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Trite Arguments About University Costs

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On November 25, Steven Pearlstein made an argument that is guaranteed to get one’s op-ed accepted in a major newspapers: attacking professors. Basically, he looked at 4 reasons he thinks university costs have skyrocketed and what we can do about it. The first is capping administrative costs, which is largely a good idea although it’s worth noting that we also demand a lot of services from our universities today, including mental health, that add to this. Of course there’s no question that top administrator pay is ridiculous and the growth of vice-deans for this and that is a big problem. So OK, this is mostly but not completely correct.

Then Pearlstein goes off the rails. First he wants universities to be open year-round and stop giving professors their cushy summer vacations. This is stupid on so many levels. First, while he might say that these are buildings that aren’t being used all the time, he neglects to deal with any of the implications of such an argument. First is that professors aren’t on vacation, they are working on the rest of their job descriptions. Second is that a lot of professors are in fact teaching overload classes to make ends meet. That includes tenured and tenure-track professors. Third, it’s entirely unclear that there is a demand to use these buildings for classes, especially at the tuition rates students are forced to pay today. Where does that money come from? Fourth, he assumes that professors will start working 52 week years without an increase in pay, which is not possible to implement. Pretty badly argued.

Third is the more teaching, less research canard. He blithely claims that most research, especially humanities research, is worthless and so professors should be forced to teach more instead. What he fails to realize, as do so many writers on higher education, is that Harvard and Yale are not the norm in higher education. Far, far, far more professors are teaching 4-4 and doing no research at all because they don’t have time (or maybe squeezing a little in) than are teaching 1-0 and publishing a bunch. But these people are never acknowledged by those like Pearlstein who have an axe to grind against higher education. He goes on to quote a couple of random academics about research being worthless, but he doesn’t even bother to try to evaluate these claims in any kind of useful way.

Finally, he provides some nonsense about general education that exists solely in technological futurist fantasyland that has proven to be bad for students over and over again when implemented. Like most people who write about education, it becomes pretty clear that Pearlstein has spent very little time in the classroom of the average college or university.

Luckily, Dan Drezner also has a column in the Washington Post and he used to rip Pearlstein apart.

When politicians and pundits argue in favor of reallocating resources from one college major to another, they’re trying to say that they can pick disciplinary winners and losers better than universities, foundations or the students themselves. There are big risks in making that assumption, especially if you base these selections on “facts” such as welders outearning philosophers that turn out not to be true. And usually such suggestions ignore the simple fact that U.S. research universities outperform every other country in the world. Or as that Bain report acknowledged at the outset:

Few industries in the United States have achieved unquestioned global leadership as consistently and effectively as our higher education system. U.S. colleges and universities are the cornerstone of our economic prosperity and the key to realizing the American dream. Thirty years of growth have confirmed the sector’s leadership and vibrancy — the result of demographic and economic factors combining to lift higher education even higher.

I get that higher education is a ripe target in an election year. And I get that blasting the “higher ed bubble” is popular even if it is not necessarily true. But for once, I’d like critics to concede that this is a far more complex topic than just “costs are out of control.”

It shouldn’t be that tough a thing to admit.

But inevitably, in another month, some other blowhard with an anti-univeristy agenda will publish another tired essay bemoaning professors without understanding what is actually driving costs up and a major newspaper will eat it up.

…See also Hiltzik

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