Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest

Robert L. Jackson

Follow the Money

The October 24, 2013, New York Times carried a startling headline: “Despite Rising Sticker Prices, Actual College Costs Stable Over Decade, Study Says” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/25/education/despite-rising-sticker-prices-actual-college-costs-stable-over-decade-study-says.html). Rising college tuition rates have been the object of public concern for some time now, as published tuition prices (“sticker prices”) reach exorbitant heights—especially at state-funded universities. But the Times cited Trends in College Pricing, a recent College Board report highlighting a relative dip in the net cost of tuition, fees, and room and board—where net cost represents the total costs as a percentage of the sticker price. When comparing today’s private, nonprofit colleges with those of ten years ago (http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing), today’s net cost is 57 percent of the sticker price, compared to 68 percent in 2003–2004.

Thus the Times headline is almost half true, considering that public two-year colleges and private four-year institutions make up 42 percent of the full-time undergraduate population (24 percent and 19 percent, respectively). As recorded in Trends in College Pricing, the lion’s share of tuition hikes occurred at four-year public institutions (where 45 percent of full-time undergraduates are enrolled), with net increases of more than 40 percent since 2003 (in 2013 dollars). The psychological shocker comes with published tuition rates (unadjusted for inflation) having leapt more than 50 percent at private, nonprofit institutions and more than 70 percent at public four-year schools over the past decade.

The Times story emphasized the disparity between net tuition for students from different levels of family income, with private, nonprofit colleges charging less net tuition for students of lower-income families and significantly more for middle-income families. Surprisingly, students from the second-highest income quartile paid more than those from the top quartile. At some point, families are going to start asking, “Is college worth it?”

A November 4, 2013, Chronicle of Higher Education article by Scott Carlson leads with that question, profiling another study on college affordability, which clearly supports the claim that “college is still a worthwhile investment for both individuals and society” (http://chronicle.com/blogs/bottomline/is-college-worth-it-two-new-reports-say-yes-mostly/). Smart Shoppers: The End of the “College for All” Debate? (November 2013) is published by College Summit, a nonprofit group whose origins reveal a commitment to college access and success for underserved populations.

Beginning with the prospect of a higher education bubble and hearkening back to Richard B. Freeman’s The Overeducated American (Academic, 1976), J.B. Schramm et al. assert in Smart Shoppers that, contrary to media anecdotes of an overeducated population, “a college education remains the best insurance policy against shifting labor markets, unemployment, and under-employment” (http://bellwethereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/SmartShoppersPDF.pdf). The report’s primary objective is to find better ways of identifying capable students from lower-income families and counseling them “about their options on which college they should attend, which degrees they should pursue, and how they should pay for it.” Relying on the premise of a dynamic American economy, Schramm et al. recapitulate several hopeful arguments from recent reports and articles: Kevin Carey’s “Bad Job Market: Why the Media Is Always Wrong about the Value of a College Degree” (The New Republic, June 2012, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/economy/89675/bad-job-market-media-wrong-college-degree); Matthew Yglesias’s “Thiel Capital Seeks Well-Credentialed Young Analyst” (Slate, May 2012, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/05/14/thiel_capital_seeks_well_credentialed_young_analyst.html); and Mark Kantrowitz’s Who Graduates College with Six-Figure Student Loan Debt? (FinAid.org, August 2012, http://www.finaid.org/educators/20120801sixfiguredebt.pdf). Convinced that the scare over student loan debt has been overstated, the Smart Shoppers authors are determined to give deserving students from underprivileged backgrounds a chance at college.

Incorporating the findings of a wide range of research projects—by the Brookings Institution, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Enterprise Institute, and others—Schramm et al. maintain that “[t]he marketplace values college degrees in every field and at every level,” by preparing skilled workers who are more socially and economically adaptable. At the same time, they recognize the dangers associated with failing to complete college studies and acquiring unreasonable student debt.

