Pricing Public Colleges

Brad had a gloomy moment:

The old social democratic belief that America should have the best universal free public education system in the world was a principal source of America’s relative prosperity and economic leadership for a century. Now that the political coalition that supported that belief is gone, America will be a much less exceptional place.

I am quite frequently a pessimist, but this is one area where I don’t think we should give in so easily. The US had a strong comparative advantage for post-secondary education due to several factors:

  1. the First Amendment, critical to the atmosphere of free inquiry in which scholarship and studying thrive;
  2. liberal immigration laws that brought the world’s talent to teach and learn;
  3. decentralized control of education, which created intellectual and prestige-oriented competition between campuses and states;
  4. a public-private mix, which further contributed to variety — and provided an outlet for religious-themed education while reducing attempts to impose religious orthodoxy on the majority of campuses;
  5. a national consensus that higher education matters,
    • as a matter of national security (post-Sputnik)
    • as part of the social contract with veterans (the GI Bill)
    • as one of the primary means of personal advancement in the post-Horatio Alger world

    and that higher education was thus worth paying for as a public good rather than billing for it as a private good.

None of these factors other than the last part of the last one were in any way ‘social democratic’. And most are still in place. The two that are hurting are fixable.

An easy fix would be the immigration prong. Post-9/11 we’ve tightened the rules for academics and even more for students in ways that not only do damage to recruiting but make the experience of coming the US unpleasant. This in turn has greatly straightened strengthened foreign academic competitors — it’s only a small exaggeration to say that our mistreatment of foreign students is the core of the UK’s academic financing strategy.

As for the US financing, it seems to me that the national security arguments are as strong as they ever were even without the Cold War — stronger if one considers the economic consequences of education for the workforce and for national wealth. Similarly, education remains a key aspect of income outcomes. If we are pricing poor people out of college, or saddling them with huge debt, we’re locking in inequality across generations. I think there are signs that the social consensus is moving ponderously towards confronting inequality. Raising the minimum wage will be round one; education expenses could be round two.

Because he chooses to cast the issue as ‘social democratic’ (bad framing?) Brad sees an equality problem with lowering tuition in the public post-secondary sector:

Given that the average taxpayer of California is considerably poorer than the average Berkeley graduate, that upward transfer to the relatively rich leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The second argument is that for every student who would go to current Berkeley, the taxpayers of California would have to pony up $48,000 that they would not be able to spend on what they want.

Given that the average taxpayer of California is considerably poorer than the average Berkeley graduate, that upward transfer to the relatively rich leaves a really really bad taste in the mouth.

In my view, these arguments against are overwhelming: there is no valid argument for transforming UC Berkeley as it currently exists into Free Berkeley.

Even on this field, I am not persuaded that these are overwhelming arguments. Part of what the taxpayers of California want is to live in an opportunity society, not one with fixed (and perhaps angry) social classes. Another part of what the taxpayers of California want, or at least ought to want, is to live in a society that benefits from the public good of having educated voters making decisions. A third part of what the taxpayers of California want is to live in a country that is economically competitive on the world stage — which in our case increasingly means services and knowledge workers. Plus, although this more Brad’s department than mine, there is surely a multiplier from education that increases everyone’s wealth; my instinct is that this compares well to the opportunity cost of the sort of job available to a high school graduate.

This is a brew of self-interest from which a turn against expensive public education back towards free or low-priced public colleges ought to be possible. Another part of the story will undoubtedly be cost control, with fewer fancy food courts and trophy gyms. But if we can bend the cost curve on health care, we can do it on education.

(Note that the argument above is, if anything, against interest – I work in a private institution that can only be hurt if the price of public education goes down. On the other hand, I think the arguments above apply primarily to undergraduate education, and least well to professional schools; then again, in a university everyone to some extent shares the same pot.)

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10 Responses to Pricing Public Colleges

  1. I think the educational landscape will change dramatically, very soon. Key changes:

    1. A coming golden-age of community colleges.
    2. “Liberal arts” : literature, art, history will become “hobbyist” studies served primarily by the Internet only. Parents and students will revolt against scenario where a pre-med or computer science major is forced to spend thousands of dollars to accumulate unwanted credits in feminist theory, or the history of Polynesia.

