Tag: higher ed

Education Has Diminishing Returns!?

Inside Higher Ed features a terrific essay today by economist Michael Rizzo. Rizzo takes issue with President Obama’s goals to have all Americans complete at least one post-secondary year of education or job training, and for the nation to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. I’ve opined about this before, but Rizzo does it much more comprehensively, noting especially that - surprise! - education can suffer from “diminishing returns.”

Here’s the meat of Rizzo’s piece, but you really should read the whole thing:

More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.

While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits when starting from scratch, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it – just as eating that fourth doughnut brings you less satisfaction than did the second. What if these so-called “diminishing returns” never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly. Dedicating more resources to the production of educated workers must come at the expense of resources dedicated to creating other important capital goods, institutions, or consumption goods. An individual cannot dedicate 24 hours in a day to everything, nor can society dedicate all of its resources to everything. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?

Trapped Inside the Mime’s Box

Kevin Carey, policy director at the think tank Education Sector, asserts that when it comes to higher education libertarians are boxed in, unable to find a solution to out-of-control college costs that won’t violate at least one, basic libertarian principle:

This puts libertarians in somewhat of a box. On the one hand, they tend to be hostile toward the tens of billions of public dollars that flow into colleges every year. The more colleges cost, the greater the claim on the average citizen’s hard-earned money and thus reduction in their precious liberty etc., etc.

But the best way to bend down the long-term higher education cost curve and thus reduce government spending is to increase government regulation in the form of mandatory reporting. So it’s a pick your poison situation for the Cato folks — would you rather have Big Brother’s hand in your wallet or his eye on your business? You really can’t avoid both.

Now, I don’t want to seem obnoxious about this. After all, in the same piece that produced this quote, Carey notes that “while my politics are pretty far from Cato’s and I often think they’re wrong, they tend to be wrong in interesting ways.” I thank him for that (I think), though I should note that the impetus for his piece is a paper that comes from the John William Pope Center – the same paper I discuss here – not from Cato. So it might not even be Cato that Carey finds interesting. Regardless, here’s my potentially obnoxious-sounding reply:

Without even discussing the extremely dubious assumption that more regulation will lead to lower college costs, wouldn’t the best, most direct way to “reduce government spending” obviously be to, well, reduce, or even stop, government spending?

Of course it would, and that is the obvious solution for libertarians! It would get Big Brother out of our wallets and kill whatever justification subsidies might give him to gaze into our business. And it wouldn’t just make libertarians feel better – the benefits would accrue to almost everyone. If students and donors, rather than taxpayers, were to cover much more of colleges’ costs, taxpayers would save money, colleges would be unable to charge as much as they currently do, and schools would have to focus much more on their customers and patrons.

So there is no either-more-regulation-or-higher-costs box. Indeed, the only box that libertarians could possibly be trapped in is a mime’s box – a purely illusory one that someone has to really, really want to believe in for it to have any sort of existence at all. 

Having broken free of the invisible, intangible box, let me address one other thing that Carey brought up both in the discussion held at Cato, and his latest commentary:

The problem is that colleges aren’t just going to unilaterally release lots of new information on their own. Nor would it help matters much if they did; for data to matter it has to be standardized in a way that allows for comparison. That’s why companies report one set of quarterly financial results to the SEC, not 50 different sets to each state. Given that higher education is a national market this leads to a similar national solution: The federal government should compel colleges to release much more information about success as a condition of receiving direct or indirect federal aid.

The idea that a market that happens to be national in scope somehow requires federal control is both very common, and very inaccurate, simply equating “national” with “federal” and moving on from there. Even worse, though, is the even more basic assumption that to get something good, or just standardized, government control is required.

Whether it’s McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris, an item on the menu in Beverly Hills is going to be essentially the same as in New York City. Why? Not because Washington says it must be, but because that keeps the customers coming. Or consider the QWERTY keyboard: It became the national standard by free-market, not government, forces. And how about the Model T, which was driven by Americans from Maine to San Diego? It was standardized not because the federal government said “this is a national car, so we must make it the national standard,” but because one company produced it and it was freely chosen by customers from sea to shining sea. And how do we choose automobiles today? Not by going to some federal report on what a car should be (though perhaps that day is coming) but, often, by consulting such trade mags as Road and Track.

