Monday, May 23, 2011


“Higher Education Sucks, But My College is Great!”

It’s a commonplace that Americans hate Congress, but love their individual Representatives. Some of that has to do with the kind of residential self-selection Bill Bishop wrote about in The Big Sort, and some has to do with patronage/favors, but I suspect much of it is a function of the difference between an abstraction and a person.

The same dynamic holds with something like “government spending.” Americans hate “government spending,” but they also hate specific budget cuts. To the extent that they even acknowledge the gap, they try to explain it with ritualistic invocations of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” as if that amounts to enough to matter; at the end of the day, there’s a general consensus that “something for nothing” represents a good deal. (If you prefer to reverse the politics, something similar holds for the very wealthy. Americans suspect “the rich” of all manner of corruption, even as they fall all over themselves to admire specific billionaires.)

Higher education is starting to fall into the same paradox. There’s an increasingly open skepticism about college as an economic racket, at the exact same time that enrollments are at record highs. The same polls that indicate a simmering resentment of higher education in general show high levels of satisfaction with particular colleges.

The disconnect between ideology and lived experience can lead to terrible policies if taken literally. The challenge facing those of us who care about higher education is to avoid falling into the trap of over-valuing what people say, and under-valuing what people actually do.

My sense, very much like Tim Burke’s, is that a category like “higher education” obscures as much as it clarifies. Harvard, the University of Minnesota, the University of Phoenix, Philadelphia Bible College, and Bronx Community College all fall under the category of “higher education,” as different as they are. Popular discussions of, say, climbing walls as drivers of tuition increases are utterly irrelevant in most of the for-profit and community college worlds. Complaints about state budget cuts have a great deal of validity for state and community colleges, but are largely irrelevant to most of the private colleges. Sports may be a religion at Texas Tech; not so much at Cal Tech. (At Proprietary U, every year represented another undefeated season.) College may be a four-year party at some second-tier residential colleges; it absolutely is not at colleges with large numbers of adult students with jobs and kids. Even complaints about “administrative bloat” seem to have validity in much of the four-year sector, but are mostly misplaced in the community college world.

With that much variety, it’s entirely possible that someone who attends, say, a huge state university with a high-profile sports program chose it for precisely that reason. That person may resent invisible professors -- or may not care -- and not mind at all the four-year party. A working Mom who chooses a community college night program might find the entire discussion of the four-year party utterly alien.

With such disparities hidden under a single category, too literal a reading of poll results could lead to destructive conclusions. Yes, Rich Kid Private College may have a lavish student center; does that mean we should cut funding for community colleges? Yes, some for-profits took advantage of legal loopholes to exploit financial aid; does that mean we should layer new regulations on public colleges?

My sense of it is that the sector that’s in real trouble is the expensive-but-not-selective, “nothing special” private colleges. A pricey, tuition-driven college without distinction or a clear niche represents a weak value proposition in a tough market. That’s true whether the college is for-profit or not. A clear niche could mean exclusivity, or a specific programmatic strength, or a strong religious identity. Being okay at a whole lot of things doesn’t justify thirty thousand a year, especially when public options are available for a fraction of the cost.

Public crankiness manifested in polls is not matching public behavior manifested in enrollments. The former matters, but the latter says quite a bit. Let’s not mistake a response to a sloppy question for a definitive answer.

My husband and I were just talking about this over the weekend. I have two public servants in my family - a police officer and a firefighter - who are both active with their unions. They both seem to genuinely belive that their unions are necessary and good, and that their pensions are worth protecting. However, get either of them started on teachers unions or state-funded pensions for college professors or benefits for the person sitting at the desk at City Hall, and they're frothing at the mouth in no time. Waste! Bloat! People getting paid by THEIR TAX DOLLARS TO DO NOTHING!

And they never seem to notice the disconnect between what they say and how they act.

Same with college, for certain. You'd better believe that when Mr. Taxation Is Theft Jones sends his 18 year old daughter to State College, he wants her to have secure dorms, a state-of-the art fitness facilities, small class sizes, and fresh, healthy food available in the dining hall.
Your post did a great job articulating the complex differences between private, public, and four-year v. CCs. However, the overt scrutiny is going to increase, not only on higher education, but all government spending. 78 million people will be eligible to enroll in social Security over the next two decades, and the Internet is abuzz with anxiety about the future solvency of the U.S. government, and subsequent entitlements. Thus, the fierce competition for dwindling resources is already ugly, and going to get worse.

It is my opinion as a private sector professional that publicly funded education is not only sorely needed, but if radically cut would severely harm our collective ability to compete in the world market.

Fair, or unfair, and in spite of increasing college enrollment in the stagnating economy, publicly funded education suffers from a chronic negative perception as an over-funded, underperforming institution.

We’ve already mortgaged the future of our great-grandchildren, and cannot collectively continue to spend at the current rate. We are all going to feel the pain of impending cuts. The fight will be over where best to trim.
Great post, as usual. This is something I've thought of in the past while: "higher ed" in the US is very hetergeneous, and to offer wholesale critiques ("college is too expensive!") and solutions ("all tenure professors should be fired") isn't too helpful.

However, I will say that part of the paradox is because of a notion of requiring college degrees/diplomas. Students feel ripped off because they had to pay the big tuition for Great Job U. Also, it's one thing to survey students who are in school/just out of school; try asking students with massive, undischargable debt who have been out for 5+ years. Many people are correctly seeing that many jobs don't require four years (or even two years!) of college schooling, but somehow the degree is "needed". Whatever this resentment creates, there will be some shifts in the next decade.
Usually the disconnect is due to racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia. That's why it's so hard to dislodge; the holders of the disconnect are rarely willing to acknowledge that their actual concern is that the "undeserving" are being given a fair shake.
"We’ve already mortgaged the future of our great-grandchildren, and cannot collectively continue to spend at the current rate."

Article of faith, not fact.
We’ve already mortgaged the future of our great-grandchildren, and cannot collectively continue to spend at the current rate.

So the obvious solution is to do what the Me Generation has always done: put the burden on someone else.
Interesting that two readers commented about my statement, "We’ve already mortgaged the future of our great-grandchildren, and cannot collectively continue to spend at the current rate."

I'm concerned that our great-grandchildren are going to unfortunately be left behind to pay for this significant national debt. The concerns about cut to education, and other programs, are valid, but I wonder how to solve the problem without significant spending reductions.
Raising taxes, like any sane society fighting two wars.
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