Restoring the Promise

Peter Wood

Editor's note: This is a review by Peter W. Wood was originally published in Academic Questions

Richard Vedder, professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University and member of the National Association of Scholars board of directors, has published a new book, Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America (Independent Institute, 2019). It bears immediate comparison to fellow economist Bryan Caplan’s widely noted The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, (expertly reviewed here by Daniel Bonevac, Winter 2018). Both books are thick with charts and offer arresting economic analysis. But Caplan is a cynic who sees little in college education beyond a system of signaling to potential employers that a student is sufficiently conformist and tractable to make a dutiful employee. Caplan offers an abundance of evidence that most students learn little of enduring value for the time and money spent acquiring a degree.

Vedder starts elsewhere and finishes on more constructive principles—which is not to say that he bears any resemblance to Pollyanna. Vedder too thinks that many students waste time and money, and he spares none of the idols that writers such as Brint are eager to protect. But his book is not another sky-is-falling pronouncement of doom on colleges and universities that have become unaffordable, unaccountable, and intellectually mediocre. Rather, he takes the failures one by one and shows how we as a nation could solve them though practical policy choices.

His answers frequently cut against current policies. He suggests, for example, that government financing of higher education is unnecessary. Student self-financing would be best because it focuses students’ attention on the essentials. He supports university research but notes that “research, like nearly everything else in life, is subject to diminishing returns at some point.” 

Vedder’s tone is temperate even if his conclusions will surely dismay those who are complacent about how we are preparing the next generation for leadership. In contrast to Schwartz (and Veblen!) Vedder upholds the importance of the “vocational” side of higher education but, unlike Caplan, he also upholds the intangible benefits of promoting the American Dream, inculcating virtue, and binding students to our civic ideals.

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