What Ails Public Higher Education?

            The long-time conservative columnist and commentator George Will recently wrote something of a screed concerning higher education. While his syndicated commentary was difficult to follow, he appeared to make three arguments that have become typical conservative criticisms of the nation’s public higher education institutions. First, he quotes approvingly a new book by Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee School of Law, which argues that universities are asking too little of their students, who are accordingly studying less and attending college only as a social signifier and opportunity to meet a spouse rather than to acquire an education. These trends, Will contends, are the responsibility of the schools themselves, which have happily offered more spots to more students and lowered their academic standards in the post-war period because government has subsidized those individuals, many of whom allegedly are interested in nothing more than acquiring a credential. So, for Will, indirectly at least, government has caused this supposed “decline” in higher education. More, Will goes on to suggest that beyond these seemingly indefensible, irresponsible steps, public universities, under the aegis of government encouragement, have also created a huge and growing bureaucracy of useless administrators who are hired at the direct expense of more needed and valuable faculty members. He expresses particular concern, not to say sarcasm, about the senselessness of college diversity awareness and anti-discrimination initiatives. These, he avers, do nothing but encourage student narcissism.

            So, to summarize, according to Will, public universities have themselves created the challenges they confront today because first, at bottom, government has been too willing to encourage students to attend college. So, for Will, one must say government is also ultimately to blame. Second, public colleges have hiked tuitions in recent decades because they are hiring far too many administrators at undue salaries to oversee programs that offer no value to society. Their economic challenges are of their own making. So, finally, one must conclude, as Will in fact does, that citizens will tire soon of this supposed higher education bubble of high costs and too little value and it will “burst.” He does not say what the consequences of such an outcome would be.

            Will’s analysis is fascinating for its willingness to find a simple explanation for what is, in fact, a very complex set of social challenges. For example, it is by no means clear that governmental encouragement of higher education for qualified students is a poor idea or whether, in the absence of such engagement, our purportedly democratic society should operate a system of public universities available only to those with the means to pay for them. More deeply, Will’s assumption that public subsidies are per se suspect can be readily challenged, for to allow it to stand, one must assume that higher education is a private good. While the public’s view on this question has been shifting in favor of Will’s assumption in recent decades (about which more below) it implies that society receives no benefits from an educated workforce and citizenry. Most economists and political scientists would disagree, but this assumption fits neatly Will’s apparent desire to blame government for the issues he sees. Finally, Will’s implicit claim that public universities themselves have all the resources necessary to do better, but are misusing them to pay “useless bureaucrats” to manage “senseless programs” is suspect.

            Even were this true, and Will provides two diversity program-related anecdotes to suggest the certainty of the proposition for all public colleges and universities, the fact is the total cost of such efforts is dwarfed by the steep decline in state support for higher education in the last two decades. On average, states now are providing 35-40 % less inflation-adjusted support for their public higher education institutions than they did three decades ago. This reality suggests that universities have been placed in a position by state legislatures in which they have had to raise tuitions to continue to offer programs and slots for students whom those same legislators have demanded nonetheless be accommodated. Given this situation, one must look for a deeper explanation than university administrator cupidity and stupidity or silly programs to explain the funding situation of public higher education institutions. In fact, what seems to be occurring is that lawmakers are becoming ever more willing to transfer the full costs of higher education to their citizens. Ironically, that broader trend can doubtless be linked to the efforts of Will and others to celebrate the role of the market in society under the guise of neo-liberalism, and it reflects the cultural success of such claims. Whether that is a good thing depends on how you wish to value the worth of education in a democratic society and how you wish to apportion access to it. In any case, it is not the result of undue public sector engagement, as governments have rapidly been withdrawing their support for higher education. Nor is it the consequence of diversity programs whose aggregate cost is tiny by comparison.

            More deeply still, Will overlooked three other significant concerns in his rush to pin the blame for rising university costs and increasing student credentialism on academic administrators and “government” writ large. First, universities are surely not the source of students’ instrumental focus, although they certainly have had to react to its ubiquity. Instead, this movement arises from broader currents in the culture and to a celebration of instrumental and “practical learning” allied with the trend to celebrate the market in our politics in recent decades. Business, too, has strongly supported college level preparation of individuals for its various posts, as Will himself suggests. Second, no one has yet solved the puzzle of how to overcome the labor-intensive costs of the delivery of higher education, although experiments are afoot that seek to do so. In short, higher education is innately costly because extremely well educated experts deliver it. Third, it is not clear that asking students to learn to reflect deeply about the issue of social heterogeneity and alterity in a democratic culture increasingly polarized around differences of various sorts, but whose population is nonetheless deeply diverse, is a poor idea. Indeed, it is easy to argue that a vibrant American democracy demands no less and higher education officials would be woefully irresponsible and the education their institutions offer terribly incomplete without asking students to grapple with such concerns.

            In sum, while Will’s concern to ensure appropriate expenditure of public funds for higher education is fitting, his portrait of the challenges confronting the nation’s public universities is profoundly misleading. State leaders should indeed be encouraged to reflect on the character and portent of public higher education today, for it has never been more vital. But this should occur on the basis of a reasoned debate concerning what we collectively wish these institutions to do and why, and how we wish to secure their social roles and student access to them, and not on the basis of misleading a priori assumptions about supposed bogeymen responsible for all of the sector’s challenges.