Clearly, we don’t need government to set standards or inform consumers – markets will do those things themselves. But that markets will set their own standards is just part of the story. Sometimes – indeed, almost all of the time – you simply don’t want a single standard: Vegetarians don’t want a great steak. Many people would rather click than type. The English major fascinated by Chaucer doesn’t need a cyclotron. The working mom often doesn’t want the same education as the parentally funded 18-year-old.

And then there is the gigantic – but usually ignored – problem of government failure: Government regulation and standardization is very costly. It can be used to crush the opponents of the politically well-connected rather than advance the common good. It can have crippling unintended consequences. And, as former Dickinson College president, Clinton-era Department of Education assistant secretary, and current George Mason University professor A. Lee Fritschler made clear at the discussion of the Pope Center’s paper, it also simply fails – a lot. Indeed, based on his experience at the Department of Education, Fritschler is adamant that the feds are simply incapable of effectively regulating higher education.

So once again, Carey sees a mime’s box. This time, though, it’s not one he imagines entrapping libertarians, but one he thinks Washington can drop on the ivory tower to make it work right. It’s a different box, but just as illusory.

A Look Inside the Ivory Tower Spiral

With the Obama Administration promising to ramp up all sorts of college-affordability (read: government expenditure) efforts in the coming months, now is a crucial time for Americans to understand why our colleges and universities ingest money as bottomlessly as their students guzzle beer. With that in mind, the release of a new report from the John William Pope Center is perfectly timed. The Revenue-to-Cost Spiral in Higher Education explains how colleges’ internal arrangements render them almost destined to spend every dime they bring in, no matter how wastefully. The basic problem, argues author and economist Robert E. Martin, is that very few colleges and universities are intended to make a profit – which would give “owners” a powerful incentive to maximize efficiency – and no one really seems to be in charge at most schools.

Of course, this is a serious over-simplification of Martin’s argument, so you’ll have to read the report. But don’t just stop there: A few weeks ago the Pope Center held a colloquium right here at Cato to discuss the report, and Pope Senior Writer Jay Schalin just posted an excellent summary of the back-and-forth between participants. I think you’ll find the points about the third-party-payer problem especially powerful, but there are lots of other good arguments highlighted as well.

Why Fear Leviathan U.?

The Harriet Tubman Agenda – ordinarily a pretty rational blog – takes issue with my recent post expressing unease about a proposal to have Uncle Sam create and furnish free college courses. Accurately noting that American institutions of higher education, including private and for-profit schools, are addicted to government subsidies, the blogger asks what the problem is “if a free curriculum (defined by designated text books and tests), coupled with a competitive market in examination services, reduces the burden on taxpayers”?

Here’s the problem: From the perspectives of both freedom and effectiveness, why would we ever want the federal government creating free college curricula and, potentially, a giant federal university that, thanks to the internet, would not even be bound by the need to have a physical campus? Do we really want both state-run and private institutions, which despite huge subsidies still have to charge tuition and compete with one another, to have to go up against a free, Leviathan University? And why would it matter if the examinations accompanying Leviathan U’s curriculum were created by private companies? If you have to master The Little Red Book – to use an extreme example – does it matter if the testing contract is competitively bid?

The Harriet Tubman Agenda is absolutely right that, engorged with government subsidies, American higher education is grossly wasteful. But replacing it with utterly unconstitutional federal courses that could someday yield a mammoth, federal university? For reasons even more basic than saving taxpayer money, that would be a terrible move.

Federal University

There is no official word on this yet, but according to Inside Higher Ed the Obama Administration is putting the finishing touches on a proposed “National Skills College” that will include federally designed – and owned – courses:

The funds envisioned for open courses – $50 million a year – may be small in comparison to the other ideas being discussed. But in proposing that the federal government pay for (and own) courses that would be free for all, as well as setting up a system to assess learning in those courses, and creating a “National Skills College” to coordinate these efforts, the plan could be significant far beyond its dollars.

Darn right it could be significant! Washington would for all intents and purposes be on the way to creating a federal university, and not one like the service academies that is constitutionally justifiable under federal defense powers. No, this one would be completely and utterly unconstitutional, and would unfairly compete with lots effective private – including for-profit – institutions. And, of course, there’s the little matter of how this would be paid for.

I’ll have more on this as details become available.