College Summit emphasizes K–12 educational reforms that would produce “a college-going culture” along with “logistical support” for college admissions. The organization also makes recommendations for action among those in positions of influence, including “information sharing” to provide low-income students with greater access to higher education; “tracking college outcomes at the state level,” to hold high schools accountable for their graduates; and partnering with businesses “to engage and support students.” Smart Shoppers is worth considering in light of the ongoing drive toward “college and career readiness,” because it focuses on the essential interrelationship of K–12 and postsecondary education, especially with reference to underserved student populations. Today, nearly half of all undergraduates take some remedial courses, and colleges are completing the efforts of American secondary schools.

Pay Now or Pay Later

It would seem that if net prices are less formidable than the public believes—once tuition discounting or institutional aid is factored in—colleges might consider lowering tuition to present “no haggle pricing.” However, as the Times reports in the article cited above, that “goes against the prevailing consumer psychology.”

Perhaps more importantly it goes against the prevailing “producer psychology,” by which colleges and universities continue raising tuition to capture more federally-subsidized student aid. Here we return to the so-called Bennett Hypothesis, first articulated in a 1987 New York Times article written by then-Secretary of Education William Bennett.

Now Bennett is back, with coauthor David Wilezol, restating the well-known hypothesis in Is College Worth It? A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education (Thomas Nelson, 2013; reviewed by Herbert London in the Fall 2013 AQ). According to the authors, although federal and student aid has declined, student loans have increased by 60 percent in just the last five years. As reviewer Arthur Herman puts it in “A Refuge for Charlatans,” in the May 19, 2013, Wall Street Journal: “It’s a classic example of the perils of a third-party payer system, with students, parents, and institutions caught in a vicious cycle of rising costs and declining quality” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323789704578444851084037538).

Bennett and Wilezol propose a number of solutions to the current problem, which include: reforming K–12 education to better prepare students for college or vocational school, steering students to more marketable programs of study (read: STEM), encouraging military service (i.e., ROTC) as a means of paying for college, and developing more online offerings at lower cost to producers and consumers. While in principle many of these suggestions seem sound, reviewer Andrew Delbanco points out some of the inconsistencies with the Bennettt-Wilezol proposal, given what he sees as their “strong anti-government, pro-business perspective”: “[Bennett] scolds the federal government for violating ‘simple, sound banking principles’ by lending money to students with ‘no credit history’ but praises ‘private banks that, at large risk to themselves,’ do the same thing” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/books/review/is-college-worth-it-and-college-un-bound.html?_r=0).

Delbanco’s review, “Illiberal Arts” (New York Times, Sunday Book Review, June 21, 2013), also recapitulates the arguments of Jeffrey J. Selingo, a Chronicle of Higher Education editor who seems to share Bennett’s belief in the impending decline of American higher education. Selingo’s College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (Houghton Mifflin, 2013; reviewed by Andrew Gillen in the Winter 2013 AQ) specifically acknowledges a distinct change of attitude in colleges and universities, where students have come to see themselves as paying customers, the result of which is “a power shift in the classroom”—i.e., the consumer is always right. Like Charles Murray and others, Selingo recommends restructuring college degrees to verify competence, not class-time. Using “adaptive learning technologies,” Selingo argues, students can receive certifications that tell us more than today’s diploma—at a fraction of the cost.

Delbanco’s criticism of Bennett and Selingo concerns what he considers the authors’ predominant view of education as essentially “information delivery,” to use Selingo’s phrase. That may be unfair to both Bennett and Selingo, who simply argue for increasing practical training (including low-cost online courses) to check the monopoly of traditional higher education as the next generation’s ticket to economic prosperity. Surely Delbanco would concede that more ‘information providers’ would be a good thing. While Delbanco does concede that the “colleges that survive will be those…that ‘prove their worth,’” he is more deeply concerned with the too “narrow definition of worth…captured in data like rates of early job attainment or levels of lifetime income.” Perhaps Delbanco is pining for the distant liberal arts tradition of College, which he so eloquently describes in his recent book by that title. But, Bennett and Selingo are appealing to different audiences on the state of affairs in higher education—namely, the big business of postsecondary education and a likely market adjustment to college tuition.

