Richard Vedder, a retired economist from Ohio University and fellow Innovations blogger, makes a radical, macroeconomic argument about why college costs so much in what is perhaps his most influential book, Going Broke By Degrees: Why College Costs Too Much (2004). Indeed, he goes beyond a critique of the contemporary college by wondering if we need universities at all.
He muses: “Are universities vital? Perhaps, but the process of learning and discovery existed before they came into being during the late Middle Ages, and it would continue, albeit perhaps in a less efficient fashion, if they ceased to exist. As universities become even more costly, they would do well to remember that they do not have a monopoly ton the creation and maintenance of our human and cultural capital.” He describes a vicious circle of funding and spending that dovetails with Jackson Toby’s central argument.
It works something like this: Tuition at virtually every institution goes up; this makes political pressures build to “do something” about the increase; Congress then expands guaranteed student-loan programs, which in turn increases demand by putting more students in a position to afford college; and then colleges are able to raise tuition further.
He challenges what is perhaps the sacred statistic cited by economists who defend college: namely that the holder of a college degree can expect to earn twice as much over the course of his or her lifetime than a high-school graduate. That gap narrows considerably, Vedder argues, when one takes into account the soaring cost of college and the debt burden that usually accompanies it.
In this line of argument, he’s aided by the recent, certain-to-be-controversial book by Richard Arum and Joseph Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which argues that an enormous percentage of students graduate from college knowing less than they did when they entered, and having duller critical thinking skills as well. Why, then, Vedder asks in a recent blog post, should we support the “hedonistic experience we call higher education”?
And Vedder takes almost all American colleges and universities to task for drifting away from their core mission of educating students. He notes that universities “increasingly do other things not related to the previous purposes of higher education. They hire administrators of one kind or another at twice the rate they hire teachers. They are in the food and lodging business. They are in the entertainment business, with sports events, recreational facilities, and concerts.”
To be sure, there are elements of the old-school conservative critique of academia in Vedder’s book as well: He scoffs at research (in the humanities, for example) that yield no immediate, practical results. He’s skeptical of tenure but stops short of calling its elimination because, as he wryly admits, “as an outspoken faculty member who has taken an number of stands unpopular in the university community over the years” he has benefited from the security that tenure provides.
But these complaints are not at the center of the book’s argument. His central thesis is that “the arguments for public subsidies of higher education are, at the very best, highly debatable. A better than decent case can be made that perhaps government should, in general, largely get out of the higher-education business, ending state subsidies and tax advantages for private donations.”
This stands as a stark dismissal of the idea that higher education should be a social entitlement. Next time I’ll address what he proposes as an alternative.