27.1.08

WE CHARGE HIGH TUITION BECAUSE WE CAN GET IT. Thus does one commenter react to some navel-gazing at Inside Higher Ed.

[P]oliticians and reporters like to hear coherent and compelling narratives that are easy to understand and easy to retell to their constituents and readers. Higher education has often failed to grasp this. And it shows in the explanations higher education gives about the rising cost issue: They are all too often defensive or obfuscating — leaving the public scratching its head in perplexity.

The stories being told in Washington about higher education, as everyone working at a college or university knows, are not flattering. The dominant stories coming from the mouths of politicians and the pens of reporters portray America’s colleges and universities in an arms race to out-compete each other on rankings, wealth, prestige, student diversity, scholarships and financial aid, faculty compensation, teaching loads, and non-academic facilities. College professors are depicted as disinterested in students and eager to have decreased teaching responsibilities. College administrators are pilloried as overpaid, unnecessary bureaucrats — although, ironically, government intervention nearly always requires colleges to hire more administrators to comply with the reporting requirements imposed by legislators. And who hasn’t read or heard stories of dormitories overbuilt in the image of four-star luxury hotels or of million dollar-climbing walls? Tales of the latter have become the stuff of urban legend.

The dominant meme describes American colleges and universities as institutions driven by their own self-interest rather than by the interests of students or of society. Lost in the debate is any sense of the public’s interest in anything other than the politics of resentment, which builds its persuasive case through portrayals of colleges and universities as bloated, elitist, inefficient, unworthy of tax payer support, and lacking the ethical high ground.

If that, indeed, is the image. The recent Senatorial obsession with endowment incomes at the elite universities, and the tuition discounts (read: financial aid) in response for families with incomes up into the 150K range misses one thing: taken together, those discounts will affect very few of the millions of matriculants to higher education, most of whom will start in community college or the mid-majors or the land-grants. The navel-gazing misses that completely.

Even the colleges themselves have encouraged this kind of thinking to justify why students and parents should be willing to pay the rising cost of college—as institutions often cite studies showing a $1 million lifetime earnings advantage for college graduates over non-college graduates.

On the issue of rising tuitions, colleges and universities, as they have exuberantly embraced marketplace paradigms, have let themselves get defined as money-driven, price-gouging wealth-accumulating firms rather than as cathedrals of learning. This has happened because colleges and universities have not been bold in telling their collective story. Instead, colleges and universities have let themselves end up in the defensive position of rebutting the unflattering stories and simplistic caricatures about why college costs so much. Those stories and caricatures, when left unchecked, undermine the public’s trust in higher education.

There are potential opportunities for colleges and universities to begin shaping the story from within higher education rather than simply reacting to stories from without. But the first step is to craft accurate, uncomplicated, and believable narratives.

One such "narrative" (economists prefer to say "model") appears at College Affordability.
The probability of becoming famous or recognized in life is vastly higher for Harvard, Yale Princeton and a few Willherst (Amherst/Williams) type schools than at Six Pack U. Indeed, winning entry into these schools suggests a student is 10-20 times more likely to achieve fame later in life (based on analysis we are doing at CCAP you will be hearing a lot more about). Pay $45,000 and go to Harvard or Willherst --or $45,000 and go to a second tier private school (e.g., George Washington U.) --and your chances for success are far,far, greater at Willherst and Harvard. Hence the frenzy to get into Harvard. It is rational, in a sort of irrational way.
The work sounds promising (it looks at a complementary proposition to the Spielberg Effect) although prior empirical efforts from Professor Vedder's shop have been weak. At heart, though, it's consistent with one of my priors, namely that there is excess demand for degrees from the institutions that are perceived to be selective.

And thus, the responsibility of the land-grants and the mid-majors is to become more like the selective institutions. I have not yet seen a state legislature ask its universities what sorts of savings might be possible for getting out of the safety school business and trimming or eliminating access-assessment-remediation-retention, and not apologizing for attempting to be more like a selective institution. Perhaps that will come, if for lack of any other option that works. Take Florida State.
At bottom, the funding of our universities is a class issue, straight up. The question is what kind of education do middle class and even poor kids have a right to? Remember when a decent education wasn't just the privilege of the rich? Hang on tightly to that memory because it's now become the stuff of myth in Florida.
Cheap though the degree may appear to be, anyone with the cash to study someplace else does. (There's nothing new there, either. James Michener's Kent State referred to New Jersey as a "cuckoo state" as parents would send their children to educational nests elsewhere, including Kent State) and a number of Midwestern legislatures boosted their out-of-state tuitions to recover all the instructional costs from cuckoo fledglings (oft-perceived as importing radical ideas) although such an exercise sounds a lot more precise than it is.

Cheapening the degree cannot be purchased at the expense of faculty and staff.
And most faculty won't have to look too hard for better jobs - other universities across the nation are already flocking to us, prepared to do some serious shopping. As the head of a hiring committee at North Carolina State said to me recently, "We're ready to pick the cherries off Florida State's tree." Once the faculty exodus is done, all our public universities will be left with is the lightning-blasted stump. At this moment, 75 percent of the classes in my department are already being taught by graduate assistants and adjunct instructors. Soon it'll be easier to spot a Himalayan snow leopard in Florida than that endangered species otherwise known as an actual professor.
So much for the persistence of the graduate assistants (who know better than U.S. News where the good doctoral programs are) or of the adjuncts (whose propensity to temp at Florida State, or any other well-known property, varies directly with the standing of the institution, which faculty members watch even more closely. Racing to become Mississippi, indeed.

The columnist has a proposal that won't work.
I'll make a deal with Gov. Crist and the rest of the crew at the Capitol. If we can put another initiative on the ballot - one requiring every Florida politician, lobbyist, member of a Realtor's group and wealthy Florida landowner to guarantee that their kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews will all spend four years in our state university schools - then they can have my vote. Something tells me a lot of our educational budget horrors would be solved and very quickly if state higher education were an issue that truly affected these people's families and the opportunities for their children's future. I have no idea where I would find the desks for those kids, but I promise to try.
The proposal is subject to the same flaws as Wisconsin's indentured servitude proposal (the problem in Wisconsin is a brain drain of its brightest students) in that it attempts to solve by compulsion a problem where people are responding to incentives to flee Florida's higher education for opportunities elsewhere. Perhaps there is a compromise between the moneyed interests and middle-class parents in which Florida picks up most of the cost for any student who finishes in the top 30% or top half of his or her high school class and provides capacity to serve those students ... but not weaker students ... and without the support services that go with remediation and retention.

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