Caveat Emptor

In April 2013, NAS released a study of Bowdoin College’s curriculum, revealing a less-than-logical order of studies. What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students, authored by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, is an unprecedented “ethnography of an academic culture, its worldview, customs, and values” (http://www.nas.org/images/documents/What_Does_Bowdoin_Teach.pdf). Wood and Toscano discovered a myriad of pedagogical features that do not withstand close scrutiny. Concepts of “critical thinking” and “global citizenship” are presented as unalloyed goods, alongside “diversity” and “sustainability,” without the benefit of critical evaluation.

Ironically, such educational ideals intended to open minds and develop rationality have led to closed-mindedness. Wood and Toscano report that much of this insular thinking is “a direct consequence of the educational decision the college made several decades ago when it embraced the idea that students were best able to judge for themselves what they should learn…[a] conception of students as possessors of all the wisdom they need to make good decisions…[a conception] integral to the ‘global citizenship’ doctrine.” Such intellectual narcissism has been chronicled before, most notably by Allan Bloom more than twenty-five years ago in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom’s depiction of the radical morality of the 1960s consisted of “self-affirmation [leading to] thoughtlessness, the utter lack of need to argue or prove. Alternative views had no existence except as scarecrows.”

By replacing, even renouncing a 2500-year tradition of moral, rational argument with the “cool” (including Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the term), the subversive, and the individualistic, educational institutions have forfeited their legacy of genuine moral discourse. Meanwhile, students seek the fulfillment of their deepest intellectual and moral questions. In response, the academy continues to produce various species of ideological demagoguery—from across the political spectrum—in the classroom. The humanities, for example, are depicted as intellectual instruments for the analysis and explication of political power—and wielded as such. And secular ideals such as diversity and sustainability provide the moral imperatives that have displaced goodness and beauty.

Sadly, the Bowdoin report presents the fallow intellectual fields of higher education, overgrown with weeds and dotted with scarecrows, where liberal education has misplaced its essential yield: a society that flourishes because of its vigorous pursuit of timeless ideals—e.g., “What is good?” The 370-plus-page report simply outlines many of Bowdoin’s thoughtless intellectual errors, supported with what Bloom called “super-sophisticated doctrines that dismiss and ridicule this question [of the good].” Nevertheless, Wood and Toscano are hoping that some of their readers will consider the evidence, be inspired to review their programs, and rededicate themselves to “honesty, openness, and decency—the principles of liberal education that are among our best traditions and are part of the foundation of Western civilization.”

In a similar spirit (though much briefer, at twelve pages), the John William Pope Center’s Jay Schalin and Jenna Ashley Robinson evaluate the general education requirements at the flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Schalin and Robinson’s report emphasizes five characteristics that undermine the intelligibility of UNC’s general educational courses: (1) a lack of order, with thousands of “narrow—even trivial—topics” from which to choose; (2) a lack of coherence, with “inclusive and eclectic” courses that “[tap] into many students’ preferences for entertainment over education”; (3) a lack of scope, with courses that “discuss a brief period of time, a small area of land, or a tightly circumscribed subject”; (4) a lack of continuity, with “intellectual trendiness” displacing disciplinary coherence; and (5) a lack of rigor, with “experiential learning” that requires little intellectual content (General Education at UNC–Chapel Hill, http://www.popecenter.org/acrobat/pope_articles/general_educationfinal.pdf). For Schalin and Robinson, a better way forward would include essential areas of coverage in principles of reasoning—through logic, composition, rhetoric, science, and statistics—as applied to the world’s most important ideas—through philosophy, politics, economics, comparative religions, and literature. As it turns out, their proposal not only offers a more coherent structure of UNC’s general education program, it also saves the university money by eliminating over 75 percent of the general education electives. (A clear application of the authors’ training in economics!)

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