Monday, December 08, 2008

University Tuition and Economic Sanity

This Wall Street Journal op-ed railing against high tuition costs at American universities is hilarious. Let me count the ways:

  1. The author, Eric Gibson, thinks problem #1 is that university presidents' compensation is "in the stratosphere." Now there's a lot to be said about this -- the corporatization of the university, the move towards a "strong executive" model, and comparative priorities. But it's awfully hard to take seriously if you're not going to advance any kind of broader criticism of executive compensation. Universities are huge concerns, employing thousands of people (and managing thousands more), and it's hard to imagine any other economic body as complicated by involvement in as many different kinds of business. Still, if you compare what university presidents make to CEOs of comparably sized companies, their pay is pretty modest.

  2. Gibson also thinks students today have it too good: "I've been wide-eyed on some of my visits, struck by the extent to which being a student today resembles living at Versailles, where Louis XIV's every whim was so thoroughly accommodated that there was even a Superintendent of the King's Furniture. One college tour guide proudly informed us that upon arrival every freshman is issued a brand-new laptop. Even if the students already have one? Why, yes, the guide replied." And: "Facilities like libraries and gyms are open around the clock. Computer services are available at all hours, too. One college we visited must keep its tech support team doped up on amphetamines. Accidentally dump a cup of coffee into your laptop? No problem! They'll have it back to you in full working order in a day -- something no private-sector IT department could afford to offer." So the problem with higher education is that all this money spent by parents and students actually translates into tangible benefits and services.

  3. Gibson portrays parents and students as helpless victims of these universities' desires to provide these goodies: "Private higher education has it better than an actual welfare state. Politicians are answerable to the electorate. In theory their efforts to take a larger slice of your paycheck can be thwarted at the polls. Not private higher education. There's nothing to put a brake on their fiscal expansiveness. Colleges have something close to a monopoly; they can charge what they like because they have a captive audience."
Let me tell ya, Mr Gibson -- not every college is like Versailles. I'm willing to bet your local regional public university would be more than happy to have your son or daughter, who can commute from home, or share a dive apartment with three of their friends, getting by on mac and cheese. There are eighteen and nineteen year olds doing it every day.

What frustrates me most about the upper middle class today is the false constriction of choice, especially with respect to education. They're "forced" to buy a huge house in a posh suburb that they can't really afford to get access to the local elite school district. Then "forced" to spend thousands of dollars to get their kids into an elite college, where they're "forced" to spend even more money to put their kids up like kings.

It's always someone else's problem, someone else's greed, someone else whose behavior is ridiculous.

1 comment:

PoN said...

"It's always someone else's problem, someone else's greed, someone else whose behavior is ridiculous."

Spot on Tim!