Monday, January 30, 2012

OF COST AND FALLACY

“At some point, you are charging enough tuition.”

Laborer
Question: What does it take for academics at major universities decide that government is getting too big and has too much power?
Answer: When it threatens their money.

President Obama recently brought up a plan that would penalize universities and colleges that did not contain tuition costs by reducing federal funds. This comes at the same time as states are trying to control debt and have reduced state funds for these institutions as well. The Associated Press reports that academics are displeased:
The reality, said Illinois State's Al Bowman, is that simple changes cannot easily overcome deficits at many public schools. He said he was happy to hear Obama, in a speech Friday at the University of Michigan, urge state-level support of public universities. But, Bowman said, given the decreases in state aid, tying federal support to tuition prices is a product of fuzzy math.
...
At Washington, President Mike Young said Obama showed he did not understand how the budgets of public universities work.

Young said the total cost to educate college students in his state, which is paid for by both tuition and state government dollars, has gone down because of efficiencies on campus. While universities are tightening costs, the state is cutting their subsidies and authorizing tuition increases to make up for the loss.

"They really should know better," Young said. "This really is political theater of the worst sort."
Obama's plan would need approval by Congress, a hard sell in an atmosphere of partisan gridlock.
Now, ordinarily you can rely on left-tending academia to welcome greater government interference in an economy and greater government power, but in this case, its affecting their bottom line. So now instead of enthusiastic support, they are complaining that this is just a stunt, simply grandstanding for voter support.

And there's good reason to think so. When he spoke at a college recently, President Obama told the students: "We are putting colleges on notice, you can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down."

Now, as the AP story notes, President Obama needs congressional approval to do this legally, but the academics should know better: he's shown over and over he's more than willing to ignore the constitution and implement rules and changes without congressional approval.

Still, I suspect they're right, that this is just theater. I doubt President Obama has the slightest inclination to hurt or limit money going to academia, but it sounds good to students who think that government orders fix everything. You probably remember it from your youth. When you saw a problem for the first time, you demanded that "someone do something" and imagined what it would be like if only the right sort were in government and forced the bad guys to change or stop.

So when President Obama stands in front of college students and yells about how he'll make those dirty colleges stop charging so much, he got applause and smiles. That fits how they think the world works at that age, and President Obama never grew out of it.

Its true that colleges and universities charge too much, and waste a lot of the money they get. They pay people too much, overload their administration massively, have incredibly expensive campuses and facilities, and keep asking for more, while far too often delivering an essentially awful product. I've written about how I think that ought to be addressed, and I think its going to change in the future.

But what strikes me is this insistence that everyone should go to college, that its not just some kind of human right but a critical necessity for any possible future. And its a common theme among the very poor to think that if only you can get to college, you'll get out of poverty and hit the good life. And that can happen; in fact I suspect if the student and his parents work hard and sacrifice to get that kid through college, they will do well and get out of poverty.

But was it the education, or the drive to succeed and work hard? Was it the classes he took or the dedication to finish and excel? Rich people tend to think hard work gets you success, if you ask them. I doubt its all one or the other, but of the two, hard work is certainly the greater contribution.

Its this presumption of success and wealth by college education that's driving the occupy movement. Colleges aren't supposed to be really expensive trade schools, you don't get a liberal arts education so you can get a better job. But that's what they're viewed as, and if you don't get that six figure salary and bonus upon graduation, well they throw a tantrum.

Not everyone ought to go to college. Most people probably shouldn't bother with higher education. You don't need it for most jobs, even the ones that claim you do. And even if you did, often you an work through a job from the starting floor and get that education in practice.

We need bus drivers and long haul truckers and mechanics and plumbers and burger flippers, too. Society cannot function if its entire workforce is an elite high education cadre. We can't all be dentists and lawyers, we need carpenters and bricklayers, too. In fact, we probably need them more. What's more critical in your life: that your streets aren't trashed and your house stays standing or that you have perfect teeth and can sue when you don't?

There's nothing shameful about having a job like miner or steelworker, its just as noble and meaningful as surgeon or engineer - perhaps more so, at times. The brain surgeon needs someone to build that operating theater and make his tools. Without them he's just a guy with a lot of knowledge. This presumption that you have to make a lot of money and do a high profile job to be worth anything is not just stupid, its corrosive. The idea of work goes from something constructive and beneficial to your fellow man to status and what you personally get out of it.

And that's what's behind this push for everyone to get a college education and to make it ever cheaper and even free. If its that good, its worth paying for, and its worth working hard to be able to pay for, at jobs that aren't so elite.

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