    These factors will cause the public (“state”) schools to focus and advance the educational state of higher-level hard skills demanded by employers. There will always be a space for more expensive private schools like UM, but they will need to adopt “boutique” strategies.

    I see both of these as good things. Some worry about the state of “liberal arts” studies, but the reality is that everyone benefits when the best lecturers and materials are available on-line. Younger students who need jobs can focus on acquiring skills in their productive years…there is always time to study things like Shakespeare later in life, the Bard isn’t going anywhere.

    When Obama isn’t vacationing, he’s pretty much saying the same thing:
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/higher-education/building-american-skills-through-community-colleges

    • Nate O. says:

      I disagree with your derisive dismissal of the liberal arts. I have an anthropology undergrad, and a business grad degree. My peers with no background in liberal arts are tragically ill-equipped to navigate the modern world. In the business world, employers’ most desired skills are critical thinking, communication, and complex problem solving. It’s no use to have narrow technical expertise without the ability to transfer those skills to novel situations. A liberal arts background is an effective way for students to develop that ability.

      • Nate-

        I am not deriding the notion that great wisdom and personal satisfaction comes from studying “liberal arts” like history, philosophy, foreign languages, literature, etc. Indeed, with college decades behind me, I find myself self-studying a wide variety of non-work-related subjects.

        But I do deride the notion that somehow for a young person to become credentialed as a chemist, computer scientist, etc. the higher education cartel forces them to spend money on such classes. Sure, as a parent, if I could afford to pay for my child to minor in art history or some other personal interest, I would. But the reality is that millions of American families could put that time and money to better use.

        As for liberal arts as some kind of magic bullet to “navigate the modern world,” there are millions of so-called millennials with liberal arts degrees living at home with mom and dad, with very little hope of entering the work force soon. Not so many with engineering and computer science degrees….

        • Tracy Lightcap says:

          You might go to this URL:

          http://cew.georgetown.edu/whatsitworth/

          This is the massive Georgetown study of the starting salaries for different college degrees. The bar graph of median salaries for undergrad and grad degrees below the teaser is revealing, as are the actual tables in the report. Take a look. I teach political science. Students in my discipline – a liberal art if ever there was one – have median earnings as undergrads that compare favorably with physical scientists. As grads they compare favorably with computer science and mathematics.

          Or, in short, your perspective on this seems to be more formed by your impressions then by a close look at any actual data. The market seems to be of another opinion. And no wonder: your budding engineers could use a touch of work on how to write, for instance, and your young chemist could use a course on government so he won’t make an ass of himself when he interacts with the NIH. This, of course, leaves aside what their skills are actually for and why they should acquire them in the first place. That, my friend, you won’t find in STEM courses.

    • Barry says:

      “When Obama isn’t vacationing, he’s pretty much saying the same thing:”

      That statement proves that you are dishonest or ignorant, so I’ll file everything else you wrote in the trash.

    • Barry says:

      “Parents and students will revolt against scenario where a pre-med or computer science major is forced to spend thousands of dollars to accumulate unwanted credits in feminist theory, or the history of Polynesia.”

      In addition to Nate’s comments, please consult an actual course requirement guide for a CS major or Pre-Med major, and see just what they are allowed to take.

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  3. John says:

    “Another part of what the taxpayers of California want, or at least ought to want, is to live in a society that benefits from the public good of having educated voters making decisions.” – I think that sentence needs to be rephrase.

  4. John says:

    “Another part of what the taxpayers of California want, or at least ought to want, is to live in a society that benefits from the public good of having educated voters making decisions.” – I think that sentence needs to be rephrased.

  5. Barry says:

    “Given that the average taxpayer of California is considerably poorer than the average Berkeley graduate, that upward transfer to the relatively rich leaves a really really bad taste in the mouth.”

    Please note that that argument could well have been said about the GI Bill, and low-cost education in the post-WWII era in general.

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