Politics

05.15.12

The Insane Cost of Higher Education

This is an issue I've been interested in for a while, not least since I had a kid, later in life, for whom tuition and fees will probably equal the GNP of Equatorial Guinea.

Via Tim Noah, I see that the Times is reporting that President E. Gordon Gee, whom I knew a bit back in his days as a Mountaineer, is taking some steps at his current perch at (the?) Ohio State University, is considering selling the school's airport and golf courses. Noah is upset that they even own these things. I don't know about the airport (in fairness, the actual Columbus airport is way across town, although town's not that huge). And as a golfer, I can't get too worked up one course, although two seems excessive.

But these are pennies. Why is college really so expensive? Kevin Carey gave the actual and very complex answers in a Democracy journal essay (yes, that's the one I edit) in 2010. It starts with the fact that colleges don't reveal information about how well students are learning in their classes. Carey:

The information deficit turns college into what economists call a “reputational good.” If you go to the store and buy a shirt, you can learn pretty much everything you need to know before you buy it: the material, where it was made, how to clean it, and so on. College is different. You’re paying up-front for professors you’ve never met and degree programs you probably haven’t even chosen yet. Instead, you rely on what other people think of the college. Of course, some students simply have to go the college that’s nearest to them or least expensive. But if you have the luxury of choosing, in all likelihood, you choose based on reputation.

If college reputations were based on objective, publicly available measures of student learning, that would be okay. But they’re not, because no such measurements exist. Instead, reputations are largely based on wealth, admissions selectivity, price, and a generalized sense of fame that is highly influenced by who’s been around the longest and who produces the most research.

There exist reams of information about how well students learn and what sort of jobs they get. But it is kept private, because its release would end the false economy; society could more easily price a marketing degree from Florida State or a mathematics degree from Chicago if we knew how well the kid learned and what s/he was now making. And Carey explains who guards the temple:

One of the most powerful special interests lobbies that nobody’s ever heard of. The most reactionary education lobby in Washington, D.C., isn’t located at the 16th Street headquarters of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. It’s less than a mile away, at 1 Dupont Circle. That’s where the American Council on Education (ACE), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and a host of other alphabet-soup organizations conspire to maintain higher education secrecy at all costs.

It's a great piece that I recommend highly. This is not, unfortunately, about golf courses. But maybe things like ratemyprofessors can start to chip away at this hegemony. Carey's piece left me at least with the notion that if the power of the lobbies could be broken, college could actually get a little cheaper.