the military-industrial complex.
Tax-funded universities provide further profits to the private sector through purchasing equipment, supplies, construction, and utilities, and through campus revenue-producers like hospitals, spectator sports, dining halls, housing, and stores. In many communities, universities are the largest source of business profits, employment, and taxes through the money that students and employees, as well as administrations, spend. (So much for the conservative mantra that government does not create jobs, or that “higher education expenditures are not growth-inducing.”) Universities’ endowments and their employees’ pension funds are major sources for Wall Street investments. (So much for the other current conservative mantra, that public employee pensions are a drain on public coffers.)
As individuals, most college graduates earn more, pay more taxes, and are healthier, better-informed citizens. So even though many colleges are open to criticism—from both the right and left—for their shortcomings in educating undergraduates, in general the more college graduates there are, the better off local communities and the entire nation are. To put it another way, public universities in effect subsidize corporate profits, so corporations and wealthy individuals should be happy to pay higher taxes to finance universities than they have in recent decades as minimal operating expenses that they recoup many times over.
Not only do business, the professions, and government need college grads, but young Americans increasingly need a college degree to get a job at a middle-class level of income and benefits like health insurance and pensions. So it makes no economic or moral sense at all that the financial burden of university education (and, indirectly, faculty research) has steadily shifted since the 1960s from tax revenue to individual students faced with skyrocketing tuition and the replacement of financial aid like scholarships with high-interest loans that can take a lifetime to repay.
Higher costs and more exclusive admission standards amount to exclusion of those of lower financial and social status, including the poor, minorities, and working women with children. Vedder’s Going Broke is quite blunt on this point: “To the extent that elimination of affirmative action police [sic] in university communities leads to a reduction in minority admissions, it might well also lead to improved retention rates and a decline in the highly inefficient practice of admitting unqualified students who then fail to make the academic grade.” Even more bluntly, in the course of asserting that bright students would probably be equally successful without going to college, “I think many of the kids going to college are innately superior to begin with.” “Innate” means genetic, but nowhere does Vedder seriously consider the socioeconomic factors that discriminate in college preparation against poor students whose innate intelligence might equal that of wealthier ones. (In my long teaching experience, I have seen many more middle and upper class students partying their way through college or dropping out than unworthy beneficiaries of affirmative action.) The persistence of affirmative action as a wedge issue at the postsecondary level distracts attention from childhood poverty, the root cause of conditions for which affirmative action can only address later effects.
Beyond the technological and economic detriment to the country in the insufficient production of graduates in science, the debts incurred by all but the wealthiest students pressure them into business or technical majors, to the exclusion of liberal education. This means that students are deprived of the kind of curriculum they need to gain a critical awareness of the very political and economic forces squeezing them, which in turn impedes their becoming active citizens or going into valuable but lower-paying careers like teaching and social work. Vedder and many other conservative polemicists seem little interested in access for all to education in citizenship, about which they tend to follow the lead of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom in thinking it should be exclusive to the “innately superior” aristocratic elite. (A bizarre feature of the current culture wars is Tea Party-style populist hatred of liberal intellectual elitism, but not of the conservative variety championed by Straussians.)
Recognition of the myriad benefits to society of public higher education lay behind its long-standing tuition-free status in European and other countries (even at elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge), to the extent of the Scandinavian countries paying university students a salary. In the wake of the worldwide economic decline since 2008—and of the longer-term effects of Reaganomic and Thatcherite policies—those countries have felt obliged to follow the American model with rapid imposition of tuition on a scale that has provoked student protests unimaginable in contemporary America.
Will the United States’ and other countries’ capitulation to the economic constraints of the moment prove in the long run to be cost effective (in economic terms, regardless of the damage to a well-educated citizenry) or a case of killing the golden goose that higher education has proved to be worldwide? This will perhaps be the ultimate test of the opposing ideologies of Keynesian versus Reaganite-Thatcherite economics. Conservative arguments here are often propagated by forces with ideological and financial investments in K-12 and college privatization, as well as a larger agenda of Reaganomic faith in the superiority of private over public sector institutions.
There is a glaring inconsistency in the work of Vedder and many other conservative scholars in this respect. Vedder claims the high ground of scientific objectivity as an economist impartially drawing conclusions from crunching numbers, yet he constantly interjects partisan opinions and ideological doctrine. When he claims that higher-education expenditures are not growth-inducing, but “the evidence shows that tax reductions are,” wouldn’t objectivity oblige him to say instead, “Evidence adduced by conservative economists supports the case that tax reductions are growth-inducing, while evidence adduced by liberal and left economists supports the opposite case”?
Several of Vedder’s key economic analyses are transparently skewed, such as his case that universities are not cost-effective, which is based on very limited evidence that fails to factor in all their benefits to communities of the kind that I noted above, or his list of causes for universities’ recent financial problems, which highlights an array of other causes to the near exclusion of federal, state, and local budget cuts resulting directly from tax reductions. Among the “diminishing returns” of investment in universities, he includes “inefficient” affirmative action and diversity programs “that exist to ensure a politically correct racial and ethnic mix to the student body.” And, “The emphasis in the humanities and social sciences on race, class, and gender issues has led to a disproportionate amount of interest in these topics relative to others.” But he again presents no econometric estimation of the cost of affirmative action and these subjects of study, no hard evidence that they are disproportionate in universities’ over-all fiscal outlays or curricular offerings. Are these not significant omissions?
Finally, it would be most interesting to see Vedder’s “econometric estimation” of the national growth induced in the past decade by President Bush’s tax reductions and their consequences for the quality of American education, or of the cost effectiveness of public universities in that decade compared to corporate beneficiaries of tax cuts and deregulation, from Enron and Tyco to Goldman Sachs, AIG, General Motors, British Petroleum, and Bernard Madoff.