Which Crisis?

Something needs to change, dramatically, in American higher education if this country is to thrive and remain economically successful. This is according to two recent reports about the state of higher education. Exactly what needs to change, however, is debatable.

The first report, issued by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, explains that:

The United States has been underproducing college-going workers since 1980. Supply has failed to keep pace with growing demand, and as a result, income inequality has grown precipitously.

Adding an additional 20 million postsecondary- educated workers over the course of the next 15 years is not impossible. It will make our level of educational attainment comparable with other developed nations, help us meet the economy’s need for efficiency, and reverse the growth of income inequality.

The report recommends adding 20 million new workers with some postsecondary education, though the means to get there are sort of unclear. The ultimate point, however, is that more Americans go to college, of some sort, more Americans will earn higher incomes. This will reduce income inequality.

At the same time, however, the American Enterprise Institute released its own report about a problem in higher education:

The cost of a college education has risen dramatically over the past two decades. Year after year, tuition and fees have increased at twice the rate of inflation, rising more quickly than the cost of just about every other good or service on the market and outstripping the growth in family incomes. Observers often point to lavish facilities and student activities as the culprit— after all, climbing walls and football stadiums are not cheap. But a closer look at what it costs to educate undergraduate students reveals that high costs are often rooted in the way colleges and universities organize and allocate resources. If policymakers and colleges themselves are to get control of college costs, they must take a hard look at their traditional way of doing business.

This report, by Oklahoma State University’s Vance Friend, who’s looked critically into college costs before, advises higher education to:

1. Eliminate or separately fund research and public service

2. Optimize class size

3. Eliminate or consolidate low enrollment programs

4. Eliminate administrator bloat

5. Downsize student life programs

It’s important to emphasize that these two reports are not necessarily in conflict. Indeed, cutting the cost of college might be a great way to get more people to go to college. But it’s interesting to note that it’s unlikely researchers from both camps will ever come together to accomplish anything.

That’s because, rather unfortunately, the spirit of one definitely conflicts with the spirit of the other. How does this happen?

The Georgetown report, issued by a center affiliated with a university that costs $41,000 a year, presumes that colleges should be more accessible in order to bring more people in and reduce income inequality.

The AEI report, written by a professor from a university that costs $3,700 a year, in contrast, presumes that college is expensive because of vast academic wastefulness, and that higher education should be cheaper not to get more people to go to college, but just so that it won’t be so much a burden on those already likely to attend.

Both of these assumptions are valid, but America could probably accomplish a lot more in higher education if we saw more reports that took both things into account. College is too expensive, sure, but the real problem with it being too expensive is that it prices people out of college. That’s why it matters.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer