I’ve been a fan of Tom Frank since the 90’s. I actually had a subscription to The Baffler in grad school, and I kept it for a while after until the issues started arriving progressively farther apart. (Somewhere in the basement, I still have a copy of Commodify Your Dissent, a wonderful collection of early Baffler pieces.) The Baffler struck me as a rare voice of sanity at the time. I still remember reading Steve Albini’s piece in The Baffler on the economics of the music industry circa 1995 and thinking that the piece was striking and the industry unsustainable. I stand by both.
Frank continued his hot streak into the oughts, striking with What’s the Matter with Kansas?. As with his best stuff at The Baffler, it wasn’t so much the original reportage as the connecting of dots that did it.
Which is why I was so disappointed in Frank’s piece in Salon this week. Modestly titled “Colleges are Full of It,” it looks at first like a patented Tom Frank takedown. But it’s sloppy in ways that he typically isn’t. In an effort to recapture the thrill of youthful vitriol, he recaptured the embarrassment of callow reporting. It’s a disappointing misfire, because it could have been great.
The material is certainly there. Tuition increases for higher education as a sector have outpaced inflation in the US for several decades now. The collapse of the blue-collar aristocracy has made higher education feel almost mandatory for young people who want to make middle-class salaries when they grow up. Higher education’s characteristic hand-wringing cultural liberalism offers plenty of opportunity for the modern-day Veblen to ply his trade. Combine all that with some easy shots at tone-deaf journalism -- not difficult to find -- and you should really have something.
But the piece fails for some reasons so basic that I have to wonder what happened.
Start with the antecedent. Which institutions, exactly, is Frank talking about?
At times, he seems to be talking about “higher education.” But then he refers to “universities” and “university administrators,” as if those are the same thing as “higher education.” I read in vain for a single, passing mention of community colleges; in Frank’s piece, they simply don’t exist. He makes a single, parenthetical mention of state universities, only to concede that the real story there is of state disinvestment, rather than administrative bloat. His piece is fixated firmly on the elite of the elite; plenty of Stanford, a good chunk of New York Times, a name-check of Gaston Caperton. From that, it wouldn’t occur to you that nearly half of American undergraduates attend community colleges. You’d think they all piled into the Ivy League.
It’s a common journalistic mistake, and one that the New York Times, among others, makes with dispiriting frequency. I expect that from the Times, but not from Frank. He’s supposed to be the boots-on-the-ground guy. Apparently not.
And that’s a shame, because it would change the story he’s trying to tell in some interesting ways. In my world, for example, per-student spending has been flat for over a decade. The number of administrators has actually shrunk. But until last year, tuition/fees went up anyway, mostly to make up for a combination of Baumol’s cost disease -- entirely unmentioned in the Frank piece -- and state disinvestment, which warrants only a parenthetical. His focus is really on elite, private universities, which he excoriates for -- wait for it -- being self-interested.
Sara Goldrick-Rab recently made some waves with a proposal to stop sending Federal financial aid to private colleges and universities. That way, she argued, we’d direct public money to the public good; private colleges and universities could compete, or not, in the open marketplace. It’s not a perfect proposal, but it has the considerable virtue of recognizing that different sectors are meaningfully different. The crisis in American higher education affordability is not actually happening at the institutions that most students attend. It’s happening where the most conspicuous students attend. That’s the kind of mistake that I wouldn’t expect Tom Frank, of all people, to make.
Meanwhile, we’re still the best bargain in higher education, if you bother to notice.