Old Enough to Die for Your Country, Too Young for a Credit Card

While much of the debate around the so-called “Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights” has been on ending various card policies aimed at disguising different credit risks, one group of cardholders is certain to lose their right to credit under this bill: adults between the ages of 18 and 21.

Under the current Senate bill, the only way for someone under the age of 21 to get a credit card would be either:

1) they have a co-signer, such as their parent, sign for it, or

2) they maintain a job with sufficient income to cover any obligations arising from the credit card.

By contrast, neither of these requirements is put in place for student loans; there is the clear expectation that you pay those loans back in the future from your increased future income that results from going to college. While the purpose of a student loan is to offer one the means to get a higher education, the purpose of any form of credit is to borrow against your future earnings in order to enjoy some consumption today. Whether that consumption is in the form of textbooks or beer and pizza should be left up to the individual—we are talking about adults here—and not the state.

As with any legislation, there are likely to be substantial unintended consequences. Of the approximately 18 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges, some number of those will not want to give up their credit cards (maybe they value their beer and pizza) and will accordingly take what may be their only option to maintain that consumption: a job in addition to their studies. As with any choice in lift, this one comes with a trade-off. One of the primary factors related to whether one graduates from college is if one is holding a job while in college—the relationship being that the more hours a student works unrelated to classes, the less likely they are to finish college. Some students are going to take that trade-off. That means one impact of this bill will be that slightly fewer students will finish college. If we are ever to expect college students to start behaving as adults, we should start treating them as such, including allowing them to make their own credit decisions.

Two Terrible Tastes That Taste Even Worse Together

Few things irk me more than human-interest anecdotes parading as objective journalism, or college students/graduates complaining about how much money they owe – and think someone else should pay – for their educations.

Perhaps in a bid to break some sort of irritation record, yesterday the USA Today combined these two odious phenomena into one wretch-inducing article about how just cruelly difficult it can be to rid oneself of the student debt one freely entered into.

I won’t go into a detailed dismantling of the piece. Read it for yourself and you’ll see that it really is nothing but a long series of anecdotes delivered with way too little information to have any idea why the debtors shouldn’t, you know, take responsibility for debt they freely incurred. I’m just going to highlight one vignette that sickly typifies just how rationally and morally bankrupt (pardon the pun) both the sentiments of some debtors, and the article, are:

Lenders often fail to offer relief to the neediest borrowers, says a report issued last month by the National Consumer Law Center.

“I feel like it’s a real shame that people like me are coming out of college, weighed down by all this debt,” says Austin Light, 24, a journalist for The Mecklenburg Times in Charlotte. He and his wife have $100,000 in student loans. “My dream is to be a full-time children’s book author and illustrator, and if I wasn’t shackled with this debt, I would be pursuing that.”

In how many ways is this galling?

  • We don’t know anything about why Mr. and Mrs. Light have $100,000 in student debt, but we are supposed to become morally indignant just because they feel “weighed down” by it? Did they go to very expensive schools? Did it take them each seven beer-soaked years to graduate? Who knows, but since average student debt for graduates who have any debt is only about $20,000, the rational conclusion must be that they did nothing to control their costs.
  • We don’t know what these two studied, but we do know that Mr. Light really wants to be a children’s book author and illustrator. Well, you don’t need to go to college for that, especially one so expensive you incur a debt that even Stephen King – much less a neophyte kiddie lit author – might have trouble paying back.
  • Given the overall context of the article, readers are presumably supposed to feel that it should be easier for the Lights to discharge their debts in bankruptcy. But why should people who lent them the money, especially taxpayers who have no choice but to back federal loans, have to take losses on loans that these two freely agreed to pay back when they took them? Isn’t the word for that “stealing”?

Unfortunately, this seems all-too representative of the growing sense of entitlement exuded by many student interest groups. Students should get all the benefits of an education, but someone else should pay for it! And their will is being done in Washington, with several pieces of aid-enhancing, loan-forgiving legislation (which I sketch out here) having been passed in the last couple of years; the Serve America Act – which includes taxpayer-funded education stipends for qualifying “volunteers” – enacted in April; and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), according to the USA Today article, planning to re-introduce legislation that would allow private student loans to be discharged under bankruptcy.

And we wonder why higher ed costs, among other things, seem to be out of control…