Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Compare and Contrast

It isn't often that you can see a historical inflection point this clearly.

Posted on the same day, these two articles need to be read next to each other.

In essence, at the very moment that American higher education is facing its worst fiscal challenges in living memory, the Chinese system is expanding at a record clip. All over Asia, higher ed is a rapid growth industry. Asian colleges are building capacity and cutting-edge facilities at the exact same time that American colleges and universities are finding that even adjuncting-out the faculty won't balance the books anymore.

This is not good.

For the latter half of the twentieth century, we made a habit of importing the best minds from around the world for grad school. Many of them stuck around, and we're still living off the benefits of that. A few years ago, when post 9-11 xenophobia was at its peak and the Bush administration clamped down on foreign graduate students, Australian universities reaped the benefit of wonderful Asian grad students who, in sunnier times, would have come here. Now those graduate students will have the option of staying closer to home, and bestowing the spinoff economic benefits on their home countries. We won't be able to import the world's best talent as easily anymore.

Nor, apparently, will we be able to grow our own. The University of California's fiscal troubles are well-documented. The scarier part is that they aren't unique. Lower-tier schools are feeling the pinch, too, and for a whole host of structural reasons that I (cough) may have mentioned once or twice. The IHE piece details the shift at San Joaquin Delta College, where they've moved from 'across the board' cuts to individual program eliminations. They've decided -- correctly, in my view -- that it's better to do some things well than to do everything badly. But what a horrible choice! And the class sizes mentioned in the article are simply nuts.

There's a larger historical undercurrent here that's easy to miss. For a while, the U.S. had an effective monopoly on manufacturing, since Europe and Japan were bombed out and the other great powers labored under the illusion that a single Minister of Production could take care of everything. Now, Europe and Japan have more modern facilities than we do, in many instances, and China and India are modernizing at breakneck speed (even if, in China's case, it still pays lip service to an old ideology). Europe and Japan are free of the deadweight cost of an idiotic health care system, and China and India have ridiculously low costs of production. We no longer have the monopoly profits to pay for both guns and butter, and for reasons I still don't understand, we'd rather fight two wars of choice at the same time than educate our young.

For a while, we were able to be both thoughtless and successful. But that was a historical fluke. It wasn't sustainable, and the infrastructure of that society is coming apart.

It's easy to blame this administrator or that provost for getting something wrong, and there's surely no shortage of examples of bad decisions. But these changes go well beyond any individual campus or system.

If we're going to avoid the fate of the American carmakers in their encounter with Asian companies, we'll have to change the game, and quickly. That will mean letting go of some historical survivals, and recasting some fundamentals. Otherwise, we're General Motors, circa 1972 or 1999. It's rarely as obvious as it is now.

And yet the cost of higher education has risen at more then double the rate of inflation for more then a decade?
Here, here! REALLY good post.

My only quibble is with the statement about Europe and Japan being free of a deadweight healthcare system. Our healthcare system sucks, no doubt, but every country outside the rich, small ones, are paying a hefty pricetag for healthcare. I think that the point is that we're paying more in taxes and premiums for far less benefit so we're "doin it rong". But Japan is a nightmare with its aging population and negative population growth, and Europe has issues with entrepeneurship being stifled by the high cost of doing business (taxes and benefits for employees and job protectionism).

Heck, I moved to China, so that shows how I agree 1000% with the premise of your post.
I'm not sure we're really fighting *two* wars of choice, but leaving that aside...

There was a story on NPR a couple days ago that made the case that it was government subsidies of higher education (via the GI bill) that both created the knowledge economy and put the US at the top of it. Not only that, but they argued that it kept us from falling back into the great depression after the war (with 1/8th of the population suddenly hitting the job market, it could have happened).
One *huge* point you missed with the dearth of international students is the omission of out-of-state tuition dollars at public schools (if they aren't getting stipends.) I swear that 50% of my math grad program was international students.

As far as the international student population "not sticking around," well... at least in this economy, many employers are simply not sponsoring visas anyway.

Furthermore, I think there's some faulty logic here -- even if our higher ed system stayed stronger here, the growth of the Chinese/Indian economy is surely creating jobs that would draw those students back home, and away from us anyway.

