Thursday, December 04, 2008

Is higher education too big to fail?

Just how expensive now is it to attend a four-year college? Take a look at this:

Since 1982, the cost of attending a four-year college has increased by almost 450%. That's more than health care and housing costs, and four times the increase in the Consumer Price Index. Break it down this way: for every one dollar increase in the cost of living, college has increased $4.50. And that's just tuition, not living expenses. Technological innovation comes with a serious price tag as well. I went to college from 1979-83. I took a typewriter, one without a cartridge that corrected typos -- God knows how many gallons of White Out I went through my freshman year -- a clock radio, my stereo, all my records, a few books, mostly ones I "borrowed" from my father so that I would look smart to strangers and my clothes. That was it. No cell phone, no VCR, DVD player, iPod, iPhone, iTouch, laptop, counterfeiting machine, PC, laser printer . . . no nothing. My roommate and I shared the phone in our dorm room, which, compared to some friends of mine who had the share a phone with an entire hall at their colleges, was pretty sweet.

I've offered several posts (also, click here, here, here and here) on what I view as the ludicrousness of the contemporary price tag to attend college, public or private, but especially the latter. The retail price for one year of college at American University right now is about $43,500 per year, if you live on campus and enroll in the meal plan. And that doesn't include books and other education-related materials. Living off campus might ease the burden somewhat, but not enough to make a real difference for families trying to figure out whether they can afford to send their child to American.

$43,500. Wow! I sometimes cringe when I think about that number, and what we're offering in return. We cannot, as professors, hold our students to the standards that most of us would like because that would result in far too many disgruntled "customers," which is what many of our administrators call our students. Over the years, for example, my school, the School of Public Affairs, has started giving a "Customer Focus" award to our staff, including our academic advisors, who, advise students, who, in turn, I never thought of as a customer until universities decided to borrow this phrase from corporate America. What the hell does that even mean, anyway? I can tell you this much: if I worked as an advisor in our department, I'd end up slapping some of the students upside the head, and you can be damn sure that I'd focus my hand so that I wouldn't miss. I know our advisors dream about doing this. I know this because they tell me.

Now shift your eyes a bit. Over the last two months, the phrase "federal bailout" now applies not only to the financial, banking and insurance sectors, but potentially to the automobile business and, you can rest assured, the real estate business, as home values continue to nose dive. Sooner rather than later, secondary industries affected by the failure of major front-line industries will come to Congress with their hats in hand, asking for their own rescue. Congress will decide who gets what not necessarily based on need and necessity, but by the centers of power that can bring the most pressure to bear on the greatest number of members, who, of course, are beholden to their constituents, financial supporters and those powerful yet often invisible minorities who exercise political power at an inverse ratio to their numbers. There really isn't a good reason to deny the auto companies k-billions of dollars when Congress has already given out enough in loans, guarantees and other assorted financial gifts to the big banks and investments houses to start a new country. None of these companies deserves, according to Milton Friedman school, a Goddamn nickle. Let them fail, say the Economics 101 texts, so that markets can "adust" and "self-correct" and thus fix whatever mistakes buried these companies or industries in the first place.

There is an upside to current economic crisis, and it is this: Americans have finally learned that there is no such thing as a free market; that markets are a product of law, which is a product of political preferences. Determining that markets act "fairly" means that you're willing to accept, as a condition of political economy, income inequality, joblessness and services centered around basic human needs such as health care and education allocated and disributed based on profit rather than the public good. People who claim that markets are a "natural" product of human nature know that isn't true. Markets can effectively distribute some things and not others. No one, for example, can make a very good argument why preventive health care should be considered less important than treatment for the already-ill, which is always more expensive. Preventing poor public health is not a priority in the United States; if it were, then our public resources would reconfigure the health care delivery system, as, over the years, we have for education, certain aspects of transportation, parks, recreation and poverty-assistance programs. We would also have passed laws banning tobacco use in the United States. How strange is it that we permit the sale of a product like cigarettes that, when used as directed, will harm or kill you? Or make weapons that we sell to foreign governments, often for reasons of profit rather than national security? Power, not reason, is the currency of value in American politics.

So, turning back . . . will higher education one day become "too big to fail?" There's little danger of colleges and universities going out of business. The necessity of a college degree to have any serious chance of entering, at minimum, the American middle-class, much less aspire to life like the cool people on television shows seem to have -- cool apartments, hip clothes, an endless supply of disposable income and a witty retort for almost anything -- means that universities have their "customers" over a barrel. About 65% of Americans attend college now; yet only about 30% have bachelors degrees. Are we sending more kids than we should to college and pumping up their grades or lowering admissions requirements to do so? Has the computer-based existence to which everyone, it seems, is tethered . . . a view that's accurate if you're a member of the socio-economic class that can afford to participate fully in technological innovation . . . reached all the way down the income scale? Someone working on a factory floor, cleaning toilets, washing dishes, delivering packages or changing the oil at Jiffy Lube isn't sitting behind a computer all day, with multiple windows open to ESPN, USA Today, Gmail, Ebay and Facebook, riding shot gun along side this stunning engine of change. The Internet and our modern computer-centered culture has created a whole new population within a population of have nots.

So how can I make a case that access to public colleges should be the same as elementary and secondary public schools -- free based on a particular level of demonstrated accomplishment and aptitude. Please don't tell me we can't afford it. The federal government is now good for about $1.5 trillion in promised funds to breathe life into these companies that failed the test of their own lassiez-fare gospel. Establishing a right to an education beyond the K-12 level simply means that we're adapting to acturial and demographic shifts. 40 years ago, when a high school education meant something, when the United States, which made many more things than the still-recovering post-World War II economies of Japan, China, India and Europe, established the first "blue-collar" middle class society in the Western world, it made sense, to the extent that it did, to shift the expense to families after high school since college was a place to "get an education" and not learn a trade or learn the skills necessary to enter corporate America and work your way up the secure corporate ladder. A bachelor's degree in the post-industrial era of the United States is the equivalent of what a high school degree was through the early to mid-1960s. Refusing to recognize the changes in American society over time require us to revamp our public education system to look beyond funding K-12 education is short and long-term disaster. And whatever case you want to make that the "money just isn't there," don't make it so loud that Wall Street can hear you. Or it might have to give the money back the federal government just gave them.

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