Thomas Frank has a nice analysis up on Salon.com on college tuition and debts. In it, he points out that the crisis is of long duration, and people have been asking for more than a generation when the “college bubble” will burst. Along the way, he shows that a number of standard explanations (overpaid professors, insatiable student demand for gymnasiums, etc.) don’t make any sense, at least not on their own. His concluding point, though, seems vitally important. Here’s a good-sized chunk of text (with significant ellipses); I’ll follow with a couple of additional thoughts:
“Let me repeat, as a fact of some significance, that the great tuition price spiral began in 1981. That was the same year in which Ronald Reagan brought his jolly band of deregulators to Washington, in which Congress enacted the landmark Kemp-Roth tax cut, and in which the air-traffic controllers’ union went down to humiliating defeat. In 1981 the old order was crumbling, the soldiers of the free market were strapping on their Adam Smith neckties, and colleges all across America were deciding they needed to jack up tuition prices far in excess of the rate of inflation, something they had not done before .... If we think of these things as part of a larger ideological shift, they all start to make sense. Universities were capable of doing in the ’70s what they did in the ’80s (and still are doing today), but maybe they didn’t do it then because Americans thought of universities in a different light in those days …. Put it another way: Over the last 30-odd years we have essentially privatized higher ed. In saying this I’m not referencing the defunding of our State U’s (an explanation for the tuition spiral, by the way, that doesn’t get nearly enough journalistic attention). And I am aware that a good chunk of our institutions of higher ed have been private all along. What has changed is that they aren’t “our” institutions of higher ed anymore. Maybe they never were, but not too long ago it was possible to think of them—from Milton Friedman’s University of Chicago all the way down to Michele Bachmann’s Winona State University—as serving some sort of public function. Whether founded by the grace of Rockefeller or by Act of the Minnesota Legislature, they manufactured good citizens; they taught us scientific farming techniques; hell, they built the atomic bomb and created the Internet. This is why our government subsidized (and still subsidizes) them with grants and earmarks and tax abatements and preferential treatment of every description. But the other part of the bargain doesn’t work the way it used to anymore. Everyone in the age of inequality knows that the purpose of a college education isn’t to benefit the nation; it’s to give the private individual a shot at achieving a High Net Worth.
The fundamental point seems exactly right to me.
I think it’s worth noting, too, that to the extent Frank is right, this shift away from a more traditional ‘liberal’ model of higher education to a neoliberal, market-based and privatized one will have both external and internal sides. The external part is generally part of the public conversation; I’d highlight two points within it. First, it’s causally related to the decline in public funding: why should we fund other people’s private goods? All those things about good citizenship, basic science, educated communities and so on, become externalities if universities are viewed as providers of primarily private goods. And, as we all know from the economics we’re supposed to use for all of our analyses, markets are poor providers of public goods. So the move to a market model makes everything the university does except provide a private good to individual students totally invisible. And if you can’t see it, you won’t fund it. Second, the move to education as a private good legitimates the student-ROI argument, and the student-ROI argument in turn legitimates the argument that, until the debt burden for a college degree exceeds the anticipated ROI, there’s no problem with tuition cost increases. And if you’re already that far, it’s a very short (and eminently reasonable-sounding) step toward Obama-style proposals to rate universities and degrees (for once, philosophy is not on the 8 worst list) according to student-ROI and debt load. After all, as consumers of higher education, potential students face a tremendous information asymmetry problem: they know they’re going to have to pay a lot (although often not how much) for a prestigious degree, but they have no idea, except in the vaguest of terms, whether they’re going to see that back. And everybody knows that information asymmetries are one of the areas where interventions to fix market failures are in order. Even without interventions, the logic of commodification will drive the emergence of external accrediting agencies to help consumers sort out competing brands.
Internally, this sort of general shift iterates itself in familiar ways that aren’t talked about enough in this context. For example, any programs that don’t generate monetizable ROI for students are under constant and tremendous pressure to justify their continued existence. This is why philosophy has to brand itself partly as a pre-law major, and partly as ethics. But this happens in other areas, too. For example, the passage of Bayh-Dole in 1981 allowed universities to build patent portfolios. This drives research away from basic science to translational and/or applied work, and begins the process of transforming homo scientificus into homo economicus. Once that process gets rolling, the predictable cuts in public funding come, and even less basic science gets done.
Meantime, there’s tremendous downward pressure on labor costs, particularly in those disciplines where faculty do not have an obvious alternative career path in the private sector (and it conversely generates upward labor costs in things like law, where faculty have to be induced to take a substantial pay cut from what the private market can offer). So fewer tenure-line faculty, more precarious labor, and lower or flat wages for all, except for the few “stars” who are important for building the reputational capital that universities invest in their place in the various ranking systems (which always involve assessments of faculty reputations) that students increasingly use to gauge their job prospects after they graduate.
And so it goes. Frank has been pursuing the college-tuition problem for a while and is always worth the read. Especially this time.