Also, I think the continued globalization of this planet is a bigger concern than the struggling universities, at least in terms of retaining the international population here. The best paying jobs in this country are in math and science -- and if we lose the international supply, wages will have to go back up, drawing them over here anyway, or encouraging more Americans to study the subject. Either that or the jobs will go offshore where the labor is.
Another angle of attack is eliminating the assumption that everybody should go to college. The best way to reduce an expense is to never incur it, and I'm hard-pressed to see the point in marginal high school students spending tens of thousands of dollars to study beer pong and occasionally attend class, sinking four to seven years of their life into a BA in some soft field, and then graduating and taking a job where they never use anything they learned. How do we get back to the point where jobs that really only require a high school education don't 'require' a B.A.?
My sound bite is that we should not worry about higher ed going the way of GM, we should worry about the US going the way of Spain at the start of the industrial revolution. The wealth built from the extraction of gold from the New World was not as lasting as what England did. What you describe, accurately, was the 20th century equivalent.

I'd write more about the difference between what China is doing and what other 3rd world countries did, but that properly belongs on my blog - some day.

Jim C: It is a fact that the STUDENT burden has grown at that rate, but what of the actual per-student budget at public universities? Not saying you are wrong, but that is the "cost" of the education.

Apropos what Mike said: (1) It bugs me that no one remembers 10/12, which was more significant than 9/11, so I plan to blog about it when that day rolls around. (2) There is little doubt the GI Bill had both of those effects. And just as my dad became an engineer on the GI Bill, I am seeing another group of vets turning their wartime tech experience and military discipline in that direction.
I think it's very easy to underestimate the importance of the GI Bill historically. Unfortunately, soldiers are not necessarily typical of Americans at large, so it's not clear what applicable lessons can be drawn from their experiences.
I think we're going to have to stop having fully half of our politics be about hating (pick one to five) [gays, non-Christians, blacks, Hispanics, women, the poor] for any sense to come through. If you despise a majority of your fellow Americans, it's hardly surprising that you won't sign onto policies which benefit the country as a whole.

It's possible that once we become a "majority minority" country, we'll be able to muscle past the unreasoning terror of the white dude. But a country that re-elects George W. Bush is in for bad times. Stupidity costs. It doesn't wash off.
Wow. If I had not gone to the Delta College web site after thinking about the statements in the IHE article, I would NEVER have guessed what their "cost" is.

They charge $26 per credit hour, a level set by the state budget the Governor signed.

Tuition (both local and out of state) only makes up about 5% of their budget, and they cannot raise tuition to cover the cuts imposed by the state. I'd guess that adding a section is a losing proposition. That alone explains a lot.

Their health insurance is $13,000 for each full-time employee, plus 9% for retirement. (Those are both high compared to our CC.) They also had to budget for "step" increases in faculty salaries, so the faculty that survive teaching all of those students will get a raise.

Finally, as I noted in a posting on the IHE story, they spend 2.5% of their budget on "phys ed", which includes a football team. That appears to be a higher priority than remedial classes.
Our educational system from K-undergraduate has been in a responsive and adaptive mode for at least 3 decades. Basically, we neither innovative nor leaders of globalized society. This is a big wake-up call to see how intertwined eduation is with the economy and a sad example of how corporations are affecting educational outcomes. We have had a need for more Americans in the fields of math and science for decades and where is the progress? Corporations have been outsourcing their employment overseas in multiple areas, particularly technology and manufacturing, for years sending a message that there are no jobs for Americans. China is going to be difficult to compete with in education and business for a multitude of reasons.
Actually, I think what will happen is that we will become like Mexico - with a large lower class and small middle and upper class that rests on the misery and poverty of those below them. Until people want to live in a high cost high service state, we will have the alternative - a low cost low service state - with all the misery and ugliness that comes along with that.
Anon -- if you look at the salaries, we may need more engineering BA's, but we definitely don't need more math & science Ph.D's, and a lot of people who could have been happily productive (if a wee bit stifled) with engineer work have found themselves saddled with debt and other obligations from years of additional study with no valuable employment to show for it.
If we're going to compare Chinese and American enrollment trends, we also need to remember that the Chinese are starting from a lower base. According to a 2005 article from the Christian Science Monitor (, the Chinese government predicted that 20% of HS grads in China would enroll in "some form" of higher ed by 2010. That's far below the US percentage, which IIRC is somewhere around 50% and has been for a long time. I also don't know what the ratio of HS grads:total population is in China or India compared to the U.S.

Which is to say that it is possible for China to be experiencing rapid educational growth without it being true that the U.S should send even more of its citizens to college. As PunditusMaximus points out, more education does not always lead to better outcomes. China and India may be (probably are) on the left-hand side of the cost/benefit analysis curve, whereas we may not be.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?