Topic: Decline of the West
The headline didn’t say it all: “Surging college costs price out middle class.”
To start with, this is hardly news. People have been wringing their hands over the surging cost of college for decades now—usually resulting in demands for more federal “aid to higher education.” But the story—reported in this case by CNNMoney—skips over a couple of questions that really ought to have been asked: Why is the coast of college soaring, and is a college education really worth what it costs?
Let’s take the second question first. The truth is that for most people, a four-year college degree is not a good investment. Most could acquire the skills they need for the world of work by taking a two-year course at a community college. As for the argument that a four-year degree, with its general educational requirements, produces a more well-rounded citizen—stuff and nonsense. The politicization and atomization of many disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, make it possible to graduate from a top-tier school without ever taking comprehensive classes in history, literature or the arts. Is a B.A. in feminist studies really worth $150,000?
Inarguably, then, the quality of a college education has been going down for decades. So why does the price—not the cost but the price—keep going up?
Take a walk around any large university campus and ask yourself: Is all that you see really necessary to provide for the education of undergraduates? How many administrators does the university employ? How much does it sink into football, and how much is the head coach being paid? What’s the average teaching load for a full-time tenured faculty member, and how much is he getting paid? Oh, and how large is the university’s endowment?
If you can get at the answers to some of these questions, they may startle you. For as a matter of fact, the education of undergraduates—the sons and daughters of those hard-pressed middle-class families—is not the university’s number-one priority. There is, in fact, a Grand Canyon-sized gap between what it costs the university to educate an undergraduate and the price that the university charges for providing that education. The difference helps to pay for all those goodies that make the campus such a pleasant place for highly paid faculty and administrators. (See Thomas Sowell's new book, Economic Facts and Fallacies, for more on the costs and prices of higher education.)
All this is, or ought to be, a scandal. It would be nice if Barack Obama quit beating up on oil companies and launched an investigation of price gouging in higher education—but I’m not holding my breath.