Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Tuition and Fees by Any Other Name . . .

. . . would still bust the bank for most people.  But Danielle Allen makes a good case that there is a desperate need for clarity about the real cost of a college education if we ever mean to make progress in the perpetual hike and outrage saga.  She makes the point that there is a vast difference between what she calls "sticker price" and the actual costs to most students.  But something missing from the piece, in my view, is a recognition that much of the "outrage" from students and parents has less to do with false perceptions about costs than it does with false perceptions, going in, about value.   That is to say, they think that what they are agreeing to pay for is more valuable than it generally ends up being, in fact.   It's hard to argue against the notion that students are over-paying when the product is so very often . . . um, well, over-rated.  Still, clarity is always to be appreciated in any debate--and in this debate Allen offers some for at least one part of the discussion.  
Categories > Education

Discussions - 4 Comments

is a recognition that much of the "outrage" from students and parents has less to do with false perceptions about costs than it does with false perceptions, going in, about value.

I think that's on target.

Now ... are they not aware of the declining value of the typical college education? Or are they as yet unwilling to acknowledge it?

I'm guessing the latter. I'm guessing we've not yet got past the idea that going to college is simply what good people did.

Did you know that a truck driver certified for carrying hazardous materials can make in the six figures? No college degree needed.

I appreciate what you are saying, Don, and I sympathize with most of it. But the relationship between money spent on education v. expected salary upon graduation (and beyond) is only one part of what I was talking about in my post when I wrote about value. In a decent country that is well governed and free, clever people with ambition, drive, and determination will always be able to figure ways to make money. Sometimes an education may help in that pursuit--other times it will only be of marginal utility.

People are in the habit of thinking that getting a good job is why they have to go to college, and that is a large part of the problem. The only reason to go to college is to get an education. An education that is serious is valuable in and of itself and regardless of whether or not the person who pursues it can also get a job that secures him six figures a year.

But is the "education" that most people are getting at college--in this day and age where most people look at college as a kind of vocational school--really valuable? It rarely lands them the kind of job it promises. So it's a failure in that sense. And what about the value that can be said to be in the thing itself? College, as it is now set up for most people, offers nothing to inculcate a sense of ambition or the firmness of character needed for success in most occupations. Instead, it promotes a sense of entitlement: "I finished this course of study so now I am owed job X."

And let's suppose that the student is one of those rare cases who knows going in that the real object of his efforts is an education in something worth learning apart from the potential it offers in job prospects. What do most schools offer by way of value in that regard? It may be the case that a very determined student can get a good education anywhere and despite a lame core curriculum that's been politicized and boiled down to nothing. But most mere mortals--even the ones who are good students--need more guidance than that. And these days, that means that they need a lot of luck.

So I'd venture to say that another part of the disappointment coming from people in reaction to college education is related to the dismal "discovery" that you can't really get an education most of the time, even with the best intentions.

Perhaps the problem is that a college degree is the only measure of a higher education that we recognize as having value. The community college is the most extreme example; my students are in my classroom to get an education and some to get certification for jobs and some to get higher degrees. I am educating high school students through Ohio's post-secondary option, recent high school graduates, veterans of military service of from 4 - 30 years, the unemployed from age 18 - 62, and the employed seeking advancement in their fields. For most it is a vocational school and for some it the most inexpensive way to find out if they are capable of or suited for higher education.

Richard Vedder has pointed out that colleges now function in the way tests for employment used to do, as filter. Employment tests are considered discriminatory. They are intended to be discriminatory, of course, in the sense that they can be a tool for an employed to discriminate between those who will be good employees and those who will not. Trial and error is an expensive way to find out if you have a capable employee. Since employers are liable to be hit with a lawsuit if they discriminate offensively or too well with tests. Therefore, demanding a degree shifts the burden of proof to the potential employee, and also shifts the expense of that testing to him. (Or to the taxpayer through the federal loan system.)

A college degree of some variety is supposed to prove something about a person. Intelligence? Perseverance? Something. It is rotten training for any just about any field of employment --when the education is not focused. What I mean is that you want a lawyer who has read the law or a doctor or even a nurse who knows the human body. Many college disciplines are relatively unfocused: I could argue that my students training to be dental hygienists are much better educated in their fields than many of those coming out of four year colleges with education or English degrees.

Anyway, if we think of higher education and a degree as a non-discriminatory social filter, then both the merit of an expensive one (Do we think it is a finer mesh?) and the absurdity of colleges educating as they do these days (Something like a Women's Studies degree -- what the heck are they good for?) is understandable. It is also regrettable. As with other things in America, we have been so prosperous that we have been able to afford to be profligate with higher education.

Kate's right, it's a credentials test. And it's just another example of the extraordinarily high price our country pays for political correctness. The fact is, to profile is human, and in general these profiles (i.e., stereotypes) are generally rooted in fact. Sure, there will be lots of injustice -- many individuals don't fit their "stereotype" very well -- but the use of stereotypes is a standard form of cognitive filtering that human beings will continue to use regardless of the law. They will simply do it in different (more acceptable) ways, typically at greater expense.

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