Tuesday, July 16, 2013


In grad school I had a professor who styled himself a sort of Kantian, but with New York attitude.  Whenever anyone started spouting then-fashionable postmodernism, he’d bark at them “what are your categories?”  It soon became a running joke among some of the grad students.  (“Guinness or Bass?”  “What are your categories?”  “F--- you.”)

I thought of him yesterday, driving back from helping my Mom recuperate from surgery.  Since I had plenty of car time, I caught up on my podcasts, one of which was the episode of the Diane Rehm show that discussed the cost of college tuition. (The guests were Kevin Carey, Kim Clark, Terry Hartle, and Brian Rosenberg.)  Within about ten minutes, I was channeling my old professor, screaming at the podcast about categories.

The discussion was actually relatively good, as mass media discussions go, which made it all the more frustrating.  Even in a comparatively slow and deliberate setting, in which everyone was reasonably bright, the discussion quickly devolved into a confused, hopeless mess.  It’s little wonder that the public at large, and many political leaders, have no idea what to think.

Some suggestions for anyone who wants to engage a serious conversation about higher ed costs:

- Are you talking about public, private non-profit, or for-profit?   Lumping the three together only serves to mystify.  

- Are you talking about flagship universities, regional universities, liberal arts colleges, or community colleges?  Hint: if you refer to football coaches, resort-like dorms, or million-dollar presidents, you aren’t talking about community colleges.

- Do you understand _why_ the higher ed sector largely experiences technology as a cost center?  Hint: it’s because we have to teach it.  Higher ed and health care both experience technology as a cost center.

- Is the anxiety about costs really anxiety about jobs after graduation?  If it is, then the real issue is the economy.  When the job market for new entrants is healthy, student loans are easier to pay.

- Do you know the difference between what a college charges and what it spends?  (Hint: among publics, long-term disinvestment has driven up charges much more quickly than spending.)  

- For that matter, do you know the difference between sticker price and actual cost?

- When you hear about “administrative” costs, ask for a definition.  The real growth hasn’t been among supervisory people; it has been in IT, with some in services for students with disabilities and financial aid.  If you still want to condemn costs, specify which of those you would cut.

- On a more philosophical level, what do you see as the purpose of colleges?  It’s harder to make “tough choices” when you have multiple missions.  Publics, and especially community colleges, are often tasked with multiple missions at the same time, and those missions can bump into each other.

- Finally, and for extra credit, do you know what Baumol’s cost disease is?  

I don’t mean for any or all of these to shut down the discussion; if anything, I’d like to see them inform it.  But in the absence of these basics, the discussion quickly becomes vapid and mystifying, leaving people to default to the stereotypes with which they began.  Higher education is too important to sacrifice to shorthand and slogans.  As much as it pains me to acknowledge my old professor, he had a point; without categories, we have no way to distinguish good arguments from silly ones.