google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Biting the Populist Bullet

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Biting the Populist Bullet

The Great Mistake is out! And I have a related piece in today's Inside Higher Ed about the choice facing the public university after the election.  Regardless of the vote today, the 2/3rds of the U.S. population without a college degree will still be treated like second-class citizens by the political establishment. Most of those will still feel that public universities aren't on their side.  In this common case, they don't see what difference public funding for universities makes or why regular people should pay for it.

My article asks what we can do about this, and the answer starts with universities working directly with "red-state" regions rather than helping their college population escape them.  Have a look and tell me what you think.
I encountered a version of the problem preparing my lecture at Ohio State, where the campus website features research by one of their distinguished higher ed scholars into why college is still worth it.  The page focuses only on the private market value of finishing college, meaning the graduate's higher future earnings.  It turns out that college offers a 12-14 percent return on investment.

True enough.  But justifying public universities in private-good terms is what we might call . . . the great mistake.  It's a political mistake because we can't ask people to subsidize higher ed if all it does is raise individual graduate's future salaries. Milton Friedman made this point in 1955: yes we should subsidize "general education for citizenship" (though not, according to him, with direct funding to colleges); no we should not subsidize "specialized vocational training" that benefits only that individual.  We don't tax people to support horseback riding academies because we don't think riding skills are a public good (though that could always change).  So the ROI argument that is supposed to inspire the taxpayer with the public university's utility actually gives them a reason to force the student to front the costs.

The ROI argument is also an economic mistake because, in contrast to the case for riding academies, 2/3rds of the total value of universities is nonmarket and/or indirect and/or social. So universities--and OSU has plenty of company--alienate a huge percentage of voters who aren't associated with college and then guarantee public underinvestment by ignoring the university's public value, all with our supposedly pragmatic "here's what's in it for you" argument.  There's a lot more on this and related issues in the book, where I use the work of the economist Walter McMahon among others to talk about our colossally foolish abandoning of the public good understanding of higher ed.  For starters, university publicists need to change their strategy radically to include the public-good value.

After my lecture yesterday, my host took me to see a movie I've been trying to find for months. It's Starving the Beast, about the Republican war on public university funding in six states. It interviews  pro-public and anti-public activists and intellectuals about the state of the public university, with the former group including fairly conservative senior managers, and the latter largely funded by right-wing think tanks.

A member of the pro-public camp, a former president of UT Austin, laid out the stakes correctly when he said that the current trend is towards excellent higher ed for an elite and lower quality for everyone else.  Yes indeed, that is the plan.  UNC-Chapel Hill's Gene Nichol said that the idea of the public university was, in contrast, to provide the best that American higher education had to offer to everyone who was willing to undertake it.  The University of Virginia's Siva Vaidhyanathan gave the best short take-down of Clayton Christensen's notion of disruptive innovation that you will see, and also ended the film with a glowing vision of what places like Iowa State did to change the lives of the everyday people in their regions.

The anti-public people, including Jeff Sandefer in Texas, were focused on undermining the alleged power of liberal professors and putting higher ed on a pay-to-play basis.  You would study 14th century painting only if you were willing to pay for it. The public would effectively pay for nothing, presumably because the paying of taxes does not allow consent for any specific expenditure, which violates the definition of personal freedom of the anti-public folks.  (A version of the hardcore anti-public plan has actually been implemented in the United Kingdom by the Tory government.)  The anti-public people were fairly happy with the obvious effect on public universities (it was an all-research-flagship film), which is that they are losing their independence both intellectually and financially from the political arena.

There's much more to say about the whole debate and I'm sorry Starving the Beast isn't for sale for $5 on the Internet--it should have been all over the place in election season. It has some lovely idealism about the enlightened society, and it stages a major battle between free development and political control.  But the film didn't feature students except in atmosphere shots, or professors in action in teaching in research.  This means that it retained the public university as an abstract ideal, one that won't be as important as food, shelter, basic employment, and related core goods that so much of the population is struggling with. 

The only thing to do in this situation is to double down on the public vision.  The great mistake is that we aren't allowing public universities to deliver a fully educated society.  What we're wrecking is the institutional and financial means to deliver that--better quality and much more broadly than we are doing now.  The recovery will come when we make the vision of free development a populist cause.  Higher learning needs to be funded and implemented at regional colleges as well as at the venerable and monumental and overly-selective flagships.  The university's democracy project can beat the goal of political control, but only if it enlists the non-college population by giving them what we know changes lives.

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